Two years ago, the inaugural affair of what its designers unabashedly intended to become the signature annual event of the city was all but washed away by a freak cold front and meager attendance. One year later, a confluence of warm skies, an expanded schedule and a music lineup topped by Missoula’s adopted sons The Gourds proved its originators soothsayers: “When they played ‘How Will You Shine,’ I was on top of the parking garage, looking down at thousands of people dancing in the streets,” says Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association (MDA), “and I thought, ‘Wow, I guess we’ve arrived.’”
The River City Roots Festival, on the cusp of its third year, is a two-day summer street carnival of music, art and family fun, and MDA is its driving force, though McCarthy is quick to credit the event’s many business sponsors, who essentially foot the bill for a concert schedule of impressive caliber.
“If they don’t do what they do, there’s no way we can make it free to the public,” McCarthy says.
This year, the main stage on W. Main Street will showcase 11 acts over two days. The super-tight Emmitt-Nershi Band (the two heads of this beast being founding members of Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, two of the seminal slamgrass/calypsofunk/zyderock jam bands that arose from the Boulder, Colo., area in the late ’80s and early ’90s) headlines Saturday night and Canadian Celtic jam band The Clumsy Lovers on Sunday night.
Adding to the jam band jamboree is Great American Taxi, another highly regarded project with roots that also reach back to Leftover Salmon. Hewing to a more traditional genre will be Martha Scanlan & The Stewart Brothers. Now a part-time resident of western Montana, Scanlan fronted the lauded old-time string band The Reeltime Travelers for six years, playing in front of audiences at the Grand Ole Opry and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, among others. Rounding out the national acts is the South Austin Jug Band, a burgeoning ensemble that takes a laidback—though by no means lazy—groove to the progressive acoustic genre. An intriguing sound to be sure, and compelling enough to get the band noticed in their titular city—a feat akin to, say, a Western writer emerging from the swollen ranks of Missoula scribes.
A roots festival without a healthy representation of local acts wouldn’t be worth the dirt it was planted in, and RCRF has that angle covered in spades. Garden City troubadour David Boone finds a spot alongside Tom Catmull & the Clerics, the quickly evolving muscular sound of the Mike Bader Blues Band, the sibling harmonies and modern bluegrass of Broken Valley Roadshow, and the horn-driven funk of Reverend Slanky, winner of this year’s “Montana Band of the Year” competition.
Though live music is the signature feature of this signature event—McCarthy emphasizes that organizers felt it crucial to locate the stage out in the street, to get people dancing and to stamp the festival with a distinctly different feel than shows at nearby Caras Park—it is far from its only attraction.
This year, 24 artists have submitted works to the juried art show, located in the Central Square parking lot. The Montana Repertory Theatre will send a troupe out for live street theater. Fourteen food and beverage vendors will ply their trade in a corridor lining Ryman Street (the only component of RCRF that requires money), and the city again will kindly lift its open-container ban to allow the consumption of adult beverages in close proximity to Johnny Law. Those libations, by the way, will be served in reusable “signature” cups this year, in an effort to reduce the festival’s waste.
And parents, make sure your kids get plenty of rest prior to the weekend, as the Children’s Fun Festival slated for Caras Park will keep everyone from toddlers to teenagers running and gunning on both days. The folks at the university’s SpectrUM Science program will present shows and learning displays, including an innovative series of Weather Watcher exhibits, and Sunday’s schedule includes a children’s talent show. Other hands-on activities will include dance, gymnastics, computer activities, a climbing wall, tie-dyeing, a youth band showcase and a chance to rub paws with Monte the Bear, among a host of other events.
McCarthy says the “River City” component of the festival name is a specific nod to the growth MDA sees along the river corridor, and she names MOBASH Skatepark, Brennan’s Wave, Currents Aquatics Center and the Osprey ballpark as evidence of the city’s newfound identification with the river. As such, there are several tangential events to RCRF along the Clark Fork, including a skate demo at MOBASH and the Island Surf Invitational at Brennan’s Wave.
Finally, a four-mile run/walk that loops between downtown and Greenough Park on Sunday morning will provide an outlet for casual strollers and endorphin junkies alike.
In a festival designed to celebrate Missoula’s roots, though, perhaps the biggest coup of all is the CD release party of the best Missoula band you’ve likely never heard. The Snake River Outlaws were a pure western honky-tonk foursome that played the Sunshine Bar, on the corner of Woody and Alder streets, almost every Saturday night in the early 1950s. They played the jukebox hits of Hank Snow, Gene Autry and Lefty Frizzell, along with a mix of original tunes, and a recently uncovered cache of recordings from the Sunshine brings vibrant life to the Outlaws’ ripping radio shows, complete with announcements for beer-drinking contests and guest appearances from a honey-throated part-time waitress renamed “Ruby, the Nightingale at Woody Street.”
Wylie and the Wild West—easily the most revered modern cowboy band—will be on hand to pay tribute to the Snake River Outlaws, in a show that will feature appearances from the two surviving members of the band. This is a flat-out gift from the past, and if you’ve got even a passing interest in Missoula history or legitimate honky-tonk, you’ve got no business letting this one pass by.
The River City Roots Festival runs Saturday, Aug. 23, from 10 AM to 10:30 PM and Sunday, Aug. 24, from 10 AM to 7:30 PM on W. Main Street. Free.