MUSICIAN Bob FitzGerald cherishes a memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu playing air guitar on stage as FitzGerald and his fellow performers sang the anti-apartheid anthem "Take the Barriers Down," a piece they wrote in honor of the South African Nobel laureate.
The anthem led The Montana Logging & Ballet Company, a political satire quartet based in Helena, to record an album benefiting Tutu's Metropolitan Humanitarian Aid Fund. Last year the archbishop reciprocated by flying direct from Cape Town to Helena, Mont., to attend a scholarship fund-raiser the group sponsored.
Tutu has become one of the most famous admirers of the group's 15-year mission to promote hope -- and social causes -- through comedy. As FitzGerald, a former political consultant, puts it, repeating the famous line, the aim of their show is "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
The Montana Logging & Ballet Company will perform at a fund-raiser for the Howard County Sexual Assault Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. Tickets for adults are $15, children under 12 are $7.50. For information, call 964-0504 or 992-0035.
The group formed 15 years ago when FitzGerald and his folk-singing partner, Rusty Harper, engineered an effective singing recruitment squad for Rocky Mountain College in Billings. It wasn't long before politicians and non-profit organizations began discovering the fund-raising talents of a group often referred to as "the singing cartoons."
In persuading Tutu to visit Helena, Montana Logging not only managed to raise $100,000 in scholarship funds earmarked for South Africans and Native Americans, but also persuaded legislators to finally designate Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday.
"For political satire and South African liberation theology to blend onstage in Helena, well, it doesn't get much better than that," FitzGerald says. "And it worked!"
The kind of group which wins humanitarian awards, The Montana Logging & Ballet Company consists of musicians who hold other full-time jobs. FitzGerald works for U.S. Windpower, a San Francisco company which sets up windmill plants, and also serves as agent for sculptor and band member Tim Holmes. Steve Garnass-Holmes, Tim's brother, is a United Methodist minster. Rusty Harper works as planning and bureau chief for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
The show, usually a little more than an hour, includes 16 to 18 songs with guitar, banjo and harmonica accompaniment. FitzGerald says the Ellicott City concert will contain certain general skits such as signing for the politically impaired and a slow motion presentation of how the federal deficit works. The group also works up highly topical material; a year ago, one of their most popular pieces was "Who's So Dumb as to Like Saddam -- Certainly No One Hussein." Members meet before each show to work in some of that day's political material.
The group's name hails from a comic brainstorming session on the state's most famous export.
"Our name gives us permission to do anything," FitzGerald says. "What we have found through our singing is that people want to have some reason for living, and it works out that the reason is hope that life is going to get better somehow. We try to knock people off their compulsive, moderate center."