If you don’t like smoky saloons inhabited by gangsters and gamblers, the Ellen Theatre may have been a little unnerving last Friday, Nov. 13. The stage was awash in pale red light. Dancers swung gracefully in the aisles, well-dressed and well-groomed. The chandelier sparkled in the dim surroundings. From the mics on stage came the sounds of prohibition — the gritty, soulful and nostalgic music of Tumbledown House.
Tumbledown House consists of vocalist Gillian Howe and guitarist Tyler Miller. For shows they are joined by regional musicians, whose numbers and instruments shift between venues. For the Bozeman show, they were accompanied by Jake Fleming, Zac Johnson, Adam Greenberg and Sean Lehmann. But no matter who accompanies them, the duo drives the show — Howe and Miller mix sultry vocals and crisp riffs to recreate an era gone by. The Jazz Age is immediately present in their music, and all the imagery that goes with that time — bootlegged liquor, murder, gangsters in three piece suits and smoky bars. Lyrically, these themes are clear, but even more importantly, the music itself sounds like a 1920s band.
Howe’s powerful vocals are by turns smoky, whispering and roaring. She commands an incredible range of emotion. Miller’s guitar is sparse and never overpowering; often, he plays rhythm, but when a solo rolls along, his playing is melodic and energetic. That dichotomy is helped along by auxiliary instruments — a growling tenor sax, a wailing clarinet, a rumbling bass. The music is also textured and complex; few of the band’s songs remain at the same tempo throughout. A haunting beginning will lead into a fast-swinging middle, then descend back into the slow initial tempo. The transitions are flawless.
Growing up in Montana, there can be a tendency to disregard our own history as distasteful. Our polite society sometimes doesn’t like to admit to the prostitutes, the gamblers and the vigilantes. But for Howe, that was a draw. “I was writing songs about bars when I was 17, and had never been in one,” she said. She describes her early experiences as “a sunshiny, rural Montana childhood, and this other thing was just a draw because I didn’t know anything about it.” Miller seems to find the same interest in the darker elements: “I just find vice very, very interesting,” he said.
The band finds an equal inspiration across musical genres. During the night, they covered everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Johnny Cash to French movie themes to Ray Charles. To every song, they added their own unique twists — rhythmic variations, wailing solos and a burnished sound. They also showed an equal proficiency for songwriting and playing others’ work. The majority of the songs were originals, and covered everything from an ode to Chicago to a song about Montana’s own Potosi hot springs. They also played jazz standards, and Howe acknowledged Southern jazz’s influence on the band. “We love trying to spread the vibe of New Orleans everywhere we go,” she said. “That’s why you’re all dancing and drinking!”
It is rare to find something that improves on the past. Imitations rarely recapture the original, and more often are pretentious and self-important. Tumbledown House is neither — their music is raw, dirty and full of a soul older than the musicians themselves. Sitting in the darkened theater, it was easy to believe you were somewhere else — a speakeasy, maybe, with couples dancing across the dim floor and smoke drifting through the air. Listening to the music swirling through the theater made it that much easier.