Jackson Hole’s music scene returns from the beyond with Dead Lee, a Portland, Oregon, duo of Brian Koch and Kara Harris, set to start at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Silver Dollar Showroom at the Wort Hotel.
While most valley music venues remain as quiet as a grave, the Silver Dollar has been slowly reanimating with what its talent booker Justin Smith calls “Sit Down Get Downs.”
“The dance floor is closed,” he said, “but you can dance in your seats.”
Smith said Wort Hotel owner Bill Baxter has been itching to bring live music back to his spaces — he also owns the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where Smith also books musicians — but of course the challenge has been to do it safely.
“We have our tables all appropriately spaced, so we’re probably below half capacity,” Smith said. “But that’s just the safest, most responsible way to do this.”
To further promote healthy cultural consumption, the nightspot is aiming for a “chill vibe,” bringing in great musicians who people will be psyched to come out for, but smaller, more laid-back ensembles — soloists, duos and trios — to keep the scene simmering rather than boiling over.
Dead Lee seems made for such a post-COVID setting. Like the rest of the country, Koch and Harris have been reemerging slowly, playing a few “secret shows for small crowds” around Portland, Koch said. The pair’s Jackson visit is part of a short Northwest jaunt that will be their first such venture since the coronavirus broke loose. The Silver Dollar, Koch said, sounds like the perfect venue for Dead Lee at the moment.
Koch will be a familiar presence to Jackson Hole music fans. He has played drums for the gritty folk-rock unit Blitzen Trapper since its founding 20 years ago, and so has appeared on a few Jackson Hole stages in recent years. In addition to his seat behind the drum kit, Koch also has always played guitar and bass and sung, he said.
Harris has never been to Jackson — “I’m excited to see the Silver Dollar,” she said — but she has been involved in the West Coast music world for years. In Los Angeles she performed mostly as a solo singer-guitarist. It was there that, in search of a stage “gimmick” to stand out from the crowd, she started to dress like a ghost and sing old country and folk and call herself Dead Lee.
But Harris learned that not many people on the Sunset Strip wanted to listen to Dolly Parton and the like, so she moved to Portland.
“I thought, ‘If Blitzen Trapper can play folk Americana in Portland, then I can probably do it.’” She did not expect, however, to end up meeting Koch and moving in with him.
That development occurred in early 2018, Koch said. It didn’t take long for them to begin to make music and then to realize they loved singing and playing and harmonizing together. They played some house parties, tribute shows, small venues in and around the Rose City. 2018 turned out to be the first year since 2000 that Blitzen Trapper took a break from touring, and that opened the door for Koch and Harris to play together as much as they wanted. 2019 was a mellow year for the band, too, and then the coronavirus pandemic came along.
“So the door continues to open” for Dead Lee, Koch said. Or at least circumstances seem bent on keeping the two focused on that project.
Playing acoustic and electric guitars, the two harmonize on original tunes, which they both have written over the years, as well a wide-ranging list of covers.
“I don’t think we can get through a set without a Dolly Parton song,” Harris said, but they’ll also break out the Beatles, the Stones and other classic rockers.
“If we have enough liquor, maybe you’ll hear a Phil Collins song or Cyndi Lauper,” she said. “You might hear Brian sing ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’
“If we do a cover, it tends to be well known, but we like to put our own spin on it,” Koch said.
True to their name, their originals often have a haunted quality — ballads in which the narrator tries to offer some bit of sobering wisdom hard won through mistakes made and regretted — with a sense of danger and tragedy whispering in the corner.
“Brian contacted me,” Smith said, recounting how he was able to book Dead Lee for the Silver Dollar. “He totally realizes how the climate for live music is so different now. He realizes it’s a trickle approach. … They will put on a world-class show, but it’s more sit-down entertainment.”
Smith was proud to say that the Silver Dollar and the Cowboy Bar are among the first places in town — and maybe even in the nation — to be bringing back national touring acts. In addition to Dead Lee, that will include none other than The Oak Ridge Boys on July 13. The two popular nightspots have their music schedules pretty well fleshed out for June and July, with four, five or even six nights of acts each week.
“We’ve shown we can do this in a responsible way,” he said. “We’re sure not making any money. We’re doing it because we want to get musicians working and want to stay on the map for live music.” ￼