“Shut up, dude, I’m trying to listen to your song,” a friend said as we were taking a seat at the Gem Theatre in Wibaux.
An extension of the Beaver Creek Brewery, the Gem is host to fine dining and an impressive stage setup. On this particular night, the band belonged to brewery co-owner Jim Devine. At 6-foot-6, his friends have been known to call him “Mighty Big,” a nickname he also uses for his band, Mighty Big Jim and the Tall Boys.
Since we met in 2009, Jim and I have written a number of songs together, and his band put seven of them on their self-titled debut album. They were just getting started, playing the album in its entirety, starting with “Dyin’ Town,” when I walked in the door.
My friends at the table were getting into it, and so was I, losing myself in the dark groove of the song, thinking back to when we wrote on a cold January night in Lewistown three years earlier.
“That was one of the worst drives I’ve ever done,” Jim said. “The roads were shit, but, if I had bailed, we wouldn’t have those songs, Chuck.”
Another song that came out of that weekend was “Beaten Down By Love,” a cryptic, captivating heartbreak ballad that’s also on the MBJ album.
This one also caught my friend’s attention.
“What’s this one about?” he asked.
“It’s about my friend getting his heart broken in Memphis,” I said. “I hate Memphis.”
MBJ and the Tall Boys did the song justice. On the album, it’s Jim’s best vocal performance, and Casey’s solo is ridiculous in all the right ways.
Good to be home
Returning to the brewery for the first time in more than a year, one of the first things that struck me was how much the band had grown. Casey Malkuch, lead guitarist and vocalist, had never sounded better. Same goes for Jim, who also happens to be co-owner of the brewery and theater.
Drummer Jayson Eslick and bassist Jon Redlin were also outstanding, keeping the beat while also adding personal flair over flavorful fills. They were in the pocket.
Katelynne Eslick, Jayson’s wife, excelled with her background vocals, stealing the show when it was her time to shine on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the band’s newest original, “Take My Pain Away,” which she co-wrote with the guys in Nashville.
Katelynne, known best as “Princess Kate,” is surrounded by family in the band. In addition to her husband being in the group, her father, Jamie Sharples, plays keys and organ. When they played The Band’s “The Weight,” he practically brought the house down, building the song up and giving it a “Highway 61 Revisited” edge.
Versatile, talented and entertaining, Mighty Big Jim and the Tall Boys are exactly what you want for a house band. In a town of 600 just miles out from the North Dakota border, they’re especially rare, and, on Feb. 17, they were very much appreciated.
“It’s awesome to see so many people out,” Jim said. “We should release a CD every week.”
The 11-song album (tracked at the Gem and mastered in Los Angeles) is almost all original, with the exception of “Jolene.”
At the release party, as I said, they played every song on the CD. Playing this many originals in Eastern Montana doesn’t happen very often—unless you’re a national act selling tickets—but MBJ and the Tall Boys had the crowd with them from start to finish as they rocked out to “Memphis,” got down to the Wibaux funk on “Get it Right,” felt the easy groove of “Riverwalk (the album version features Beach Boys session musician Randy Leago on sax),” tripped to a Jerry Garcia-guitar inspired “Wrong Side of Town” and shared a moment of reflection and hope with the heartbreaking yet optimistic “Without You Here.”
Being there for the show I was met with a sense of overwhelming pride. I was especially touched by the renditions of the songs Jim and I wrote together. Often I was struck with goosebumps, nodding my head and grinning.
I stopped talking and let the music take me away, or take me back to when the songs were merely ideas. Now they become something more, something greater, and I dug it.
So did my friend.
“Nice song, dude,” he said, bumping knuckles with me. We were in it together. It’s in these moments we realize why we write songs in the first place, and I’m excited to say there will be many more.
Charlie Denison is a reporter for the Lewistown News-Argus and a singer-songwriter and guitarist.