For the Record With Kurt Houff

“For the Record” is a periodic feature in which musicians discuss what they’ve been listening to lately.

If you talk to Montana Wildaxe lead guitarist and co-founder Kurt Houff about music, it’s surprising how much of the conversation focuses not only on sound, but also on sight and feel.

“Your influences are not always directly related to music,” Houff says. “Visual, auditory, anything that you process can be an influence to your music. It comes out in what you do.

“I have people come up to me and ask, ‘What do you see when you are building a solo?’ And honestly, I think of it more as a painting than an auditory thing. It’s more of a visual thing.”

It’s an interesting observation from a musician who has been long celebrated locally for his ambitious guitar solos—rollicking, circuitous sonic monologues that somehow counter a laid-back, almost instinctual style of play.

However, if Houff makes it all look easy, it’s an illusion of sorts. There is work to it, after all.

“I’ve done a fair share of studying [but I] apply it to the point where, when I go to perform, it’s not obvious that I tried to study something,” the guitarist says. “I assimilate it with what I do from a day-to-day perspective so that it really becomes another tool or another set of colors to put on [my] palette.”

With more than three decades with Montana Wildaxe, Houff has had time to collect a wide array of musical tools and colors. Along with the other members of Delaware’s most legendary jam band, Houff will be displaying that onstage artistry the night of Saturday, Dec. 23, at The Queen in the annual holiday show that has become a local tradition, attracting both longtime fans and inquisitive newbies looking to discover what the fuss is all about.

Houff himself remains somewhat curious about the popularity of the yearly event.

“I can’t put my finger on exactly why people continue to come out,” he says. “I’m assuming the music’s good because I enjoy it. But I think it also has to do with the camaraderie amongst the people who have come to see us [all these years]. They come out to see their friends who they haven’t seen in a while, and we’re a part of those friends. We’re kind of the catalyst for getting together.”

In addition to their revered renditions of songs by the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Little Feat and other classic jam bands, Montana Wildaxe’s connection with its audience certainly has helped fuel its success. Houff recalls a time, not so long ago, when the band played back-to-back weekend nights every month at Kelly’s Logan House.

“We’d get a lot of crap for it, but we’d do the first set then we’d take that seemingly endless half-hour break and hang out with everybody,” Houff recalls, chuckling. “Throw back a couple of beers or whatever and then head up on stage. They’re working their tails off having a good time in the crowd, and we’re up there sweating everything out for them.”

If you plan to get wild and festive with the Wildaxe crew this month—whether for the first or for the umpteenth time— you may be interested in the influences that have colored the sensibilities of one of the local music scene’s most colorful musicians. Here’s Kurt Houff on those influences:

Artist Unknown – Autumn Leaves

My first exposure to recorded music in album form—I don’t even know what the album was called—but I believe it was a collection of jazz standards with the first cut on the record being an instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves.”

My mom used to tell me that, as a 3-year-old child, I would pull that album off the stack because I recognized the picture on the cover, a beautiful autumn landscape, and then I would put it on. I would play the first cut, walk over, jerk the stylus off the record player and start it again. I would play it for hours, the same song, over and over again.

I’m pretty sure it was a piano trio. And to this day, piano trios are my favorite jazz vehicles.

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

When I was 8 or so, my sister and her friends were just absolute Beatles freaks, for lack of a better term, and so Sgt. Pepper’s would probably be the next record. Paul McCartney basically indicated that this album was the Beatles’ response to the Beach Boys and [what they were doing in the studio at that time]. Hearing that later made perfect sense to me. But back to wh

en I was first listening to it, that wasn’t even a thought in my head. I was just floored by sounds of that record: the

guitar tones, some of the tape loop stuff, and McCartney’s bass lines throughout the entire album.

Part of [what was going on at that time] was that artists were exposed to new and different things and were asking, “How do I get at this sound that I hear in my head?” In today’s music, that childlike sense of discovery doesn’t seem to exist much anymore. Everybody’s jaded. Nobody’s going “How do I do this differently?”

Jeff Beck – Wired

The next step in my thought process was probably Jeff Beck. The hit song off that record was “Blue Wind,” and it [featured] the guitar carrying these quite different melodies that I was not used to hearing a guitar carry. That’s what struck me about it.

I had listened to some Yardbirds stuff and Jeff Beck Group’s “Shapes of Things.” Then I listened to Yardbirds without Jeff Beck, but those guitarists didn’t speak to me as much as the Jeff Beck stuff. So as soon as Wired came out, I was like, “I gotta listen to this!”

I didn’t know how he was getting those sounds back then. It was not like I’d seen tapes of him, or video footage, or any of the stuff you can Google now. So I just listened to it and said, “That’s cool. How does he get the guitar to do that?”

Rory Gallagher – Tattoo

I was watching TV and saw Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and they had a Rory Gallagher bit. There he is in this really worn flannel shirt playing this beat-up Stratocaster with a tone that was pretty much guitar-to-amp. Some of the stuff that he did with guitar just absolutely blew my mind. It was probably the first time I saw somebody doing that with guitar.

This would have been ’74 or ’75 and I would have been 11 or 12. I think I’d just recently bought my first copy of Guitar Player magazine. [I was] just really starting to wrap my head around it all.

So I went to the record store at the Concord Mall—Village Records or something like that—and went in there and saw the record. The album cover is a picture of Rory done up like a tattoo. Same flannel shirt he was wearing on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

His playing was pre-Stevie Ray Vaughan “Stevie Ray-ism.” Somebody who kind of channeled stuff. And once he got into an extended jam, he was somewhere else.

The Kinks – Arthur

I think it was the political commentary. I didn’t quite grasp it as I would today: songs like “Mr. Churchill Says” and songs about the prudishness of the Victorian era.

It’s rock ’n’ roll. I mean rock ’n’ roll really is a rebellious voice back to its origin. It’s a distaste for authority, just beating the man down.

Dave Davies played a significant amount of Stratocaster on that record and the tone of those guitars always speaks to me.

Houff and the rest of Montana Wildaxe perform their annual holiday show on Saturday, Dec. 23, at The Queen. For tickets and more information go to TheQueenWilmington.com.

All In the Timing

Davey Dickens Jr. picked up a guitar six years ago. Next month, his band releases its debut album.

It’s funny how much difference five years can make in a person’s life.

Take local country musician Davey Dickens Jr. for instance. It wasn’t until 2011, when Dickens was 32 years old, that he started playing guitar. Yet, just five years later, in March 2016, he found himself in one of Wilmington’s most esteemed recording studios, performing and recording his songs with some of the area’s most seasoned musicians—members of the then newly formed Davey Dickens Jr. and the Troubadours.

“I’d never stepped foot in a studio, ever,” Dickens says, his voice betraying amazement at where he is today: His band releases its debut self-titled album on Feb. 16 at World Cafe Live at The Queen.

The album features eight songs penned by Dickens and touches on life’s challenges as well as some of its joys. Montana Wildaxe co-founder and guitarist Kurt Houff encouraged the project early on.

“Kurt and I got to be pretty good buddies,” Dickens says. “He started coming up to the house, and we did a couple of song-writing sessions. [Then] we started playing out a lot as The Troubadours.”

The Troubadours came to include a former bandmate of Dickens, Dave Van Allen, on pedal steel, along with Houff’s fellow Montana Wildaxe bassist Tony Cappella and former Caulfields drummer Ritchie Rubini, who did double-duty as producer during the band’s sessions at Studio 825 last year.
“I’m so blessed to have such a force,” says Dickens.

For Dickens, those blessings included attracting the interest of Johnny Neel, famed keyboardist most known for his time with The Allman Brothers. After getting a copy of Dickens’ material, the Wilmington-born Neel agreed to return to his native state to play on the album.

While Dickens is somewhat amazed at the band’s success, he isn’t resting on his laurels. “We’ve got a lot more material,” he says.

Davey Dickens Jr. and the Troubadours play Upstairs at World Cafe Live at The Queen on Feb. 16. Advance tickets are $10 and include a copy of the new album plus a band t-shirt. More details at worldcafelive.com.

Montana Wildaxe: 30 Years and Still Jammin’

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.