Get into the groove on 542
Story and photos by Travis Rambo
The highway began life as a muddy trail after Jack Post and his two partners from Sumas discovered gold on Bear Mountain, having traveled many weary miles on foot with the aid of only a single mule for their provisions.
The discovery of what became known as Lone Jack Mine led to the creation of a true American highway where one can still find the sort of mom-and-pop establishments common before the days of chain stores and fast food. As you head east, you can’t help but feel as if you were being transported back in time to roadside America when things moved a bit slower and people smiled a little more for seemingly no reason at all. Just like three friends finding the hidden mine of their dreams one sunny day over 100 years ago, anyone exploring this famous highway will likely discover something special waiting in the friendly, family-owned establishments dotted along the way – the live music of 542.
Il Caffe Rifugio. As cell phone service begins to fade, you’ll know you have begun this musical journey when Il Caffe Rifugio appears in the view. Owner Richard Balogh has been increasing the frequency and variety of live music at his restaurant with winter weekend performances, such as rock, blues and country band Raintown, to the regular monthly appearance of well-known local dance band bandZandt.
Once the weather warms up, performances will be held in the newly built outdoor pavilion. With ample seating, music lovers will find themselves surrounded by natural beauty, fine dining with creative comfort cuisine and a wonderful wine and beer selection. Il Caffe Rifugio, ilcafferifugio.com, 5415 Mt. Baker Highway, Deming, 360/592-2888.
Slide Mountain Bar and Grill. The next stop along music highway is the weekend evening music at the newly renovated Slide Mountain. Saturday nights feature jazz, blues and rock with an occasional open mic. Owner Timmer Moore, who also serves as head chef, has really upped the game at what was already a lively and welcoming place to get American-style food, such as prime rib, with inventive and flavorful twists. Outdoor seating in the summer months and cozy, family-style seating in the winter, Slide Mountain is a great place to enjoy some local music and grab a favorite mixed drink or beer. Slide Mountain, 7141 Mt. Baker Highway, Maple Falls, 360/656-5833.
Graham’s Restaurant. The most historic and musically diverse establishment on music highway is, without doubt, Graham’s Restaurant. The building was first turned into a bar in 1908 and, with appearances from Clark Gable and Loretta Young in 1935 and Robert DeNiro’s birthday bash while filming “The Deer Hunter,” you just never quite know what to expect when walking into this little gem of highway nostalgia. Graham’s has recently taken a rather musical turn with new owner Katie O’Connell bringing her lifelong passion for live music to the town she finally calls home, after a lifetime of traveling throughout the U.S. in search of the next best live performance.
“I decided from the second I became the owner at Graham’s that it would be a chance for me to bring everything I enjoy about live music to the people of Glacier,” Katie said, as she prepared for the arrival of bluegrass legends Danny Barnes and Matt Sircely. As the evening advanced, the crowd swelled and some of the most incredibly fast and fun picking and singing ensued while the dance floor grew crowded, dancers whooping it up as they went.
At Graham’s, after the kitchen closes, the focus is on the music and nothing else. In this day of DJs and dubstep, you don’t find many places where people can really connect to the moment and take something away with them.
Although some of the acts, such as Bent Grass, have played at Graham’s longer than Katie has owned it, she hasn’t missed a beat – she’s still continuing their every-other-Thursday show that has gone on for more than 10 years.
“It’s really great that we’ve been able to keep the group together in one place for so many years because I still see faces in the crowd from all over the world that we saw stompin’ and dancin’ in the crowd 10 years ago,” said veteran Bent Grass band member Jeff Panko. “To me there is something pretty special to be said about a place that can make that happen.”
Bent Grass, who has also played regularly at The Green Frog and other venues in Bellingham, is a Glacier-based group, complete with washtub bass, mandolin, banjo, two guitars and song after song of beautiful vocal harmonies.
Every other Thursday opposite Bent Grass is Graham’s open mic night.
“We just bought a brand new sound system so all the musicians in the area without a band can come on out and find other people to jam with,” Katie said. “It’s been really fun and some of my favorite nights at the bar have been the open mic nights because everything just sort of happens spontaneously. It’s a perfect time to get your feet wet playing music, that’s for sure.” Katie smiled, and I asked her what she was smiling about.
“Talking about open mic just reminded me of probably the funniest act we’ve seen yet,” she said. “My most recent birthday happened to fall on a Tuesday, and the last song of the evening was “Happy Birthday” sung a capella by a shirtless version of the Glacier Men’s Choir. It was definitely a birthday serenade I will never forget, and I still laugh when I think about it. But hey, that’s Graham’s. You just never know what’s gonna happen.”
Types of music and showtimes can vary widely due to the huge variety of music Graham’s has throughout the week. Recently, for example, Skitnik provided the little mountain town of Glacier with a diverse, family friendly evening of magic, sword swallowing and Balkin- inspired music you just don’t get to see during your average night at the bar. The children were mesmerized as special guest Justincredible performed impossible feats to a background of beautiful and highly skilled ensembles. Minutes later the crowd was on its feet, with children, parents and random visitors alike, all dancing and clapping amongst the band. Wonderful moments like this along with an ever-changing lineup of bands makes Graham’s a must-see stop along the highway. Graham’s Restaurant, grahamsrestaurant.com, 9989 Mt. Baker Highway, Glacier, 360/599-3663.
Chair 9 Woodstone Pizza and Bar. Because accommodations can be tough, if not impossible, to find throughout most of the year in Glacier, the last, but certainly not least stop along this music highway is Chair 9 Woodstone Pizza and Bar. With its newly opened Blue-T Lodge (managed by Amber Hein), Chair 9 is one of the few, if not the only place in the entire area, to rent a single room for the night at a very reasonable price, with food, drinks and plenty of entertainment for the whole family right next door in their ski and snowboard-themed sports bar.
Just like its predecessor The Chandelier, Chair 9 is large and accommodating with an upper-level game area, wide screen wall projector and more booty-shaking live music happening than anywhere else. Pete Cook, an owner and the manager, has really taken pride in offering his customers live music three nights a week, even during the slower spring and fall seasons when there’s fewer tourists.
“I love having the ability to bring in music from all over as well as offer the local groups somewhere to play in front of new people,” Cook said. “We have dance-type bands Friday and Saturday nights and acoustic music for the entire family on Sunday evening, because I want all of our local residents, as well as our guests from Canada and everywhere else, to know there is always going to be something new and exciting to do at Chair 9 – even when some of the other places around here are closed for the slow season.”
The list of bands playing Chair 9 throughout the year is huge. You can find bands such as The Listers, Vaughn Kreestoe, Snug Harbor, Swift Creek Revival and Metalmücil, all very high energy, gotta go crazy and dance types of bands, with the occasional night of more relaxed bluegrass and jazz.
“I like to keep it diverse, but something about Chair 9 always makes people want to dance so I really try to focus on music that is upbeat and fun,” Cook said. “We’ve had everything from tasteful burlesque shows to thrash metal nights with local band Metalmücil and even a full costumed band at the Halloween party this year – Swift Creek came on stage dressed as the Muppets. It’s always going to be fun here at Chair 9, and music is always on the menu Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. That’s what we’re here to do.”
When asked what he enjoyed most about playing at Chair 9, Greg Bernier, guitarist for Metalmücil, replied, “We can be a pretty loud band at times, and we really like to get in to the music, so the overall size and large stage at Chair 9 lets us put on a show the way we like to, which is all about intensity.” Metalmücil, who just released their new album “Go Home,” recently added a new female bassist named Emily Hewitt to the mix of high energy, heavy rock. “I had never played much bass before joining Metalmücil,” Hewitt said. “I actually started music finger picking the classical guitar, so it’s really been a fun chance to just let loose and rock out with the guys.”
By day, Chair 9 provides locals and visitors with all the family style amenities one could hope for in a mountain town. Free WiFi and flat screen televisions galore playing all your favorite sports along with local art on every wall, it is a great place to sit on one of their comfy sofas and have a slice while watching the game, but as the music begins to move through the crowd and toes begin to tap, don’t be surprised to find yourself dancing the night away.
“It’s pretty funny how many times we’ve seen entire tables pay a bill and say they are leaving only to have them stick around for several more hours having a blast once the music starts,” Cook said. “That’s when you know there’s something more to it than just having all the good food, modern conveniences and a comfy place to sit. The music is what turns random customers into familiar faces and makes new friends out of complete strangers. To me, that is what owning a place like Chair 9 is all about.” Chair 9 Woodstone Pizza and Bar, chair9.com, 10459 Mt. Baker Highway, Glacier, 360/599-2511.
As the sun begins to fade and you feel that inner need for some high quality entertainment in your life, just take a drive down the beautiful Mt. Baker Highway. Whether you are looking for a scenic and culture-filled evening out with the entire family or just a late-night place to grab a drink and shake it, 542, the music highway, will always have what you’re looking for. X
Travis Rambo plays a variety of instruments with several different bands throughout Whatcom County. See him every Sunday evening playing guitar and singing at Chair 9 in Glacier. Visit him at facebook.com/musicbooking.