'Small riot' emerges from float trip down Colorado River
District engineers Bala, Jones rediscover love for music,
form Pocatello band 'Bender'
Good friends, a warm campfire and the rolling Colorado River. Is there a better environment for rediscovering yourself and reviving passions of the past?
Ed Bala and Dave Jones would argue no.
'We’re more of a small riot. We’re like a small corporation that runs more like a Greek democracy.'
Somewhere in their pursuit of engineering careers, raising families and the busyness of life, Bala and Jones parted ways with the music they once loved. High school band faded into distant memory. Instruments collected dust.
Until their 2003 trip into the heart of the Grand Canyon.
As they relished a good meal in the pristine setting after a day on the rapids, Jones brought out a guitar and started massaging the strings. Melody and harmony followed. And music, long lost, was reborn.
Bala and Jones traveled strangely similar paths to the musical resurrection.
Ed, the elder of the two, played his way through college – to an engineering degree from the University of Idaho in 1981. After a few years in California, he returned to accept a position with the Idaho Transportation Department’s District 6 office in Rigby. Music was an unintended casualty.
Dave, a few years behind, also earned an engineering degree from the University of Idaho and also accepted a job at ITD’s District 6. He played a half-dozen instruments in high school, including brass and strings. But they too were unintended casualties of professional pursuits.
A resident engineer for ITD, Ed wanted a position in construction but was assigned to highway design; Dave was assigned to design, but really wanted a position in construction. Both lived in Idaho Falls and carpooled together to their jobs in Rigby. Both followed career paths that led them to become district engineers – Ed in District 5 and Dave in District 3, separated by about 230 miles.
But they remained close friends and often assembled for summer whitewater rafting trips. It was a memorable trip in 2003 that allowed their past to reconnect with their present. As they sang familiar tunes next to the campfire they agreed to start playing on a regular basis.
Informal jam sessions ensued.
What began as a duo escalated into a band of local musicians (plus the commuting Jones) who deliver an eclectic mix of music styles to stages around Pocatello. The lone outsider from Boise regularly travels to southeast Idaho to perform as part of the group "Bender" that Bala formed in the fall of 2007.
The title "Bender" may have evolved from the robot in the cartoon Futurama. Or it might refer to what you do with guitar strings. Or it could be related to what happens when you’ve consumed too much alcohol. Take your pick, Bala suggests.
“We’re more of a small riot,” he explains. “We’re like a small corporation that runs more like a Greek democracy.”
The group includes:
Ken Aho, guitar and vocalist, a biology instructor at Idaho State University during the day
Will Peterson, also a guitarist and vocalist, who owns a Pocatello bookstore
Rick Williams, a banjo player, who also teaches biology at ISU
Dan Lauer, harmonica, a library teacher in American Falls
T.J. Latour, congas and percussion, who is an independent tile contractor and part-time operations manager at Grand Targhee Resort
Their favorite venue is Portneuf Valley Brewing, a micro brewery/pub/restaurant in Pocatello. It has a small stage, a good sound system and appreciative crowds. “We all really like that place a lot,” Bala says.
Jones makes the trip to Pocatello two or three times a month, good weather or bad, to join his Bender counterparts. He plays a lap steel guitar that he made of maple.
No retirement plan
An evening performance nets a paycheck of about $300 – split seven ways.
“It’s no way to make a living... “ Bala says. “Bender exists to have fun. At this point in our lives, no one’s trying to pay bills. There’s just something satisfying about writing a song, pulling it together and playing it. You do it for the love of music and because it’s fun.”
Most of the “gigs” are in local bars, although Bender has played in festivals such as First Friday and Art Walk, and at Pebble Creek.
“We went on a road trip once,” Bala recalls, “all the way to Inkom.” That’s a drive of about 20 minutes south of Pocatello.
On a typical night, the band will play for three or four hours and include 30-35 songs, about half of which are written by band members. Aho, Peterson and Bala produce most of the original music.
“We don’t know what we want to sound like,” Bala says. “Reggae, Roots, Blues, originals… We’re just all over the map (figuratively and literally). For some reason, audiences really seem to love it.
“We try to stay away from songs people are familiar with.” More notable exceptions to the homemade tunes include: Stir it Up (Bob Marley and the Wailers), Knockin on Heaven’s Door, Forever Young, Friend of the Devil and Got My Mojo Workin.
“We’re just doing this to amuse ourselves,” Jones explains. “We’re not writing to perform it; we’re just doing it for the sheer joy. But there must be something to it or the bars in Pocatello wouldn’t keep asking us back.”
Jones and Bala collaborated to produce a CD of about 12 songs… but it wasn’t widely distributed. Recorded in their homes, the CD was given as a Christmas present to friends. They spent months writing songs and exchanging them on portable USB computer drives.
Another CD might be in the future, but there is no schedule and no guarantee.
“The reward for me,” Jones explains, “is to take something that’s an idea – a melody you have – and bring it to life. “
Reward for Bender comes in the form of loyal audiences who continue to turn out for one of the Pocatello gigs. If people hang around until the band is done playing and exit en mass afterward, that’s a measure of support.
That and $300 for a night of fun.