And they’re as popular as ever. Catch them at The Queen Dec. 29.
There are a handful of Delaware bands that have been around for years and years: Love Seed Mama Jump, The Bullets, Dr. Harmonica & Rockett 88 and The Cameltones are just a few that come to mind. They all include plenty of cover songs in their acts, and they’re all still playing regular gigs, whether it’s throughout the summer at the beach or even this month in Trolley Square.
But Montana Wildaxe trumps them all, having played the local scene for more than 30 years. Their unique blend of Grateful Dead and Allman Bros. covers, psychedelic rock, and jam band improvisation attracts hippies and hipsters alike. It’s a style and vibe that’s difficult to describe unless you’ve seen them live.
These days, “Montana,” as fans affectionately call them, are as popular as ever, even though they play less than a handful of dates each year. While that statement might not make sense on the surface, it’s a matter of simple economics; the diminishing supply of live performances has resulted in an increase in popularity and demand, both with diehard fans and the venues still fortunate enough to host the band.
Uncovering the Cover Band
Back in the ‘80s, the music scene was a whole lot different, according to Montana Wildaxe bassist and vocalist Tony Cappella. Original bands dominated the scene in the tristate area, and now-defunct Wilmington hotspots like The Barn Door and The Coyote Café featured live and local originals most nights of the week.
“There were a ton of original bands back then, really, and if they had any chops, they had no problem finding venues to play in Delaware,” Cappella says. “I think a lot of it sparked from acts like George Thorogood and The Hooters, who really opened the door. Everyone who could play an instrument jumped on the bandwagon, hoping to be the next big thing.”
Cappella joined Montana Wildaxe in 1987, just a few years after Kurt Houff (lead guitar, vocals) and Chip Porter (rhythm guitar, lead vocals) had started the band with a few other musicians. The current lineup that includes keyboardist Dan Long, percussionist Tim Kelly, and drummer/vocalist Glenn Walker would form in full by 1991.
Porter says he and Houff decided to become a jam band for two reasons: they wanted to improvise musically, rather than being boring or repetitive, and their vocal and guitar abilities somewhat mirrored the godfathers of the jam band, the Grateful Dead.
“I’d probably seen the Dead 100 times by the time we started the band,” says Porter. “Jerry Garcia’s guitar solos were the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Plus, we could sing like Garcia and Bob Weir, who were some of rock’s greatest poets ever.”
Houff says the arrangement of the songs and the style of the music are big reasons why the band has stayed together for so long, even if in a somewhat limited capacity the last decade or so. “Each song, each night is up for specific interpretation. Each and every moment is the product of all the preceding moments.”
Houff says he knew the band would be successful from the get-go, but didn’t know it would be a lasting part of his life until sometime in the ‘90s. For Cappella, however, the first gig he played with Montana Wildaxe set the tone for decades to come.
“I remember my first show with Montana, downstairs at the Logan House. The place was packed and the smell of weed was in the air,” Cappella says. “I’m not sure I’d ever seen a cover band get a crowd like that before. From then on, any Deadhead within spitting distance knew about us, and they came out in droves to see us play.”
Low Supply, High Demand
After nearly 20 years of hitting it hard on the local circuit, the members of Montana Wildaxe decided to play fewer shows as they moved closer to middle age, with families and full-time jobs taking up much of their time. But rather than fade into the music scene ether, they’ve continued to show up.
“I think our musical chemistry is the main element that has kept us together for so long,” Walker says. “We are all very good listeners while we play and can pick up and follow subtle variations in the music as it’s being played. The crowds are proof that it works.”
Staff members at World Cafe Live at The Queen on Market Street feel as if it works pretty well, even though Montana only plays there two or three times a year (including an upcoming annual holiday show on Thursday, Dec. 29). Director of Programming Christianna LaBuz is a longtime fan who is especially looking forward to jamming with Montana.
“Their shows are a social event that everyone—the fans and our staff alike—always look forward to,” LaBuz says. “They’re wonderful humans to deal with on a professional level from beginning to end and their music is phenomenal. The guys also play with so many other folks and contribute their talents toward many of the collaborative shows we present throughout the year.”
When Kelly’s Logan House General Manager Tim Crowley was asked to plan a 60th birthday party for one of the bar’s most esteemed guests, the idea of featuring a live band upstairs was suggested. Crowley booked Montana Wildaxe without blinking an eye.
“They’ve been playing here for years, so there is certainly a longstanding connection between Montana and Kelly’s, but it’s more than that,” Crowley says. “If we have a big event and I have my druthers, Montana Wildaxe is my first choice because they always have a great crowd and bring an incredible, fun vibe.”
For Cappella, the high praise comes as a welcome surprise. “I think we can actually be a pain in the ass to deal with,” he says, laughing. “But I guess that’s with each other since we’ve been together so long. It’s nice to hear, though.”
A Literal Connection
So, what’s with the name, many people ask. Who is from Montana, and what does “Wildaxe” even mean? The genesis, it turns out, goes back to the band’s college days in the ‘80s at the University of Delaware. One of Porter’s roommates, an English major, coined the name while reading the Kurt Vonnegut classic, Slaughterhouse-Five.
“It was a big house, and one of the many people coming and going gave the name to our bassist at the time, who was always wearing a cowboy hat while he was practicing,” Porter says. “The character from the book was named ‘Montana Wildhack,’ but we changed the ‘hack’ to ‘axe,’ to reference the guitar. The ‘Montana’ part fit because of the big hat he wore.”
It’s a story that every band member is familiar with, even if they’re not familiar with Vonnegut’s sci-fi story. Neither Porter, nor Long, nor Walker, nor Cappella have read the book. Only Houff, who coincidentally shares the same first name as the novel’s author, has read the World War II satire.
“The biggest parallel I made when we stuck with that name is that Vonnegut writes the book in these flashes of going back and forth in time,” Houff says. “I’ve always felt like music has the ability to do that, to transport us to different places in our minds.”
Tickets to Montana Wildaxe’s Dec. 29 show at The Queen are on sale at worldcafelive.com for $13, or $15 the day of the show. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8.