Long and Winding Road: Boise's Music Scene Finds its Stride 

Boise has always had talent but it took years of struggle to learn what do with it

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If Travis Ward, singer and guitarist for Hillfolk Noir, is aware that the collective hopes of a mid-size American city are riding on him, he isn't showing it.

He and his band lounge on the streets of Austin, Texas, as the madness of SXSW, the World's Fair of music, explodes around them in every direction. They just had sandwiches from a street cart.

"Gotta eat something," he says. "This is going to be a marathon."

The "this" Ward was talking about was the first-ever official showcase at SXSW to exclusively feature bands from Boise. Hillfolk Noir, along with Le Fleur, The Brett Netson Band, Finn Riggins, Youth Lagoon and Built to Spill are are all about to show the gathered culturati that Idaho has more than potatoes. Far from being tucked away in a back alley dive, the showcase is taking place in the Independent Film Channel's Crossroads House at Vice Bar, a high-class three-level venue with a capacity near 1,000 located directly on the main SXSW festival strip. To up the ante, the entire showcase is being filmed for broadcast on the IFC.

These aren't the only bands from Boise at SXSW this year. Three others--Teens, Jumping Sharks and RevoltRevolt--played the festival as well.

A week after the Wednesday, March 14, showcase, Boise will host the inaugural Treefort Music Fest, a four-day multi-venue cultural festival modeled after SXSW running Thursday, March 22-Sunday, March 25, made possible by the amount of bands heading home from SXSW. The festival will feature more than 130 touring and local bands and more than 40 national media outlets have already confirmed they will be in attendance. Call it one heck of an after-party.

Both these events could mean major exposure and a boost to the economy for a city whose residents have long insisted their home is far greater than its reputation. But then again, they could also be another in a series of giant flops that lead nowhere.

To make a baseball metaphor: Boise and the Boise music scene have been called up to the majors and Hillfolk Noir is batting first.

But that Boise--a geographically isolated B-market in a state whose reputation as a haven for right-wing extremists overshadows its contributions to the arts--made it to this point at all is a story unto itself, and one that begins with a joke.

In a stand-up special, comedian John Oliver spoke of his reaction to seeing the exclamation point on the sign for the Boise Library! while filming a segment for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

"I was surprised they had a library, too," he said.

That slightly derisive jab best summarizes the way the national press reacted to the seemingly overnight success of Boise band Youth Lagoon. Media outlets like Pitchfork, NPR and Nylon Magazine heaped praise on Youth Lagoon's debut album, The Year of Hibernation, but seemed shocked that the band had the audacity to record such a gem in its hometown.

In interview after interview, Trevor Powers, singer and keyboard player for Youth Lagoon, was asked some variety of the same question: "What the heck is even in Boise?" His answer was always the same: "Plenty." And articles examining the up-and-coming Boise scene as a whole were never far behind.

Powers had somehow fallen into being Boise's cultural ambassador, a job that the City of Boise has given Trey McIntyre Project thousands of dollars in grant funding to do.

But what those media outlets seemed not to understand was that Boise has always had an "it" band, the great white hope that made a potato-shaped dent in the world. Before Youth Lagoon came Finn Riggins, Marcus Eaton, Curtis Stigers, Built to Spill, Caustic Resin and Fat Chance. It goes all the way back to the city's settling, when one of the first things residents did was set up an orchestra, according to Terri Schorzman of the Boise Department of Arts and History.

What is different now is that instead of a single band that finds success elsewhere and treats Boise as a bedroom community, or a single group that fills local bars for a year or two until the novelty wears off, there is the emergence of a broad self-sustaining community of musicians that feed one another creatively and seeds the next generation of talent and fans. If that community flourishes, it could compel the economy-driving creative class to stay in Boise rather than search for greener pastures closer to the coast. That is the hope anyhow, and it is by no means a sure thing.

But it hasn't always been back-patting and schmancy industry showcases. Eric Gilbert, keyboardist for Finn Riggins, owner-operator of Helibase Booking, host of Antler Crafts Radio on Radio Boise, soundman for Visual Arts Collective and the artistic director of Treefort Music Fest, remembers pretty clearly when things were different.

Gilbert and his band relocated to Boise from Hailey in 2009, partially so Gilbert could be closer to his parents and partially so the band, which routinely toured the nation but lived in something of isolation, could be a part of a scene.

Though there were bands and clubs to play in Boise, Gilbert was somewhat disappointed with the scene itself.

"There was an underlying pessimism from older folks who had survived the '90s and didn't see anything come of it," said Gilbert. "But I don't fault them for it."

So, Gilbert, who is an almost pathological optimist about music, set himself about playing shows, doing sound and using the connections he had made from several years of national touring to bring bigger and better bands to Boise.

Gilbert was not alone in his quest and the list of attaboys that could be handed out is extensive though he is the person Boise musicians most commonly point to as the tipping point for the local scene. Gilbert, however, points somewhere else altogether: an event staged at Visual Arts Collective in 2009 by musician and artist Elijah Jensen called Rotating Tongues.

"I'd been involved in the Boise music scene for quite a few years and was friends with people who played music, but what I found was that people wouldn't go to their shows because you'd heard their songs a hundred times," Jensen said. "It was hard to support local artists because you felt like you had their routine memorized. I felt like people weren't pushing themselves."

Jensen's solution was to book 20 bands to play over two days at VAC. The catch? They were only allowed to play two songs each and both had to be new material. The performances were recorded live and released as a compilation CD. Though the event had an audience only a fraction the size of the average Knitting Factory concert, it was a slow-moving smash success.

Gilbert said he could see lights going off in local musicians' heads as they all stood in one room for the first time and took stock of how much talent was right beneath their noses.

"It was almost like a corporate team-building seminar," he said.

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