Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band Rock Mt. St. Helens!

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Benjamin Verdoes / Photo by Alex Crick
WRITTEN BY
Jonathan Cunningham

On Saturday night, Seattle indie rockers Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band captured a rare piece of rock history by becoming the first band in the continental U.S. to ever play on an active volcano. The fact that the quintet played the volcano in which they take their name, Washington State's Mt. St. Helens, made the performance even more unusual as they treated fans/hikers/mountaineers/park rangers to an hour-long set of brand new tracks and favorites from their self-titled debut.

So how does a band get to play such a dramatic venue? Well, after the folks at the Mt. St. Helens Institute learned of the five-piece band several months ago, they asked them to play a benefit show at the volcano which famously erupted on May 18, 1980. The band graciously accepted and on Saturday night they dove into one lava-hot set.

But first you have to get there -- and that's a journey in itself. A three-hour drive south of Seattle, the Johnston Ridge Observatory where the band played sits at just over 4,300 feet, directly across from the eviscerated volcano. The band didn't have to haul all of their gear up on foot -- you can drive straight to the observatory -- but they did take a guided two-hour hike before the show and learned the history of the blast zone where all plant life was totally wiped out, but has now started to flourish again.

After signing a few autographs for devoted fans, lead singer Benjamin Verdoes and Co. didn't waste anytime jumping into crowd favorite "Who's Asking," the first song off of their celebrated album from earlier this year. The band's 14-year-old drummer, Marshall Verdoes, was notably relaxed and didn't seem the least bit rattled by the mountainous challenge. As his older brother stated in between songs: "Who knew that when Marshall came up with this crazy band name when he was 11, one day we'd actually get a chance to play here?"

As the two Verdoes brothers kept the groove steady, fellow bandmates Jared Price (bass), Traci Eggleston (keys/vocals), and Matt Dammer (guitar/moog) handled the more quirky, esoteric sounds that give MHSVB their signature feel. After finishing the guitar heavy "Masquerade," Eggleston (who is married to Benjamin) announced to the crowd that the group would be playing two new songs: "George Clark," an upbeat rocker with a seemingly looping guitar riff and the more delicate "At Night." Appropriately for the setting, the latter began with the sound of crickets, bugs, and other insect noises, before Price used a rewired telephone receiver as a microphone.

In total, MSHVB played four songs slated for their yet-to-be-named 2010 release. Still, they sounded at their best on older tunes like "Anchors Dropped" and "En Fuego," two songs full of complex song structure and playful chord changes that had audience members singing one minute and dancing the next. By the time they launched into "Albatross Albatross Albatross," the hardest rocking tune of the night, everyone seemed to be fully grasping the unique event. Remember, playing at an observatory above the clouds with the foggy backdrop of an erupted volcano in full view isn't the typical concert setting and it gave the night a mystical sense.

The best part of the whole damn surreal excursion: Well, according to the band, it was getting to see beaver dams, hold baby frogs, hunt for salamanders, and trek through the heart of the Cascade Mountains. Hell, the group loved it so much they even decided to camp overnight.

MSHVB are slated to play Seattle's Bumbershoot festival over Labor Day weekend, and then start a nationwide tour with Vancouver, BC's Japandroids.

Setlist:
"Who's Asking"
"Cheer For Fate"
"Masquerade"
"Going on a Hunt"
"George Clark"
"A Year or Two"
"At Night"
"Dull Reason"
"Hurrah"
"Anchors Dropped"
"Where the Messengers Meet"
"En Fuego"
"Albatross Albatross Albatross"
"On the Collar"

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