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Monday Montanan: Johnny Carls Jr. brings the metal to the street

Monday Montanan: Johnny Carls Jr. brings the metal to the street

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To paraphrase John Donne and James Hetfield, don't ask for whom the busker shreds, he shreds for thee.

Many nights a week when the weather's warm and cooperative, Johnny Carls Jr. posts up near the corner of Front Street and Higgins Avenue, playing metal and hard rock.

"One year I went four or five months," he said, clocking in five nights a week around 6 or 7 in the evening and wrapping up around 10.

Brutal metal riffs from Metallica, Mercyful Fate and Iron Maiden reverberate off the concrete, and he occasionally switches them up with mellower crowd-pleasers from Stone Temple Pilots, or Oasis' "Wonderwall," or Marcy Playground's "Sex and Candy." 

He writes parodies, like "Comfortably Numb" with receding hairline references. ("There is Rogaine, your hairline is receding"), that gets some double-takes from pedestrians.

After his usual evening warm-up with his battery-powered amp one night, he broke out a looping pedal with programmed beats to free him up from rhythm guitar duty.

"I can sit here and shred," he said. 

He played a doomy chord progression, looped it, and then set away soloing.

A Missoula native, Carls moved to the San Francisco area when he was 15, and didn't return until four years ago with his girlfriend, who was recuperating from health problems. 

Carls, who picked up guitar some 35 years ago, started busking down there out of an almost-random coincidence. One day, caught in the rain with an acoustic guitar housed in a beat-up and weather-compromised case, he headed down to a BART Station. To pass the time and make some money, he found a spot to play. In the first hour he only made 35 cents. Someone eventually gave him a hundred, possibly because it was the start of a New Year — he says passers-by have given him larger tips closer to the holidays. Another passer-by gave him the small (but loud) amp he uses.

Inevitably, the foot traffic was higher. Missoula's relatively smaller crowds stop more often, probably because there's less competition from other buskers.

"There's a lot more money here than in San Francisco for some reason," he said. "I guess people are nicer here? I don't know."

He started busking here to raise some money for a trip down to the California Extreme Pinball Tournament. He's a serious pinball player, who goes by the name Johnny Woo, if you spy any high scores around town.

That tournament was canceled this year, due to the pandemic, which also has lowered the foot traffic here in downtown.

"Still, on a nice and sunny day, people are out here," he said, as small groups of people, some masked, some not, waited to cross the street, or watched him from their cars stopped at a red light.

Busking is the only public performance option right now. He's a member of a band called Stoned to Death, which formed when he met some people while busking. They were on a line-up for the Zootown Arts Community Center's Show Room back in April and at a Zombie Tools fest, before the pandemic forced a closure on live music. 

On this particular sunny night, the people were still hitting the street, Carls' Monday-to-Friday venue of choice.

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