So long, Railyard Ale House, we had some good times.
The venerable live music venue is closing after more than a decade along the tracks on Montana Avenue, making way for the expansion of Carter’s Brewing.
And, it’s going out swinging with a rowdy July 28 blowout that may leave Carter’s demolition crew with little left to do. At least a dozen bands are already on the bill, including Cloudflowers, As The Crow Flies, Absence of Despair, Elevated Mind$ and Mandie Castro.
It's true that over the past few years the Railyard has lost a bit of its mojo, limping along on patched-up sound and lighting equipment, unable to fully compete with newer, larger, venues like The Pub Station. But, even its increasing scruffiness was part of the club’s crazy charm.
So was its size. The wide, shallow room, with its big bar in one corner and low stage in the other, always seemed full whether there were 20 people attending a show, or 200.
That made all of those shows intimate, by default. After punk and metal concerts, you could go home soaked in the sweat, spit and blood of other people, even if you were just minding your business. On some nights, there was more beer spilled than swallowed. And, if you got to meet the band, it was often because there was no choice. During packed shows it wasn’t always clear where the stage ended and the fans began.
Live music comeback
The Railyard came around at an important time in the resurgence of live music in Billings, and it outlasted many of the somewhat classier venues that rose up around the same time, like the Carlin, The Den, 12th Planet, Manny’s and Bones.
There’s still no shortage of places to hear live music in town, and that forced the Railyard to be fairly generous with its booking policy. Although the club’s most recent manager, Josh Schleining says he turned down plenty of bands, the club was especially welcoming to underappreciated metal bands and other artists who weren’t quite big enough, or just too weird, for other established venues in town.
That’s another thing I liked about the Railyard. Even if you didn’t like the screeching high school kid bands, or the mopey, singer-songwriters who sang sad songs to the floor, at least they got a shot. And, sometimes those shots were brilliant. Idaho Green, in their bizarre costumes, blazing through a horn-fired “Do the Nelz” was one of my favorite rock-n-roll moments ever.
Another Billings band that made the best of its shot is Stranded By Choice. The band played the Railyard dozens of times since it started doing original songs in 2013, said the band’s wild-haired drummer Levi Luoma.
“It was perfect because it was easy to get a gig there,” Luoma said. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t be a band if it wasn’t for the Railyard, but we would have had to work a lot harder to find gigs.”
The band has done well for itself, touring regularly, releasing an album and video, selling merch, opening for Red Fang, playing the Babcock Theatre, and landing a spot at the Rockin' the Rivers music festival.
“Playing the Railyard helped us immensely,” he said. “We owe them a lot.”
At least worth a look
Even if artists at the Railyard were occasionally amateur, or even inexplicable, they were often still worth the gamble. I once saw a big trans-looking kid with his face and chest painted red who screamed alone on stage for 25 minutes, and it was surprisingly affective. I’ve seen punk bands who literally hung from the rafters, and I saw an all-women AC/DC cover band AND an all-women Zeppelin cover band. Strangest of all was seeing child-actor-turned-adult-drug-abuser, Macaulay Culkin, play kazoo in the Pizza Underground, a band that tossed pizza slices into the audience and sang lyrics with labored pizza puns.
It wasn’t the weirdness that Sean Lynch was after, although he appreciated it once in awhile, when he started booking bands into the venue in 2003 and then off and on until 2014. He envisioned the place as more of a hometown bar, where you could meet friends after work and maybe see an up-and-coming national band.
“I thought, if you want to have a place where local artists play, and good touring bands, this would be your go-to bar,” Lynch said.
And, over the years he held up his end of the promise.
Both Halestorm and In This Moment played there. Those bands have since packed much larger venues in town. Future Islands and Against Me played there before I saw them a few years later at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee where they both played for more than 5,000. Trampled By Turtles played in the Railyard. So did Granger Smith, the Infamous String Dusters, Aaron Watson, Soulfly, the Kentucky Headhunters, Minus The Bear, Iration, the Thermals, Dirty Heads and A Day To Remember.
And, I’ll never forget the sweet smugness I felt at seeing The Hold Steady there, standing next to a guy who had driven 550 miles from Salt Lake City to see them.
My favorite Railyard show, by far, was finally getting to see Black Flag. The raging punk band was well past its prime by then, but there they were, Mike Vallely screaming himself inside out, with original guitarist Greg Ginn grinding away, close enough that I could, and did, easily reach out and touch them.
Leaves a void
About two years ago, Lynch and his wife opened the nearby Pub Station with one room that holds about 400 for shows, and an adjoining ballroom that holds double that for larger shows. The new venue has been so successful, the music business trade publication Pollstar recently ranked the Pub Station 118th on its list of the 200 most popular venues its size in the world based on tickets sales.
Looking back, Lynch shares the feelings a lot of us music fans have about the Railyard.
“There’s a lot of great history in that place,” he said. “I hate to see it go. It leaves a void that needs to be filled, where young artists can cut their teeth.”
Here’s hoping another club pops up to fill that niche, and soon.