Fans reach out for the guitar player for Tribe, during a show at the Railyard. This is one of more than 2,000 of Scott Wagers' photos of the local music scene that will be on display Wednesday night at the Garage Pub. Click on the arrow at top right to see a few more of Wagers' photos.
Scott Wagers doesn’t like to stay home. You’ve probably seen him on the sidelines of your favorite music venue, snapping photos. In the years Wagers has been enjoying local music, he’s amassed many tens of thousands of images.
“I have always liked photography, and I love the local music scene here, so I decided to blend them together,” Wagers said. “I never thought I’d be doing it to the extent I do today.”
There isn’t a day that goes by that Wagers is not taking photos, editing photos, reading about photography or scouting out places he wants to photograph.
“I’m doing something like that seven days a week,” he said.
This Wednesday, 2,436 of Wagers’ images will be on display at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. in a slideshow that he created. Around 150 artists are represented in this collection, taken of the Billings music scene between 2011 and 2015.
Photos shown at Garage Pub
“Images: The Billings Local Live Music Scene, 2011-2015 by Scott Wagers” begins at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13 at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s Garage Pub. Wagers’ images will be projected on a screen.
Music will be provided by Jessica Lechner, Yellowstone Howard, Lindsey Jacobsen, Wes Urbaniak and Troy Owens, and The Henge (A.J. Sheble, Austin Schilling, Blake Pierce and Bryan Brooksby). The show is free and open to all ages. Children and dogs are welcome..
Wagers is driven to document the moment at hand, but also by his own creative itch. He likes the challenge of photography, and he tries to capture the energy of a live performance in a way that an audience member may not experience.
“I try to get an angle that creates a more intimate relationship,” Wagers said, “finding those views that will never happen again.”
Wagers received his first camera at age 10, and he’s owned a camera ever since. He took some photography classes at Illinois State University, where he graduated with degrees in political science and anthropology. He moved to Billings 20 years ago for an archaeology position with Ethnoscience Inc.
At that time, the local music scene was centered at Casey’s, with open-mike nights and local bands performing in the space where Hooligans is now. Wagers started going there on a pretty regular basis. Danielle Egnew’s band Pope Jane emerged at this time, and Harby Howell’s Soul Brat was the talk of the town.
Casey’s relocated a block away to 222 N. Broadway (where Daisy Dukes is now), and Wagers recalls the owners drifting away from local music, focusing more on karaoke. At the same time, Wagers dropped out of the local scene.
“There just wasn’t anything going on,” he said, aside from Sean Lynch’s endeavors at 11:11 Café in the space that is now Bin 119. Lynch moved 11:11 Café to Montana Avenue in the space that now holds Carter’s Brewing. The Railyard wasn’t in existence, and Lynch helped build and pioneer that venue before creating his own venue in the former Greyhound Bus Depot—now the Pub Station.
Wagers reemerged on the music scene about the time Lynch was booking bands at the Railyard, circa 2010. The show that made Wagers determined to photograph music was one of those mystical unicorn shows that you hear about and think, “Did that really happen in Billings?” If you were fortunate enough to be at this show, you’ll no doubt recall that it was mesmerizing, jaw-dropping.
The band was Russian Circles, a three-piece instrumental rock/metal band from Chicago. They put out a wall of sound so thick you could almost lean against it.
Wagers was so excited to see Russian Circles, he got to the venue early and was able to meet the band and buy them beers.
“Afterward, the one thing I really regretted is that I never took photos of their show,” he said.
The next concert Wagers attended, he grabbed his camera. It was the first time he got the chance to see local band The Forestry perform. Front man Guthrie Brown was just 17 at the time, blasting out an angsty tunes seemingly lifted from the margins of high school notebooks.
In late 2010 and early 2011, Billings music had a young face. Local music was fresh, ballsy and bold. Around this same time, Maxie Ford grabbed the music scene and gave it a good shake. An all-female group about the same age as the boys in The Forestry, these girls—fronted by Katy Kemmick—came out swinging guitars, trumpet, bass, keyboards and a tap-dancing percussionist. The scene seemed to be electrified.
“In terms of local talent, there had been this whole renaissance that had taken place,” Wagers said. “There were just a lot of very talented people performing on a regular basis, people of all ages.”
Some of the earlier music scene pioneers were also reconnecting. Steve Brown, guitarist and founding member of Tyler Burnett, had recently returned from California and founded a group called Sons of Billings with former band mate Pat Epley on drums and guitarist Matt Rogers (Rogers was just 15 when he took the stage with Tyler Burnett at Magic City Blues in 2005).
During that time period, roving musician David Cleaves stopped in town and began to frequent music circles, also joining Sons of Billings. The summer of 2011 Brown hosted Montana After Dark downtown at the Stillwater Stage adjacent to McCormick Café.
“During that time period, local music just took off and expanded,” Wagers recalled. “Before, that you would have people looking down their nose at Billings for being a cultural wasteland. Today, I would argue that the music scene in Billings has surpassed anything Bozeman and Missoula could ever hope to have.”
Mandolin player David Cleaves.
This scene unfolds in Wagers’ images. Reid Perry, just 18 when he started playing, seems unusually young. Alex Nauman, a staple of the Billings scene, can be seen developing his niche with Parker Brown. Wes Urbaniak’s bold smile, Jessica Lechner’s radiating sounds, the family ties of the Kemmicks—all are captured in still moments.
What is most striking about Wagers’ images is the diversity of subjects. There doesn’t seem to be a local musician that Wagers hasn’t photographed. His images cover a vast swath of local bands while also focusing on individuals.
Wagers’ images seem to embody the heart of many musicians: the tilt of head or smile from stage at a receptive audience, the expressiveness of a croon, the open-mouth belt at a song’s peak. They give a glimpse into the connection musicians build with audiences and the on-stage collaboration they create.
Images are mixtures of color and black-and-white, highlighted in bright stage lights or by natural, filtering light. Wagers said his talent over the years has improved, and he’s started shooting almost exclusively in black-and-white.
This trend started at a show by local band No Cigar at the Railyard, one of the city’s more poorly lit venues—for good photography anyway. He had to convert his images to black-and-white to make them viable.
“I liked the way it turned out,” Wagers said. The gritty black-and-white images reminded him of the photos of bands in dingy clubs featured in music magazines he would read as a kid.
“I just thought that was the greatest thing on the face of the earth,” Wagers said. It was the late ’70s and the punk scene was just starting to emerge in London and New York City. “I felt like I was able to re-create some of those old photos.”
Wagers found he enjoyed the dynamics of light and shadow and the contrast that black-and-white photography offers.
“As a photographer, I like to be challenged,” he said. “To me, black-and-white is the most challenging of the forms of photography.”
To shoot in black-and-white, Wagers must think about the world in black-and-white. “It is a whole different way of perceiving your surroundings,” he said.
Wagers’ most recent images are moving toward extreme darkness, with the artist seemingly emerging from the shadows. He tries to do as much of this as possible with the camera, instead of relying on post-processing. He doesn’t even own Photoshop.
There are times when Wagers wants to put the camera down and just listen to the music, “but I can only do that or so long before I feel that I have to get up and take more photos. These moments will never come back again.”