Monday, May 14, 2012

My Top 5 Idaho Bands

drawing by Ashton Sperry

I've been mulling over this post for a while now.  I'd been trying to come up with some grand address on Idaho music--its past, its present, its future.  I've finally given up on that as beyond my current historical and critical acumen.

For a bit of the past, you can check out this Boise Weekly article.  As for the future, who knows?  That leaves me with the present, and I can only say that, from what I see and hear, quite a few people are making good music right here and right now.  That "right here" encompasses not just Boise but Nampa, Caldwell, Twin Falls and who knows where else in this state.  These folks have helped make the past couple of years the most enjoyable and rewarding of my life so far.

Some critics both local and abroad may not share my assessment.  Fuck 'em.  Let 'em listen to their flavors of the month and their amber-encased treasures of yesteryear and whatever else floats their boats.  I've got other stuff to do.  Like go see one of these bands, maybe.

(Please note: this list is in no particular order.)

photo by Abigail Noveen

Finn Riggins

In my mind, Finn Riggins is as quintessentially Boise as Camel's Back Park, Hawkins Pac-Out, the dearly departed Hollywood Market and that big friggin' hole on the corner of 8th and Main (as my Boise readers can probably tell, I was a North End kid).  It's not that they make music exclusively about or for this place.  Instead, I think that it has to do with the open, communal vibe that each of their live shows generates.  Between their danceable beat, their predominantly major-key melodies, their rousing keyboard and guitar riffs and their playful vocals, Finn Riggins' music seems to say, "Come on in and join the party."  I suppose that you can hear in their songs something of the same spirit that led their keyboard player, Eric Gilbert, to organize the Treefort Music Fest.

Red Hands Black Feet

I wonder sometimes if this group ever gets tired of me writing about them.  I'm sorry if they do, but I can't help recognizing that, as I've written before, they're one of the best bands in town.  I wrote this about Red Hands Black Feet in my post for Day 3 of Treefort:

Eric Larson and Jake Myers' guitars blend and play off each other as if they're telepathically linked, Joseph Myers' elegantly simple basslines add warmth and body to the band's sound and Jessica Nicole Johnson's elemental drumming grounds and powers the whole enterprise. Together, they create music with startling dramatic power. Riffs and grooves form out of the ether, build, gather steam, shoot into the stratosphere, explode and come cascading back down to Earth. The band handles shifts in tempo, dynamic range and tone with such skill and rapport that their compositions seem to live and breathe.

I can't think of anything to add to that.  I might reword it a little, but that's just how I am.

a.k.a. Belle

I'm tempted to call Sam and Catherine Merrick Idaho's answer to Richard and Linda Thompson, but I don't want to jinx their marriage.  Besides, the analogy doesn't quite work.  Sure, a.k.a. Belle's lead instruments are Sam Merrick's tactfully raw guitar and Catherine Merrick's lovely voice.  They probably wouldn't sound quite as good, though, without the support of Mike Rundle's drums, Chris Galli's stand-up bass and Kayleigh Jack's fiddle and harmonies.  Also, as songwriters, the Merricks sound friendlier and more well-adjusted than Richard Thompson does typically (granted, it doesn't take much to pull that off, but let me go on).  Songs like the goofy "At Least I'm Stupid," the straight-shooting "For A Fool" and the go-to live-show closer "Painted, Faded & Tainted" make me think of a much warmer and homier duo: John Prine and Iris DeMent.  Toss in some old-school honky tonk and some Neil Young for good measure, and you've got a band that I'm almost genetically predisposed to love.

The Ratings Battle (formerly the North End Snugglers)

Idaho boasts some respectable punk bands (see some of the names below), but this three-man unit stands at the top of the heap.  No other local band that I've heard crams so much musical sophistication into their two/three-minute bursts.  The Ratings Battle's disparate elements--Josh Gross' agile drumming, Matt Wildhagen's chugging, melodious bass and amiable backup vocals, Matt Hunter's ferocious guitar and pitch-perfect, throat-shredding scream--are stunning in themselves and fit together like a punk rock Voltron.  Their deft arrangements sneak up from right in front of you.  They cover Eddy Grant/ the Clash's "Police On My Back" masterfully, but the song itself pales in comparison to the melodic and lyrical muscle of TRB's original compositions.  They've been on hiatus for a while, but they've announced recently that they're rehearsing and set to play some gigs.  Words cannot express how excited I am to see/hear them tear shit up again.

Like A Rocket

Full disclosure: Like A Rocket's leader, Speedy Gray, was so impressed by my review of one of the band's live shows that he decided to put me on the payroll, as it were.  He's paying me a little bit of money to help out with publicity.  Make of that what you will, but I will insist that LAR's spot on this list has NOTHING to do with payola.  If I thought that his band sucked, Speedy would need to pay me a lot more to get me to work for him. (He's paying me $25 a month.  I said I'd do it for free, but he insisted.)

I don't think that LAR sucks.  In fact, I consider this band the best-kept secret in Boise (for now, anyway).  As with The Ratings Battle, there are no slouches in LAR when it comes to musicianship.  Broken apart, Max Klymenko's drums, Z.V. House's bass and Speedy Gray's guitar would serve as the shining stars of lesser bands.  Joined together, they form the proverbial whole greater than the sum of its parts.  I have yet to see them give a bad performance. As a matter of fact, I have yet to see them give a so-so performance. They've kicked ass even when they've played to an audience of five, which included me, Max Klymenko's girlfriend and the two bartenders.

As impressive as each member's playing is, LAR's secret weapon is Speedy Gray's singing.  I believe that many of us, from the most hardcore American Idol and The Voice fanatic to the most insular indie music devotee, accept on some level the Aretha Franklin/Otis Redding/Wilson Pickett model as the gold standard of singing.  I won't dispute the validity of that model (I think that Marianne Faithfull hit the nail on the head when she said, "God does have a voice--it's Aretha Franklin's"), but it can disincline one from perceiving how rare an achievement Speedy's unflashy assurance and conversational, Zen-like cool are.  Indeed, the only singers whom I can think of comparing him to are honky-tonk legend Lefty Frizzell and especially one of Frizzell's greatest disciples, Willie Nelson.  I certainly won't claim that Speedy's as great an artist as those two are, but I will say that he's in a class nearly all by himself among male singers in this town.

Update 12/23/12: I officially stopped helping Speedy Gray with publicity in September.  Unofficially, I pretty much stopped well before that (working on this blog took up most of my time).  To his credit, Speedy has never tried to influence anything that I've written in this blog.  I still have the highest regard for him as a musician and as a person.

Other Idaho Bands/Musicians That/Whom I Really Dig (again, in no particular order):

Hotel Chelsea
Atomic Mama
The Acrotomoans
The Jerkwadz
The Very Most
Range Life
Johnny Shoes
A Seasonal Disguise
The Useless
The Hand
Stargaze Unlimited
Death Songs
Sleepy Seahorse
Aaron Mark Brown
Jac Sound
Cap Gun Suicide
Le Fleur
Dark Swallows
Storie Grubb & the Holy Wars

Wow.  That's a lot of bands, now that I look at it.  I should mention, though, that this list is by no means exhaustive.  I'm sure that I've forgotten some worthy folks, and I know that there's quite a few groups that I haven't seen yet.  I'll look forward to adding some more names to this list in the future.

You can find more info about most of these folks on Facebook and elsewhere online.  All photos were used with the kind permission of the bands.  And very special thanks to Ashton Sperry for the drawing of the guitar-playing spud.  To see more of his artwork, you can go to


  1. I did almost 250 shows in Boise last year. Any list of the top Boise bands that doesn't include Matt Hopper and The Roman Candles is incomplete. I love all of the bands listed, but Matt Hopper is the best songwriter in Boise IMO...

  2. Thanks for reading! As I said: the list isn't exhaustive, and there are lots of guys I haven't seen yet. MH & TRC would fall into that category. I do look forward to checking them out.

  3. It is particularly cool to see my friend and compatriot Johnny Shoes on the list as well. A long time Boise musician that is still getting out all the time and still showing his hunger.

  4. Yeah, he's damn good. I look forward to seeing him again and writing a bit more about him.