Mission Mountain Wood Band gains momentum
Steve Riddle, left, and Christian Johnson perform on a Caribbean cruise ship in February. The two are founding members of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, which plays Sunday in Billings. JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff

The Mission Mountain Wood Band is a Montana icon whose legendary shows back in the 1970s were so outrageous, they now sound like tall tales.

One fan, R.J. Brewer from Polson, likes the bluegrass/jam music so much, he built a rehearsal space on his Hog Heaven cattle ranch at Flathead Lake just to hear them play.

"I listen to these guys for 15 minutes and it's like I'm back 30 years, I'm dancing around and waving my arms," Brewer said.

The five members of the band brag about the fact that they're all native Montanans. Even as new members come in to take the place of Terry Robinson, who was killed in a plane crash in 1987, the recruits are all what the band likes to call "Montana boys."

Nearly four decades after they formed in Missoula in 1971, when most of the members were students at the University of Montana, the band is playing a growing number of gigs and getting ready to record their second album, thanks to a nudge by the newest member, Tim Ryan.

Ryan grew up in the shadow of the band's namesake, the Mission Mountains in St. Ignatius. Although he's several years younger than the original members, who are now in their 50s, he rocked out all through high school to their one and only album, "In Without Knocking," which takes its name from a Charlie Russell painting.

"It's so much fun to play with these guys who I consider the ambassadors of Montana music," Ryan said.

Ryan is a songwriter and musician who now lives in Nashville and has penned songs for George Strait and Randy Travis.

M2WB reunited in 1992 at Polson, performing with Bruce Robsinson in his late brother Terry's place.

"I remember that reunion show," Brewer said. "Terry and Bruce's dad was there with tears in his eyes. It was like Terry was playing through Bruce."

Since that reunion show, M2WB has performed a handful of gigs during the summer, mostly fundraisers around Montana. That started to change with last year's appearance at the Sturgis motorcycle rally when the Wood Band opened for John Fogerty.

"The stage manager took one look at them and said, 'Wow it's the Wood Band,"' Brewer said. "These guys have such a reputation in the business, there is no 'Mission who?' "

Bassist Steve Riddle said the band has shows booked across Montana and Texas, a show in Reno in July and their second Caribbean cruise is set for January, 2010.

On Wednesday, when they chatted by phone from their practice space at Hog Heaven, they were warming up for the launch of their tour, which began with a show Thursday at the Headwaters Country Jam. They play in Billings Sunday at Pioneer Park at Foodstock, a benefit for the Billings Food Bank. The show starts at 1 p.m. with a live performance by Billings band Funk in the Trunk.

Four of the five current members, including Riddle; Christian Johnson on mandolin, fiddle and guitar; Rob Quist on guitar and vocals; and Greg Reichenberg on drums, are from the original band. The Montana Band, an offshoot of Mission Mountain, was a revolving group of musicians, usually including one or more M2WB members. When the entire Montana Band was killed on the Fourth of July in a plane crash near Flathead Lake in 1987, many mourned the loss of what they thought was M2WB and members are still explaining that only one original M2WB member, Terry Robinson, was aboard that plane. Still, the shock of the crash and the loss of the gregarious Robinson crushed the idea of M2WB's return for several years.

During the band's heyday, from 1971 to 1981, they played 320 gigs a year. It was every hippie's dream life.

"We played college campuses from coast to coast and put 2 million miles on our Greyhound bus," Riddle said. "It was a fantastic time to be young and in a band."

Reichenberg, who grew up in Billings and graduated from West High in 1969, said the last time he played at Pioneer Park in Billings was in 1967 when he played drums for the Electric Garden Party band. He said his old friend, district court judge Greg Todd, of Billings, helped set up this Pioneer Park benefit.

"We just wanted to do something positive for the city of Billings, and Greg set this up," Reichenberg said.

Quist, who among the band members has had the most success apart from M2WB, opens the St. John's Music on the Lawn series every year with his band. They perform at St. John's on Thursday. The Rob Quist Band always plays "Sweet Maria," one of Quist's all-time favorite songs.

"When we play 'Sweet Maria,' it always turns into a jam and I love the line, like the band, 'It's never long gone.' "