A stormy Tuesday night in March isn’t an ideal time to play live music in Missoula, but for those of us lucky enough to have made it to Suite Two on March 14, we were treated to a cozy, intimate experience with two singer-songwriters that I won’t forget anytime soon.
It was my first time visiting Suite Two, and I wasn't disappointed with the cozy basement atmosphere - complete with comfy couches, video displays and a welcoming staff. There's an edgy but familiar vibe that can only be described as crossing a DIY record store with your grandparents’ 1980s family room and for me, it totally worked.
First on stage that night was John Brownell, a Missoula-based musician who founded Submittable in his spare time. He warmed up the room with an easy charm onstage, seamlessly weaving in and out of smart, folky alt-pop songs, self-deprecating jokes and sweet anecdotes about his friends and family. For me, watching John perform solidified the nostalgia I was experiencing, like he was some long-lost favorite uncle who showed up to family dinner just to brighten the evening with a few songs.
John’s music, though, is anything but off-the-cuff. His new album, Let The Machines, is somewhat of a concept album, where John used his tech background to craft and teach an AI program to experiment in writing song lyrics, which he then used as prompts or portions of lyrics in about half the songs on the album. His goal was to see how far an app could go in helping with creativity and inspiration, and I was pretty impressed with the result. I couldn’t tell you which songs he played that night were AI-inspired and which weren’t, and I’m glad I couldn’t. The songs themselves were catchy, relatable and stood on their own as solid pieces of music that to me demand a wider audience. I’m excited to see what John Brownell brings to the Missoula music community in the future.
Speaking of bringing fun things into the Missoula community…. Charles Ellsworth, a touring musician currently from New York and formerly from everywhere else, was the night’s headliner. He brought along his dog Banjo as his companion for the tour, and Banjo was a Very. Good. Boy. His happy puppy personality kept him wandering through the room, getting pats and scratches from anyone who was willing (i.e. everyone who was in attendance). Even during these little excursions, though, his eyes stayed firmly glued to Charles, who Banjo is obviously head-over-tail in love with.
As Charles played and sang, Banjo mostly stayed dutifully (and sometimes dangerously) near his feet, only ever breaking away from the performance to satisfy his need for scratches from the audience, or to flop joyfully around on the couch - always keeping Charles solidly in his line of sight.
As Banjo made friends, Charles’ voice filled the room with a deep, soulful Americana sound that was equal parts blues, folk, country and just plain beautiful. His writing is insightful and far from cliche, and he delivers his songs in such a vulnerable and pastoral way that if you close your eyes, you could easily believe that you’re being privately serenaded in the middle of a golden Montana wheat field on a summer day.
Before the show, I’d learned that Charles had recently been robbed while touring through California and that it had been a devastating incident for him. But he didn’t want to talk much about that. He wanted to talk about his music, and how much he loves Montana, and his dog, and the merch his girlfriend had litho-printed for him, and how happy he was to be playing in a funky basement on a snowy Tuesday in March.
Even though his eyes betrayed him a little while he spoke of his love for these things, showing glimpses of the exhaustion of touring and setbacks hiding behind the smile lines in his face, he still lit up that cozy little venue like a string of Christmas lights, perfectly reflecting the same peculiar, vaguely familiar comfort that Suite Two offers its artists in return. You can check out some of John and Charles’ music at the links below.
Words and photos by Emily Lynn