There was a time when the appearance of an iconic musician like Elton John would’ve ranked among the 11 most defining moments of the year, but we’re sort of past that point. If anything, 2007 seemed to be marked less by who came traveling through Missoula and more so by how the Missoula community distinguished itself from within. With that thought, we look at the outstanding events this year in local arts and entertainment.
The biggest impact on the local arts scene this year—and, arguably, over the past couple years—was the March opening of the Badlander and Palace Lounge. For too long, locals have lamented Missoula’s crippling lack of appropriate performance venues. Enter homegrown entrepreneurs and longtime scenesters Aaron Bolton, Scott McIntyre, Chris Henry and Mark McElroy, who purchased Hammer Jacks sports bar (also formally The Ritz) and opened it up as a veritable buffet of artistic and nightlife offerings. The nearly 30,000-square-foot, multi-roomed complex now books everything from First Friday art openings to political happy hours with free fried chicken. More than anything, the Badlander serves as a near nightly venue for local musicians and mid-size touring bands (who need local musicians to open for them), providing the most consistent schedule since Jay’s Upstairs closed four years ago—and trumping Jay’s tenfold in both variety and inclusiveness. Locally owned, committed to diversity, and already host to some of the most memorable nights of recent memory (Total Fest, Brother Ali and Talkdemonic, Halloween, KBGA’s birthday bash, etc.), the Badlander and Palace Lounge have quickly become cornerstones of Missoula’s proud arts scene.
Show us the money
It’s hard to settle on just one defining moment for the year-long—and still on-going—debate over whether Missoula should build a $60 million Performing Arts Center (PAC) at the corner of Orange and Front streets. But when City Council imposed a six-month deadline in February, essentially telling the PAC board to “show us the money” or risk losing a plum spot of donated downtown real estate, things got interesting. Heading into 2008, the PAC has yet to fully respond to Council’s concerns. In fact, the PAC board hasn’t quelled anyone’s doubts and done a lackluster job articulating its vision, consistently reacting to opponent’s criticisms rather than developing a proactive public campaign. Now community sentiment seems to be shifting decidedly anti-PAC. Either way, the resulting discourse over what this project would mean to Missoula—both positively and negatively—has been fascinating.
The inaugural 2006 River City Roots Festival literally drowned in insignificance after Mother Nature unleashed torrential rains that kept audiences home. But September’s second run dried up any lingering doubts when 10,000 revelers filled downtown, most flocking to the stage on Main Street for national acts like Hot Buttered Rum, The Mammals and The Gourds. Buoyed by this year’s success, the Missoula Downtown Association promises an even bigger weekend in 2008.
Big Sky’s big score
For one week every February, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival treats locals to the best worldwide offerings of the genre and provides an intimate opportunity to hobnob with the people who make the films. This year’s event took the latter to new levels with the appearance of Steve James. Arguably the most influential contemporary documentary filmmaker—his 1994 classic Hoop Dreams precipitated the influx of documentaries in mainstream theaters—James graciously slipped into the Big Sky vibe by being unfailingly accessible and spending hours casually talking with fans.
When news broke that Missoula’s venerable downtown bookstore, Fact & Fiction, was up for sale, local literati held their collective breath. Was this going to be another example of endemic erosion of Main Street U.S.A.? Hosanna, the UM Bookstore stepped up in November with a win-win purchase agreement. The downtown store will remain unchanged, and the F&F brand will now expand to campus and a new South Hills location.
There was one weekend in May when 13 of Missoula’s 16 first-run movie screens were dedicated to just three terrible films: Shrek the Third, Spiderman 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Welcome to the “magic” of Digital Light Projection, or digital movies, which have now replaced the reel-to-reel films once shown at our local Carmike 10 and Village 6. Carmike Cinemas, the national chain that owns both theaters, touts DLP’s improved quality and distribution. Detractors worry about an already monopolized industry further limiting our movie-going options. Whatever your opinion—we’d rather frequent the old-school Wilma, personally—DLP’s dramatically changed how and what most of Missoula sees at the movies.
Missoula lost a legend June 20 when internationally renowned ceramics pioneer and 28-year University of Montana professor Rudy Autio passed away from leukemia. As UM art history professor H. Rafael Chacón wrote in the Indy, “He was, after all, a humanist, a man who continued to explore while defying the most anarchical tenet of our age: that the value of modern art is directly proportional to its quotient of contemporary angst.” Autio was 80 years old.
Dance never gets much local attention, but for one week in March all eyes were on the University of Montana for the Northwest Regional Conference of the American College Dance Festival Association. More than 400 dancers from 26 universities—plus a contingent from Taiwan—represented the best of the best at the collegiate level. But the highlight was a kick-off concert by the festival’s world-class judges: David Dorfman, Allyson Green and internationally renowned Butoh-inspired mover Maureen Fleming. I’m burdened by bias—my wife is a dance professor at UM and helped coordinate the event—but anyone who witnessed Fleming’s 45-minute, three-act, fully nude, painstakingly gorgeous solo inside a sold-out University Theater, would agree this event belongs on this list.
Butorac takes the baton
In the 16-year history of the Indy, we’ve never written a feature-length article about the Missoula Symphony Orchestra—until this year. The symphony simply doesn’t scream alternative journalism. But there’s the promise of something different in the form of Darko Butorac, the affable, 30-year-old who was named MSO’s new music director in May. In just six months and three concerts, Butorac has infused MSO—and Missoula—with newfound energy.
Lolo resident James Lee Burke’s place in the local literary scene is well established, but the tireless crime fiction writer outdid himself with July’s post-post-Katrina novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown. Widely considered the author’s defining work, it shows he has no intention of slowing down any time soon.
It’s hard not to get that warm year-end nostalgia feeling when looking back at singer-songwriter David Boone’s implausibly benevolent, wildly ambitious October concert. Boone, a veteran of the coffeehouse circuit, is the sort who regularly draws at intimate venues like Liquid Planet and Shadows Keep. But for the release of his new, slickly produced album, A Tale of Gold, he decided to go big—really big. He secured the Wilma Theatre, compiled a 17-person band complete with string and horn sections, lined up two established opening acts, added a one-song modern dance performance, arranged a photography exhibit for the lobby and then had the heart to land a handful of corporate sponsors so he could donate all ticket proceeds to Mountain Home, a local charity helping young homeless mothers. Talk about goosebump moments: The sold-out show was more community rally than concert, a special affair that epitomized Missoula’s indelible creative spirit.