Thursday, April 18, 2024

Behind the open mic

| February 11, 2024 12:00 AM

It’s Grammy night, and the show must go on — the open mic at Bias Brewing, that is.

Now a weekly event, the all-comers confab traces its roots to about six years ago, when emcee-organizer Colton Christensen worked at a Whitefish restaurant.

“They said, ‘You should host an open mic here,’” Christensen remembers. “I said, ‘Really?’”

At one point he managed three open mics before Covid hit. Now he hosts just the one at Bias, one of three gigs that make up his full-time pursuit of music. Christensen also plays shows around the valley — solo and in the band Lacoro — and works as a crew runner for Wachholz College Center at Flathead Valley Community College. 

Christensen, 31, grew up in a family with 13 siblings. They moved to Montana from Utah when he was 8. A few years later he inherited a nylon string guitar and then jumped into the local theater scene via Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre and Summer Playhouse. 

Christensen recalls his roles, such as Aslan in “Narnia” and Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” and gives credit: “Brach Thomson taught me how to act, how to sing.”

It shows in Christensen’s masterful management of a tradition that feeds Flathead Valley creatives and fills a void. “There’s nothing going on on Sundays, and Kalispell is in the middle of all the towns,” Christensen says, explaining why the open mic keeps growing.

One mid-January Sunday, the traffic slipped by outside in the snow while Christensen checked his notes. “I already got the two hours filled,” he said, although he welcomes walk-ins. People text him in advance for slots, and after lugging in equipment from his van, he makes an analog list of the lineup in a notebook while downing dinner from Heck’s Kitchen.

Christensen set the stage with a few originals, covers and the occasional kazoo solo, then introduced the first of about a dozen musicians. Comics and poets sometimes appear, too.

“It’s open to all styles of music,” Christensen said. “Punk, rock, folk — that’s what I love about it. I try to inspire artists to do their own stuff.” Adjusting the mic height for each performer and even loaning instruments, Christensen then sits nearby: “I’m focused on the time slots and the sound board.” His laserlike attention to the artists stands out, something that doesn’t always happen with other open mics.

Many performers kept their knit hats on, but the music warmed us. Whether folky mandolin, a Billy Idol cover, “revenge-y” bluegrass, a wishful “Summertime” or ethereal vocals over melancholic strumming, the mix offered something for everyone. Jenny Bevill, of the bluegrass murder ballads, said, “I’ve been coming almost every week for three years,” encouraged in part by Christensen’s supportive presence: “You can see he’s really into it.”

Songwriter Oatie Baer followed with confident originals, then turned to Christensen. “I’m really appreciative you put this on every week,” he said. “This is my church.”

Several weeks later some of the same performers return, many “to get reps in” on newer material. After his set, Cody Robinson hands back the loaner guitar to Christensen and calls him out to the crowd: “This is the hardest working man in local music. Thank you, Colton.”

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at