Billings, MT was a pretty foreboding place to enter at night. First, there were the typical city lights on the horizon, followed by an absolutely disgusting smell. Then we saw something that may have been a slaughterhouse, which explained part of the smell. Then, some oddly lit smoke stacks and enormous storage tanks appeared, looking like something out of the original Transformers movie. According to Daddy Wrall: that’s where the Autobots live. When we left, this morning, we discovered another refinery on the western edge of town; that’s where the Go-Bots live. They meet in the middle of town to battle meth-dealing Decepticons and whoever the bad guys in the Go-Bots were. I was going to do some research to confirm out what these places actually are, but I think I prefer this good/evil transforming robots explanation. Maybe I’ll do the research to see who the bad guys in the Go-Bots were instead.

The reason we were unable to secure a gig in Billings (and I’m not ashamed to admit this) is that the club with which we had contact has a very successful karaoke night on the only night that we could come play here. As you all can imagine, that wasn’t going to stop us from hijacking the joint. We rolled into town at around 11 PM and headed straight to the Rail Yard. We entered a modern looking smoky bar with five or six karaoke screens scattered on the walls, a caged stage area that was not the preferred singing location and an enormous karaoke station with a computer, a large mixing board, wireless microphones and two middle-aged MCs. Including them, us and the servers, there were about twenty people there. Everybody, as you must know by now, was nice. Really nice. Stupid nice. Hospitable, welcoming, nice, nice, nice. Sam’s family, basically. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but allegedly this is a very successful night. I’m not sure if that was what is meant by “successful” or if it was a slow night. Either way, the energy in the place, despite the poor head count, was palpable. Almost everyone there was chain smoking and participating in the singing. It’s certainly possible that it was more of an early night for the bar and that there had been people there earlier. The “evidence” on the front steps was a potential confirmation of this…

When we walked in, Sam asked the bartender, “Are you Corey?”

“Nah, I’m Delta. Are you a band?” he said, eager to exercise his booking and bartering skills. We looked pretty haggard and he must have assumed that we would work for couple of packs of cigarettes or a six pack of an “imported” Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sam said.

“Oh, well I do all the booking here.”

“We’re just passing through town, we’re not actually looking for a gig. We’re friends of Jimi Scott,” Sam turned the tables.

“James Scott,” he said slowly, with extra added emphasis. “Well, any friend of James is a friend of mine.” And then he reached down below the bar and pulled out a full, unopened Heinekeg. “Here. On the house. Take this with you.” Seems like Jimmy’s got connections. We’re a little afraid to see if it’s actually Heineken in it. In fact, it’s more likely that, rather than drinking it, we’ll barter it for safe passage at the Canadian border. No jab.

The guys had a couple of drinks while Sam tried his hand at Big Buck Hunter. His time as a hunter’s apprentice back in ’04 hasn’t really stuck with him as he, in his words, was “really bad at it.” Blame it on that feisty computer-generated Montana deer. Daddy Wrall struck first in this karaoke game, singing a Fairchild favorite: Larry Graham’s “One in a Million You.” Having the advantage of being an actual singer, Wrall absolutely nailed the tune, showing off an impressive lower register and making use of a resonant vibrato, the likes of which none in Billings had ever heard. Finishing the tune, he sauntered to the bar, quite pleased with himself.

A middle aged Montanan sporting a handlebar mustache and cigarette, wearing a red Marlboro shirt, was very impressed, “You’ve got a great voice. I’d like to shake your hand.”

“Thanks,” Wrall replied, laughing, and extending his palm.

“No, no. I really mean that. You’re really good. I’d like to hear you do another one.” And with that, DW headed back to the 100,000 listing karaoke binder to find another.

But not before The Rocket and the Nice one could try their own voices on the mic. There was a lot of country music happening from the other singers, so Todd, familiar with country from his participation in The Don Campbell Band, walked to the stage saying, “Do you people like country music?”

“Yeah,” was the spirited response.

“Me too, but tonight I’m going to do something a little different,” as he launched into a kick ass rendition of “Gin and Juice.” Our karaoke host supplied the “with my mind on my money and my money on my mind” section of the song.

Sam Nice was next on the mic. “We’re on some middle school action now,” he said as “Too Close” by Next came on the box. It’s one of those songs where the screen shows the lyrics for all of the extensive lead vocal ad-libs, and Sam, displaying an exceptional composure and ability to recollect all of the obscure “oh baby’s,” engaged in some heretofore unheard of vocal gymnastics, sticking the landing like Keri Strugg.

The Rocket sang Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time,” proving that these brothers do indeed share a singing gene. Wrall would proceed to sing “Like I Love You,” “The Rhythm of the Night” and “Wishing Well, ” stealing the show with the latter. Our performance (I should say theirs. I participated in the “Hey” during “Like I Love You” and otherwise sat with eyelids half-open, soaking in the atmosphere for description in this space) was impressive enough that Delta bought a round for my friends and we all had a barrel of laughs at our “gig” in Billings.

[That was initially where this entry was to end, but too much has happened, so we press on…]

We adjourned to our skeezy motel room for a few scant hours of rest before hitting the road bright and early. The next morning we headed to McCormick’s Cafe, which promised free wireless and The Strongest Coffee in Montana. Daniel, the head barista, was wearing a bandana as a headband and an orange t-shirt, a button with the word hate crossed out. He had energy a bun and a (some would call annoying, but we found endearing) proclivity for correcting “mistakes” At least one of us picked up a Bruce Vilanch from him. He gave a little too much information when describing the merits of his coffee and tea. This is the actual exchange (transcribed from a micro cassette recording) of Patrick ordering a latte:

P: I’ll have a double mocha latte please.

D: Actually, you don’t need to say mocha and latte. That’s redundant. A mocha is, by definition, a latte with chocolate.

P: Okaaaaay.

D: First, would you like this iced or hot?

P: Hot.

D: Would you like dark or white chocolate?

P: White sounds good.

D: And skim milk or two percent?

P: Two percent.

D: Yeah, that’s much better. Um, 12 ounces or 16?

P: 16, please.

D: And two shots or one?

P: Two.

D: I should also tell you that our regular coffee is the strongest in Montana. So, if you like strong coffee that doesn’t taste burnt (not like that Starbucks crap), you should have ours. We’ll fill you up before you head out. It’s actually the anti-Starbucks. Would you like some water too?

P: Yes, actually.

D: Would you like a lemon or not?

P:: Sure.

D: We used to force lemons on people, but now we save a fortune. You guys aren’t from around here are you? [Let it be known that he said all of this in about two seconds. Perhaps even surpassing Spencer for his combination of speed and clarity.]

P: Um, nope. East coast.

D: So you guys know about real restaurants, then?

P: Yeah, I guess…

Here’s Sam’s experience:

S: I’d like the Toucan Breakfast, please.

D: I’ll have you know, no toucans will be harmed in the making of your breakfast.

S: That’s good to know

D: It’s actually named after a gallery down the street. Would you like anything to drink? (Literally half a second later, without waiting for a response:) May I infer from the direction of your gaze that you’re thinking about having tea?

S: Uh, yeah. How about some English breakfast.

D: Excellent choice.

And, The Rocket:

R: I’ll have a mushroom omelette.

D: I don’t know if you read the fine print, but you can have up to three items on your omelette and even though it’s not on the list, bacon is definitely an option.

R: (Todd looks at the list again.) Nope, I think I’ll stick with just the mushroom.

D: Oh, I see you’re a mushroom kind of guy.

R: Yes.

D: Me too. Good choice.

R: Oh yeah and I’d like a coffee.

(What followed can only be called a Coffee Sermon and included descriptions of different roasting processes, how different kinds of coffee affect different parts of the palette, description of various espresso drinks, the difference between strong coffee and high caffeine coffee, a discuss of how coffee farmers are affected by this country’s cafe scene.)

R: Thanks (by way of interrupting the soliloquy, but he wasn’t having it.)

(And then he launched into a discussion of the detrimental effect of Starbucks.)

R: (Finally getting a word in) Great, I’ll take it from here. (And Todd helped himself to some coffee from the self pump.)

D: I know you came together because that’s why people go out to restaurants, but would you like to pay together?

R: Separate checks is fine.

D: And would you your receipt?

R: Sure.

D: Well, even though you’re paying separately, I’m going to give you one big receipt. [An interesting liberty taken.]

Let it be know, dear readers, that there are two camps in this van when it comes to the service at McCormick’s. I felt that he was a super nice guy, but the less-caffeinated among us could have done without the length of the interaction. Apparently he’s known for his boundless energy. There was even an article on the wall about how much he loves his job. I made a joke about that guy being me in twenty five years, which generated a laugh and a “you’re nothing like that guy” from Sam.

(Sigh of relief)

“But you could end up that way.”

We did a quick loop through town, looking for a gas station and found:

4 tire shops

2 glass repair shops

3 used car dealerships

7 sketchy motels

8 swanky martini bars(!)

1 partridge in a pear tree

But nary a filling station in town! The evidence would indicate that there are, indeed, cars in this town. Maybe the Autobots fill ’em by themselves.

[Once again, I was ready to end this whole entry here, but some more stuff happened…]

We’re on the 2nd longest driving day of the tour right now, but this one has a show at the end. It’s a bit tight, and we just had an unplanned stop due to the check engine light coming on. The a/c was causing us to leak coolant, which is a concern. After a stop at Tim’s and another stop at Ron’s auto shops (both of whom were out to lunch), we decided to load up on anti-freeze and water, get back on the highway and just be vigilant about the temperature in the engine. It’s been an hour and a half and so far it’s cool. Hopefully, we’ll still make this gig okay.

The unplanned benefit of that stop is that both auto places were right next to Wheat Montana Bakery & Deli, which made us some excellent sandwiches. Never would have stopped for those without the car trouble. Once again, “Who’s to say what’s good or bad?”