Over the years Virginia City has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Throughout the decades it has been home to vigilantes, gold rush miners, cowboys and the settlers of the west. It has always played host to an eclectic mix of citizens and travelers. Opium purveyors, fur traders, adventurers and vagabonds have brushed shoulders on the wooden sidewalks. For the last 10 years a different, but equally eclectic, mix of nomads has descended on the once territorial capital of Montana. Every August without fail, the weekend tourist crowd brushes shoulders with the zombies and Jackmormons as they stroll the wooden walkways. Jerry Joseph and company repeatedly have come to town…always to party down.
This year marked a bittersweet moment in the annals of Virginia City, the Jackmormons, and their fan base (affectionately know as “Zombies”). It was a year to say goodbye and fare-thee-well. Not just to a band member departing, but also to a friend and fellow traveler on Montana’s ragtag asphalt and dusty rural music scene. The backroads have played host to many a musical event in Montana, and even more post show shenanigans. In a state where distance isn’t measured by miles, but by hours of travel the road sometimes plays a tragic role as well. Last April the Montana music scene lost a friend to many in a traffic accident. Out here on the highway another fellow traveler in life slipped into the silence like an ocean…Kari Friedman’s void was recognized by Jerry Joseph Friday night with the dedication of “My Little Tiger.” Jr Ruppel wore a button with her picture on it, as did many of the fans in attendance all three nights. The dozen prayer candles gracing the stage were a beautifully stark reminder too. They pulled into mind the lyrics from “Altar in Your Box.” Looking at them softly flickering, struggling mightily against the alternating total void of light and the overwhelming brilliance of the wash and led lights it was easy to call to mind these lyrics: “And I will light a candle…And say a prayer for you..So that I will not feel guilty, On the nights that I drive through.”
Still the show goes on and the only constant in life is change. After 19 years with Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons a big change was coming down the pipeline as well. Jerry described Jr Ruppel as “one of my best friends for 19 years…” before stripping off his guitar and letting it crash to the floor from chest height at the end of Sunday’s “Speedwater> We Will Not Be Lovers> Boys and Girls in America> Let It Be>Speedwater.” It could very well be the last time Jerry would close out a set with Jr on bass beside him. Leaving the band to pursue other ventures in life was not a decision it seemed Jr was taking lightly, but one all were resigned to. As the two of them clasped shoulders walking off the stage it was clear that the understanding was there. Life happens and we will go on while the dusty road plays out in front of us.
At set break while outside, Jerry commented that the entire Sunday show setlist was hand picked by Ruppel. “We’re kind of letting him do his thing” Jerry commented when asked about a request for the second set. Songs like “Salt Lake City”, “Good Sunday” and “Climb to Safety” represent the meat of what the Jackmormons have been crafting over the last two decades between those two. The set was filled with explosive energy that reverberated off the walls and into our hearts and down our spines. Jerry played a rousing jam on the keyboard during “Climb To Safety”. Jr reached back to his punk rock roots; bashing and smashing his bass into his amp. Steve Drizos lept over his drum set while closing out “Speedwater”. The emotions almost melted the amps and seemed destined to reduce the block to a pile of wooden rubble. It’s amazing the old Virginia City Community Center, once the high school gymnasium 60 years ago, was still standing at the end of the run.
All three nights had their moments. Saturday’s “Pink Light> Fire and Rain> Pink Light” was sublime. With the addition of Jenny Conlee Drizos on the keyboard (as she was for much of the weekend), it gave the band room to maneuver within the song.
The James Taylor cover was fitting and appropriate on so many levels as we said farewell this weekend. But also we were still in shock never believing that what were seeing was happening. The lengthening of a well know song with the jam in the middle was a newer fixture of the weekend. Sets would weigh in at close to 80 minutes with only 4-6 songs in them. The addition of both Jenny and a heavy dose of up and coming axe man Jeff Crosby helped facilitate this. While the power trio system works well for the Jackmormons, the addition of other well oiled gears to the machine gives the tempo, pacing, and jams more depth and variance. “Savage Garden> Woman’s Gotta Have it> Let’s Get It On>Savage Garden” is a perfect example of this. Clocking in at just over 18 minutes the song in no way feels that long when listened to. The movement into and out of the vocal rap in the middle is supported heavily by the keys and second guitar. Jeff’s solo which develops out of the rap grows in size and subtly commands one’s attention as the band slowly fills in behind, picking one up just as Jeff starts to drop away. It leads into the dramatic ending of the song with eloquence and determination.
Hitting the road out of Virginia City seemed to be a little bit slower this year. Every year for the last 10 years people seem to linger post show. This year that seemed even more pronounced. Fans struggled to pull meaning back from the weekend. They struggled like the prayer candles on the stage, sometimes finding context (and light) while other times they seemed overwhelmed by the context (and light) around them. Sometimes it seems we’re frightened by the truth… that we don’t need an Angle to cover up our past. That this is the charmed life and through it all, the good the bad, the beginnings and the ends… through it all, with a little work it’s still the best we’ve ever had.
Full Photo Album can be found: HERE.