NPR has said St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a retro-soul sextet from Birmingham, Alabama, are fast becoming “one of the nation’s best live bands.”
So when the group booked a concert next Wednesday in Eureka, population 1,000, there were phone calls.
Eureka resident Rita Collins, who arranged the performance for the nonprofit Sunburst Community Service Foundation, got queries from California. Idaho. Canada. Washington state. Other parts of Montana.
Some wanted to know: Why weren’t they playing in Missoula or Bozeman?
The answer lies with bass player Jesse Phillips, Lincoln County High School Class of 1998.
Collins has been promoting the arts in Eureka for years now, and helped arrange little shows for him back before he was in Rolling Stone.
“Even when I was in high school, she would always provide our band with opportunities and things to play,” Phillips said in an interview from the road. The band is heading to Louisville to kick off a tour for their debut album, “Half the City.”
Collins would inquire about a concert when Phillips was back in the valley to visit family, and she kept it touch even after the press started rolling in.
When the group booked dates up in Edmonton and Calgary this summer, they added a special stop at the LCHS auditorium, which seats 450.
Collins, who helps set up concerts as a part-time gig, sold 100 tickets the first day they were available. If you didn’t buy one already, it’s too late now.
Phillips grew up in Grasmere, British Columbia, a little hamlet just across the border, and attended school in Eureka. With encouragement from grown-ups, he and his friends formed rock bands. They played junior prom, pep rallies and the like.
Some of their crowd stuck with it, and others didn’t.
“For some of us, it never really stopped,” Phillips said.
He went on to attend college in New Orleans, and moved back to Missoula post-Hurricane Katrina. He struggled to find work, eventually substitute teaching part-time at Missoula County Public Schools.
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Some friends in Birmingham, Alabama, offered him a job, and he migrated back South to work and play music.
While subbing in a classic rock/alternative rock band, he met Paul Janeway, a singer who grew up listening solely to gospel and devotional music.
After that group dissolved, the two kept playing together, focusing on music that would showcase Janeway’s raw soul vocals.
They kept adding members until they were a sextet, complete with an old-school horn section. They cut an EP in 2012 that garnered attention, and played a Birmingham venue called the Bottletree until they were practically the house band, Phillips said.
Ben Tanner, the keyboard player from the rock revivalists Alabama Shakes, had just started his own small label and offered to produce their first full-length record.
From the start, Janeway cut his parts in an isolation booth, and no one realized they were recording what would become the final recordings.
“At the time we thought we were doing scratch vocals, but the vibe was there with the live takes,” he said.
They cut four or five takes of each song, live with no overdubs, and picked the best one.
They released it, and as a “completely unknown group” from an off-the-radar town, they didn’t expect too much.
“We didn’t really know what to anticipate. Our expectations were very, very modest at the beginning,” Phillips said.
But it’s sold consistently, and the group will be touring almost nonstop – including shows in Europe – through December. Phillips figures they’ll have at least 200 concerts in the bag by year’s end. Then they’ll start on demos for the next album.
“We’re already far beyond where we thought we’d be with this record,” he said. “This is going to open a lot of doors for the next couple.”
For her part, Collins is getting ready for Wednesday’s show. They sell concessions at each concert to raise money, picking a theme for each one. Since St. Paul’s from Alabama, they’re going with pie and iced tea.
Phillips, who considers Missoula a second home, added that he’d love to play the Garden City some day, too.