Helena's Go-to Good Time
by Teresa Gonzales
Helena is the capital of Montana, but is only a town of about 30,000. It is known more for its art than its music. As is true everywhere, it seems that the bigger the city, the bigger the act. Missoula gets 3 Days Grace and Butte gets Pearl Jam. But as I have learned in the past few years, sometimes the smaller acts can pack a big punch. Just when it seemed that the music gene was recessive in Helena, the college bar scene and mountain air conceived the quartet bar band, The Clintons; fronted by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter John McLellan. I discovered The Clintons at one of Helena's many summer events. Anyone from Montana knows they must cram January thru December debauchery into June thru August. This involves sacrificing sleep and having a non-stop agenda to attend as many backyard barbecues, trips to the lake and concerts as humanly possible, before going into hibernation thru the fall, winter and most of the spring.
In 2008, I attended one such romp called Clinton's Summer Camp, sponsored by Jim Beam. This riotous beach party is on a lakefront and features other talented local bands. This venue offers cheeseburgers, cold beers, and music and has a feeling that can only be found in Montana in the heart of summertime. In spite of a few too many Long Island Ice Teas, I took notice of their music and onstage presence. They had a fun, laid back style, which seemed to mirror their audience. They just didn't take themselves too seriously. Much like the audience and the summertime itself, they were there for a good time, not a long time.
The best way to describe their style is to imagine you are walking into a smoke-filled, rowdy, college bar in the early 2000's and there is band onstage of guys who are just there for a good time, free beer and to earn a few extra bucks. Thier sound leaves the listener feeling as if they have just paid their $20 cover charge and had their hand stamped at the local brewery jam set. Every now and then, their sound is mature enough to remind you to stop at the ATM on the way home to get cash to pay the babysitter. They play with a fairly even mix of country, pop, funk and good old rock n roll. John croons his way thru slick lyrics which include all things wonderful such as Taylor Swift, caffeine, G-Strings, and middle aged cocktail waitresses. He also has some mad flow at times when he breaks into rapping that's not bad for an Irish white guy.
I most recently attended a charity ball/dance they were performing at. As they played their long 4 hour set, the event transformed from a dance to a concert. One of the staples of their live shows is how they blend their original music with fan favorites into a sort of old school/ new school love child of a song. For instance, their most downloaded song is "Abercrombie Jeans" from the album Sellout. This favorite among locals, is a country-influenced, toe-tapping, lively ode to groupies in designer pants. In the middle of second chorus, they threw in "Ring of Fire", while keeping the same octave and tempo. In the past they've also thrown in "Jump" by Kriss Kross, in the middle of one of their harder sounding songs with a distinct riff, "Free Ride in a Cop Car." From my experiences at their concerts, this keeps sets longer and also can win over those unfamiliar with their original material.
John is the only full-time professional musician of the group. The other members of the band, Josh Kier, AJ Miller and Levi Kujala, have day jobs, but take off their shirts and ties and don punk T shirts for a private party among other gigs. What I didn't realize is that they had been playing together since 1999 and have released 7 albums. They were founded at a frat house party at Montana State University. At the very least, the band has staying power. Along the way, they've played with/opened for Dierks Bentley and BareNaked Ladies among others.
I recently sat down with John McClellan to gain insight as to what it's like be a professional musician in a small town. He was very intense and direct, and immediately struck me as one of those individuals who is always "on". We met for coffee and he brought his young sons with him. My first question for John was where the name for The Clintons came from, thinking it had political connotations. He stated that Clinton was a bastard of a dog who drank all their beers when their backs were turned. Much like the infamous ghost named "not me" who torments children the world over. The name The Clintons just kind of stuck after that.
I also asked John about what it's like to be a professional musician in a small town where making a living is hard period, let along trying to sing and play guitar to make a living. John stated emphatically that he loves living here in Helena with his wife and his 2 sons. He said he believes he has "made it" and the idea of getting a big touring contact and a massive record deal doesn't appeal to him in the least. He felt like this was enough of the life of a rockstar for him. Toting the kids around, having a stable relationship, jamming and doing what he loves is his definition of success. I asked John what kinds of events he likes to perform at the most. He said without a doubt, it's private events such as work or birthday parties. He said the crowd is interested in the music, responsive and want to hear what he has to say. He says playing bars is always fun, but most people are just there for music to drink to.
A project that has been up and running for some time, is an acoustic duo formed by John on guitar and Josh Kier on percussion named The Wench. This side project has quickly begun booking more gigs than The Clintons, as they cost less with less guys to pay and less to set up, and they are more available. The Wench is working on a new studio album set to be released Cinco De Mayo 2016. I asked John if the Clintons are planning a new album in the future. He said at the moment there are just mumblings among the guys.
John and his crew have become a staple during the mosquito-filled summer evenings of Helena. The nights take on a life of their own; alive and pulsating, with music as fun as a cold beer and a beach party. These smaller venues could be mistaken for an oversized party on steroids at the neighbor's backyard. There is much to look forward to in Montana in the summertime, including the music. Much like the long anticipated summer nights, The Clintons don't disappoint, as they leave the crowd waiting for the next summer before this one's even over.
Also see the Clintons website
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