Sean Kelly’s Top of the Mic, Featuring Brother Townsend

By LEISA GREENE NELSON

Sitting at the Island Bar in Sean Kelly’s Pub is an Amish-looking man in a straw round-brimmed hat. His phone is in front of him on the bar and his face is in his hands. He slowly reaches into his cargo jacket for his packet of tobacco and rolls a cigarette.

He is clearly alone on a Thursday Open Mic night. Seemingly out of place, he looks up when an act is playing onstage. He observes some performers longer than others with soft-hooded blue eyes. He steps outside for a bit, then returns smelling like tobacco. A guitar case is in his hand and he resumes his seat since no one took it.

There is a possibility of winning a thousand dollars on May 5 for the contest, paid by Sean Kelly’s Pub. A few cuts must be made first with 105 contestants, singers, and songwriters: Mandolin, Celtic, Alternative Rock, and Heavy Metal. Any type of music goes and the competition is stiff.

According to Mike Avery, there is a large amount of solid musical talent in Missoula and the surrounding areas, “There is at least that number again, if not more, talented musicians in this area.”

The man in the straw hat moves onstage. He is announced by Mike Avery as Brother Townsend. The look he portrays fits the name with a plentiful, sandy brown, well-trimmed beard and a spot of blonde under his full bottom lip; however, the name does not fit due to his youth and his tattooed arms.

Brother Townsend, his guitar, and his VW

He pulls out his guitar, a 1966 Gibson LGO that he bought from a Goodwill store. Brother Townsend reconstructed the top of it with a piece of Bolivian Rosewood and six Ebony string holders. He commends the performer before him, talks of the difficulty in following her, and smiles showing the gap in his teeth. He talks of spending time recently in Bali, being a wanderer at heart, and jamming in a pizza pub with Bali locals. All the songs he will perform tonight are originals.

He starts to lovingly play his guitar, tumbling like a father would with his four-year-old son. Brother Townsend waves his head back and forth looks up at the ceiling and leans into the microphone. The sound is what he calls, “Progressive Americana or Folk Rock”. Raw, gritty Mississippi blues, with tinges of Bob Marley, and a Bob Dylan-esque sound. More bluegrass than not, including sounds similar to the song “Lochloosa” by a much less known musician JJ Grey. Townsend’s vibrato is feather-like and resonates from the back of the throat.

Townsend sings a song called “Tobacco Valley Baby” and shares beforehand with the patrons, “This song is about a special place, the place where my son was born, and I couldn’t wait to get out.”

The song starts:

Well it’s a quarter past a whiskey and a half past a beer and I’ve been thinkin’
     I should get out of here—
     Ahem hum hummm—
     Take me up, take me down, and now take me over—
     That Tobacco Valley Baby once again—
     Oh wear that old crown of four leaf clover—
     Stack ‘em up and sew ‘em together like you did, like you did.

Brett “Brother” Townsend made it to the semi-finals that night, partially by being voted in by the Sean Kelly’s clientele, which counts as about one third of the vote.  The rest of the judging falls on three people who fill out forms critiquing the musicians: Tracy Lopez from The Trail 103.3, Tara Shisler, and Pumpernickel Stewart from the Independent.

Brett worries he will not be able to be in town for the final if he makes the cut. He has a wife and young son to support and is looking to go work in the Oil Fields in North Dakota.

Brett expands on that saying, “I want to give it away. My music, playing is my passion. I wish I could, but I gotta make a living. How do I continue to write and play my music while I work in the oil fields providing? Time—I need more time. At one point we had a long conversation with one of the big wigs. He encouraged us to continue playing, and that we should inform him of our next booking in Seattle. He said he would send a rep from the Tooth and Nail label to check us out.  My partner Matt dropped out before we had another gig.” His face falls into his hands for a moment then looks up and asks, “At what point is it selfishness?”

It is the night of Brother Townsend’s semi-final gig. His van is packed and ready to live in, and travel to North Dakota. On the nights he plays in town, he sleeps in his van. This night is one of them. His young family lives in the Potomac area. Brett will go to Potomac early Sunday morning to spend time with them before he heads east on Monday.

A now clean-shaven Brother Townsend is first in line to play for the night at 8:30. He did not make the cut to the final. He  isn’t really down about it because his desire to play supersedes his desire to move forward in the contest. Townsend asks the judges if he can jam onstage after the set is judged and over. Mike Avery sets up for Brother Townsend: Bass player Teri Lovet, drummer Roger Moquin, and electric guitar player Sean Burress, whose band Off in the Woods won the semi-final competition and will play in the final round.

Brother Townsend, his guitar, and his VW

The sounds meld together and patrons in the bar quiet. After the first original Brother Townsend number is over, the second brings instead vocal murmur energy from the crowd. “They’ve never played together before?” “This is amazing!”

The judges discuss among themselves and with those close to their table. “Incredible, the other musicians never heard his songs before.” “It’s as if they are an already formed band.” “Listen to the beat and harmony.”

Mike Avery mentions that many bands in Missoula are formed this way due to impromptu jam sessions like this one. Bands like Street Safari and Box Cutters are examples of this. It’s a way to get connected and possibly land a paying gig in this town.

On stage, during the jam, the musicians look at each other’s hands playing cords and smile up to the eyes. Shyness is lost and playing supersedes. “That is why I do it,” says Avery, in regards to putting on Open Mic Nights for ten years. “There is a timid shy musician who shakes going up there, they start to get feedback from the crowd and I watch them flourish. That’s what it’s about.”

Sitting at the island bar Brett discusses working with Sean and talks about his vision and use of electric guitar for the songs he composes. Burgess shows genuine interest and excitement for another prospect to share his talent.

Townsend’s dream is to once again add a cello, mandolin, and upright bass to keep the music as raw as possible. These three instruments constituted of his band in Seattle called The Cost. On their EP, All the King’s Ashes, the song titled “Universe” complement his acoustic guitar with additional vocal harmony and lyrics. The song portrays a common ideals about American life singing:

When all my dreams are forsaken—
     When all my very best plans fail—
     When there’s no more rice to ration—
     When I ain’t got a leg to stand
     ahummm hummm—
     In my heart there is an ocean—
     In my mind the universe—
     In my livin’ there’s no dyin’—
     In my death there is a birth. 

For now, money making, family obligation, and oil fields that offer a large amount of money in a short period of time beckon Townsend away from music.

Brother Townsend drives off in his ’91 Volkswagen taking Peter Gorman’s book Ayahuasca, In my Blood: 25 years of America Dreaming in the passenger seat, with thoughts of writing new music, playing for others, and returning home.

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Call her a big city girl at heart, finding and satiating that appetite in the city of Missoula. Born in Butte and raised in Missoula, she is fascinated by people and looks for interesting characters to write about.  Everyone has a story to tell, or not, but the people and places in Missoula areunique.

Moving fast in life (for that big city feel) Leisa’s passions bounce around music, theater, food, art, family, and  friends that’s supported by an IV line of dark roasted coffee. Single, and a recent graduate from the University of Montana in 2011 with a BA in Creative Writing, she learned what it was like to be a co-ed in her 40’s.

She currently works as an Office Manager at Inter-State Studio and Publishing, working on school photos and yearbooks. Her personal life and nightlife is where she discovers and creates creative non-fiction stories. She has four supportive, loving children:  Dustin, Michael, Jalynn, and Mark (adopted through marriage to Dustin) who are all artistically creative in writing, theater, dance, and singing.  Leisa likes to think she moves faster than they do.