I don't remember the first band I saw at the Top Hat. All I remember is that I was an 18-year-old newbie to Missoula, I danced my lily-white ass off, and I went back to my dorm room covered in sweat and smelling like somebody coughed up a pack of cigarettes all over me. I used the same early arrival, backdoor entry technique (sorry kids, but they've wised up to that trick since then) to see countless bands in the years before I reached legal drinking age.
The changes the Garr family made to their father's bar over the past few years have been dramatic. This year, the dance floor was again expanded and a cozy smoking patio added in the back alley. The bar filled up early for First Friday DIY Bazaars and basement galleries—including an exhibition of the family's collection of Jay Rummel works.
The focus, though, remained on the music, and some of the year's best shows were at the Top Hat. Lynx spun a seductive web of exotic electronic noises for the Pisces party in March. Charlie Parr's possessed, soul-baring moans made the entire audience hold their breath in rapt attention one moment and stomp through the soles of their shoes at another. The Melvins' September stop on their world-record tour was too short for the ticket price, but remained the heaviest, loudest show I've ever seen in that venue.
The Garrs sold the Top Hat to an entrepreneur named Nick Checota this fall, who closed the bar in November for renovations. My band, Dodgy Mountain Men, was privileged to play the closing "Clear the Kegs" party, an event that stands out as one of the best nights of my life. Over 700 people came through the door to dance, drink and catch a final glimpse of the end of an era for the iconic bar. Tap lines ran dry early on but people stayed to soak up every last moment. The view from the stage—the sweat and smiles of the people that have defined the venue's character over the years—was exhilarating. Tobacco-stained sentimentality and far-flung rumors about the proposed remodel aside, if that same spirit filters back through the doors in March to support live music, the heart and soul of the Top Hat will remain alive and well.