It’s hard to know when to anoint something or someone as the next big thing. Too early and the risk is a jinx, subjecting it or him or her to the weight of over-hyped expectations. Too late and you miss the ascent, the chance to witness success, to start sentences with “I was there when…” But with Missoula’s newest and most ambitious nightlife venue in decades—a sprawling, interconnected complex on the corner of Ryman and Broadway comprising the Badlander music club, the Palace DJ lounge and pool hall, and the Golden Rose Casino, as well as a half-dozen currently unused rooms and nooks—none of that matters. This thing is a beast, a work in progress, an anomaly that even the owners admit they’re not sure how to handle. Expectations? Meaning there’s actually something specific they’re aiming for? Who knows?
The only thing people agree on—owners, local promoters, regulars—is that there’s nothing else like it in town: a nearly 30,000-square-foot multi-use facility, with a liquor license, situated in the heart of downtown, run by four longtime friends and Missoula natives who are, most importantly, committed to the arts.
“I don’t think we even know what it can be yet,” says Chris Henry, one of the four owners charged with figuring it out. “I think we’re just beginning to see what works and what doesn’t, and to be honest I think it’s going to take a while to find the full potential.”
Since opening under new management in late March, there have already been nights that speak to the venue’s immediate promise: June 25, when reggae artist Eek-A-Mouse missed his flight to Missoula, leaving more than 200 fans and his back-up band (they drove) at the Badlander for what turned into an all-night free show; May 31 when popular novelty act Captured By Robots drew a sold-out crowd (capacity: 300); or perhaps the biggest night since they opened, June 2, when acclaimed MC Brother Ali sold out the Badlander upstairs and instrumental trip-rock duo Talkdemonic drew more than 150 to the Palace downstairs.
“If you look at our best nights so far—bluegrass, robot bands, hip-hop, rock—those have been our biggest nights and they’re all different styles that bring in all different sorts of people,” says Aaron Bolton, another owner. “I think that says a lot about what’s happening here.”
What makes the Badlander and Palace stand apart in Missoula is how the venues stack up against the city’s immediate past. There was a time when Brother Ali and Talkdemonic, for instance, would have struggled to find appropriate and available venues anywhere in Missoula, let alone under the same roof in the heart of downtown. For years, finding a reliable club willing to work with indie rock or hip-hop promoters was difficult, if not impossible. The last such venue was Jay’s Upstairs, which closed in October 2003, and which, frankly, even old-timers are sick of invoking. Ever since, nothing’s quite filled the void: the Blue Heron and Area 5/MARS closed, The Other Side is outside downtown, The Loft’s capacity is limited to 200 and goes weeks without bookings, the Top Hat mainly caters to a specific crunchy crowd, and the numerous other bars or cafes are markedly smaller than the Badlander. And then there was The Ritz, which, funnily enough, after closing in May 2005 and becoming Hammer Jacks sports bar, is now home to the Badlander.
“I think the one question I get the most is, ‘Is it going to be like the old Ritz?,’” says Bolton. “I answer by saying, ‘Yes and no.’ We understand the history, but I think it’ll be better.”
The history is keenly familiar to each of the new owners. Bolton, Scott McIntyre and Mark McElroy have been friends since attending Missoula’s Prescott Elementary School together. Henry met Bolton shortly after arriving in Missoula for college 14 years ago, and throughout their time at UM the pair’s off-campus residence became known for its house parties, attracting the nickname Badlander Social Club.
Henry was introduced to McIntyre and McElroy in 2000 and the group loosely discussed dreams of running a music venue or bar in Missoula someday. Fast forward to last year when McIntyre, then working in Chicago for a Romanian GPS manufacturer, heard a rumor from his cousin, Griz football player Shane McIntyre, that Hammer Jacks was for sale. Scott McIntyre and McElroy initiated the purchase, and when they learned of the size and scope of the venue, pulled in Bolton and Henry as partners. Originally, the group envisioned the Badlander as a European-styled sports bar or pub featuring televised rugby and soccer, and figured the Palace—which is now, incidentally, home to the original Badlander Social Club sound system—could be used for DJ nights and small concerts.
Then word spread of the new owners.
“There was so much hunger for a regular music venue, they probably had no choice but to buckle,” says local promoter Niki Payton, who’s helped book Total Fest VI at the Badlander and Palace in August. “I don’t know if it’s what they expected, but even promoters who don’t live in Missoula started calling. It was instantly the spot to book a show.”
And that was fine with the new owners.
“You go with what the demographic wants, and the overwhelming response was that people needed a good place for live music,” says Bolton. “We’re not resisting it.”
“We knew from the start that we had to do something unique to Missoula,” adds McIntyre. “It had to be something a little different, and whether that was an old-style pub or a place for live music, we’re going to stick with the idea that it has to be unique.”
So far that hasn’t been a problem. Nightly offerings at the Palace and Badlander—both furnished with plush secondhand couches and chairs—range from can’t-miss concerts to eccentric promotions like free fried chicken on Mondays. There are also multiple variety shows, open mic nights, an all-female DJ night, First Friday exhibits featuring organic hors d’oeuvres, political happy hour gatherings, and so on. The bottom line is something is happening every evening.
“We don’t want to force anything,” says Henry. “So we’ll continue to throw a lot of things out there and see what sticks. I bet half the stuff we’re doing now isn’t going to work, but a number of things will, and we’ll continue with those and then try more new things.”
What’s exciting is a lot of those things are already proving successful. While the owners may give off an air of Old School-inspired event planning, the reality is they understand the business. McIntyre, McElroy and Bolton cut their teeth working for years in the Seattle bar scene, and Henry has been a staple of the local music culture since he arrived. Plus, reliable cash flow from the neighboring Golden Rose Casino keeps the rest of the operation’s experiments solvent. The group talks openly about short-term and long-term renovations, remodels and new events. It’s a work in progress, they stress, and it will take time to evolve, but already they understand what the Badlander and Palace mean to Missoula nightlife.
“I don’t want to have any hubris because it’s still early,” says Henry. “I would call it a small revitalization, at the very least, of the scene, but nothing more. Not right now. If we keep working together and making changes, it could be a great thing. I mean, how many people under 50 do you know who own a bar in town and are committed to the arts? How many more people are going to invest in a liquor license downtown so they can host live music? This is a big opportunity and we get that. I think there’s a lot of good work we can do.”