Thirty Years Later, a Storied Band Tours Again

By Beacon Staff

At a Fourth of July music festival in 1977, Steve Riddle says a witch cursed the Mission Mountain Wood Band.

A frazzled woman slipped past security and made it to the stage where the band was playing. She was young but her eyes were haunting and she told the confused musicians that, from then on, whenever they played around July 4 it would rain.

Within the hour, after she had been escorted away by security, the sunny skies turned dark and the rains came.

Greg McCathren lets the rain fall on his face at Depot Park in Kalispell after a downpour interrupted Picnic in the Park. According to Mission Mountain Wood Band’s bassist, Steve Riddle, the band was cursed by a witch and now it rains on every gig near the Fourth of July.

“It was 1977 – everybody believed in everything,” Riddle said. “They believed in angels, they believed in evil. They believed in love, in peace, and even witches, man.”

So when the band played on July 1 at Kalispell’s Picnic in the Park at Depot Park in a surprise “dress rehearsal” to tune up for a long-awaited reunion tour – which runs this week – the musicians happily embraced a heavy rainstorm that flooded the streets and ended their show. They all laughed and talked about the witch. After all, it has rained every time they’ve played together in early July since that day in 1977.

Mission Mountain, widely acknowledged as the most prominent band to ever emerge from Montana, is on a “hi-line” tour this week that will take the group to six locations across northern Montana over the course of a week. Though they’ve played frequent shows together through the years, band member Rob Quist said this is the first legitimate tour they’ve done since the group disbanded in the late 70s.

The band kicked off its tour in Plentywood on July 5, a tiny town located in the remote northeastern corner of the state. The marquee show is at the Majestic Valley Arena in Kalispell on July 11 and the tour wraps up at the Bear River Boogie music festival in Shelby on July 12. They’ll play in Sturgis later this summer as well, sharing the bill with John Fogerty.

Mission Mountain has always had strong ties to the Flathead, with Quist and Christian Johnson living in Kalispell today. The Majestic Valley show, however, will be the first major concert the group has played in Kalispell since 1987 when the band members got together to play a tribute to former lead singer Terry Robinson, who died in a plane crash at Flathead Lake that year. At the time, Robinson was touring with the Montana Band, an offshoot of Mission Mountain.

The last time Mission Mountain played in Kalispell before that, Quist recalls, was at the Northwest Montana Fair the night Elvis died.

Mission Mountain Wood Band’s bassist Steve Riddle is silhouetted under the pavilion at Depot Park as the storm clouds roll in behind him.

“The Flathead Valley’s always been home for the band,” Quist said. “To be home, the old adrenaline kicks in. I get the chills.”

The barren plains of northern Montana might seem like a wild idea for a reunion tour. But these are wild guys, or at least they used to be. Today, their hair is thinner and grayer, and their lifestyles are considerably more rooted in domestic responsibility, but the music is still there.

At Depot Park, the band members would close their eyes, tilt their heads back and summon the showman instincts they once flaunted daily. Except for Robinson, the original crew is intact. Craig Davey, a talented local musician, is the new member. The group plays a fusion of bluegrass, hippie jam, blues, country and rock music. Each member is supremely talented on whichever instrument he plays. Johnson, for example, alternates between acoustic and electric guitars, the fiddle and mandolin.

The hi-line tour is appropriate. In the 1970s, Mission Mountain began a show in Plentywood called the Prairie Boogie, where more than 5,000 people would show up annually in a town that had a population of maybe 1,000 at the time. When organizers for a large, all-class high school reunion called from Plentywood asking the band to play, the Prairie Boogie was reborn. The rest of the tour dates fell into place, including a fish fry just south of the Canadian border and a show at the historic Fort Peck Theatre.

Johnson is expecting more than 5,000 again at the Plentywood show, which promises to be a night of bonfires, partying and good music.

“Nothing goes on out there,” he said, “so when kids come back from school they’re looking to party. I’m certain it will be a pretty big event.”

The band formed in Missoula in the late 1960s and took off in the early 70s. They developed a cult-like following through their live shows, putting out only one studio album, a 1976 recording called “In Without Knocking.”

Playing more than 300 shows a year, often for longer than four hours at a time, the band traversed the nation, living the rock star dream. But their roots were always in Montana and they quickly learned that those roots twisted their way across state borders. Riddle said Montanans living in California, Mississippi or wherever Mission Mountain was playing, would band together and spread the word to make sure a packed house awaited the group at every venue.

They filled big-time venues like the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and had opening acts like Jay Leno, doing stand-up at the time, and blues legend Bonnie Raitt. They shared the stage with the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Bo Diddley and more.

“Back in those days, Mission Mountain was a culture,” Riddle said. “It really wasn’t the music. We were just the catalysts that made everyone come together. It was an amazing 10 years of time.”

Rob Quist plucks out serious runs on the banjo during Picnic in the Park with the Mission Mountain Wood Band.

Back home in Montana, “Woodheads” kept track of their every move. Scott Johnston, who runs 101.9 Montana Radio Café, remembers Mountain mania. He quickly rattles off memorable shows, like a rowdy music festival in Polson in 1975.

“These guys are Montana icons,” Johnston said. “I tell you, it’s legendary stuff.”

Quist and Johnson are still household names in the Flathead. Johnson is particularly active in Kalispell’s local music scene. He teaches music and runs a popular open mic night at Red’s Wines & Blues, along with playing a full slate of live gigs with different bands around the valley.

His lifestyle now hardly resembles the rambling wild days of Mission Mountain’s prime between 1971 and 1978.

“I didn’t have an address then,” Johnson said. “I lived on the bus.”

When the first drops of rain fell at Depot Park on July 1, some people packed up and left, but most stayed. Toddlers and baby boomers alike, some sandaled and others barefoot, took to the grassy dance area and boogied underneath the falling rain. It was an intriguing dynamic: 7-year-olds wearing tie-dye and 55-year-olds wearing baggy shorts and taking pictures with their cell phones.

Greg Reichenberg, the band’s drummer, came up from his home in Atlanta for the tour. Following the Depot Park gig, Reichenberg stood admiring his drum set, which has a painted design by good friend Monte Dolack, the well-known Missoula artist. It’s the same set Reichenberg has used since 1972: “They’ve had a lot of beer and champagne spilled on them,” he said.

“It’s always good to be back,” Reichenberg said. “We’re still young enough to do it. We hope everybody stays young with us.”

“If you can’t make it to the show,” he added, “We’ll send a car for you.”