Prairie Lights: A town on the move, a night to remember

The Last Best News fundraising party Saturday night was a success by any measure.

The music was varied, beautiful and superb, the crowd was large and enthusiastic and the weather was better than we could possibly have hoped for. We also made some money, which the IRS will be very pleased to hear.

The really amazing part of the night, though, was that it wasn’t just about Last Best News, but about this community of good people and good work that is constantly evolving and taking shape, even in the face of occasional setbacks.

About midway through the party last night, George Moncure, Scot Ninnemann and Alex Nauman took the stage to share some good news.

George is the owner of the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., whose Garage Pub was the setting for last night’s soiree. Scot is a local musician who for years has helped to organize the Magic City Music Awards, formerly sponsored by The Billings Outpost and for the past two years by Last Best News.

Alex is the guitarist and enthusiastic jazz ambassador who is also involved with Amp Camp, a rhythm section workshop for young musicians offered during the summer by Alex and some other talented Billings musicians.

Besides recognizing the best people on the Billings music scene, the Magic City Music Awards also donates a portion of the bash’s proceeds to a worthy cause each year. This year, Alex was given $500 to provide scholarships to kids who can’t afford the full price of Amp Camp.

I was on stage with Alex, Scot and George as a representative of Last Best News, but all the work was theirs — George for having created, in the Garage Pub, the beating heart of the city’s musical life; Scot for carrying the music awards forward, doing so much to sustain musicians and build support for local music; Alex for being Alex, without whom it’s hard to imagine a Billings music scene at all.

So there was that, during last night’s party. Immediately after our party, just a few blocks away on Montana Avenue, there was another fundraiser, this one for a project of such importance that it made the mere provision of local independent news seem rather paltry.

This fundraiser, at Craft Local, was to support Jessica Jane Hart, a native of Billings who will be traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo next month to make a video of the work Kaori Fujii is doing with the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra for Fujii’s nonprofit organization, Music Beyond.

Jessica teared up, as did many in her audience, as she described the horrendous living conditions in Kinshasa, the poverty, violence and despair — and how much it means to bring the gift of great music to such a place. Jessica will be traveling to Kinshasa with Tarek Fouda, who, with Jessica, Stan Parker and Pete Tolton, created “Makoshika,” a justly acclaimed documentary on the Bakken oil boom.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

During Ryan Kabeary’s performance at the Last Best News fundraiser, his wife, Anna, held his biggest fan, daughter Ava.

Jessica’s fundraiser included all sorts of live music, some of which I missed because I was still at the Garage Pub, tying up loose ends. But I had the pleasure of hearing Tarek, her collaborator, do a solo piano piece by Rachmaninoff. Did I mention how much I love this town?

Craft Local, meanwhile, is a new nonprofit performance space that is quickly becoming, in its own way, a gathering spot that feels as genuine and welcoming as the Garage Pub.

So, yes, last night was a success not just for Last Best News but for Billings, and especially for downtown Billings. We all needed a boost in the wake of the loss of the Good Earth Market, a cooperative grocery store whose final member meeting was on Thursday, when the decision to dissolve the co-op was made official.

Sad as it was, everything that happened last night reminded us that that is the nature of life. Things come into being, flourish for a while and then pass away, and other things take their place. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back, but sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, and then forward again.

Last night, it felt like many steps forward, with the wind at our backs.

Details: At the risk of leaving someone out, let me give thanks to all the people who made last night so memorable: musicians Jessica Lechner, A.J. Sheble, Grant Jones, Phil Griffin, Keller Paulson, Ryan Kabeary, Lauren Carr, Ron Schuster, Pat Rogers, Bob Brown and John Kemmick.

Thanks to Chuck Bishop for making us all sound good, to Whitney Gum and Hayley Kemmick for working the door, to Lisa Kemmick for the baked treats, to Brad Edwards for stepping in to flip burgers after our food truck canceled (and for being one of the best jazz drummers anywhere).

Thanks to George Moncure for the Garage Pub, and to all his dedicated people, particularly Anna Paige, who must have poured 500 beers last night, and who herself is a vital part of the cultural scene in our thriving little burg.

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