Amping up 

Peter Pilkey hustles to keep the Bitterroot blues smokin’

Two years ago Peter Pilkey was living the typical retired life in Western Montana.

“I was fat and sassy, man—skiing, fishing and having a beer,” says the 63-year-old former high school soccer coach and lieutenant with the Seattle Fire Department. “I moved to the Bitterroot because it was kind of the last, best place—same as anyone, you know? Then one day, all of a sudden, I hear this guitar plunk that says if you play it, they will come.”

The plunk in Pilkey’s head was Beale St. blues, and he heard it while sipping his favorite India Pale Ale in the Bitterroot Brewery in Hamilton. Pilkey was bemoaning the shortage of quality music in the area—especially roots-driven blues—and figured if others wouldn’t bring his favorite musicians to town, then he’d find a way to do it himself. This basic premise, hatched naively in a brewery among friends, was the birth of the Bitterroot Smokin’ Blues Festival.

“I started it kind of on a whim,” he admits. “Really, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. At first, it was ‘we’ are going to do it, and then it was just ‘me.’ I don’t think people thought I was serious. I’m not kidding that it was kind of like Field of Dreams. A voice whispered in my ear, man—just play the music—and I had to do it. And, boy, did they come.”

When Pilkey acted on his inner B.B. King, he did so with no prior experience organizing or promoting live music. The result at last year’s inaugural festival was outstanding to those on the outside—it featured 17 acts in five venues, including a huge stage downtown on Main Street, and attracted thousands of spectators. But privately, Pilkey suffered enormous financial losses, struggling to overcome what he now considers “rookie mistakes.” The ordeal left him scrambling to pay musicians and vendors; in order to make good, Pilkey had to dip into his personal savings and refinance his house.

“It was all paid for. I lost a lot of money, but I paid for it,” he says. “I made a decision afterward and said to myself, ‘Hey bud, you can take your wounds and lick ’em, or, you know, this thing is worth saving.’ I think it’s worth saving. I’d put in too much to stop now.”

Pilkey’s story of jump-starting the Bitterroot Smokin’ Blues Festival is both ambitiously inspiring and dangerously cautionary. And despite last year’s expensive growing pains, the founder is confident that he’s learned his lessons, and that this year’s event will be a success on every level.

“People nationally are talking about it. They know that there’s a new blues festival, and they know it’s right here in Montana,” says Pilkey, rattling off a list of advance ticket orders from Southern California, Florida and throughout the Pacific Northwest. “I think we’ve figured things out. I know better now. We’re just now getting on the map and people are seeing what we’re about. This year it will work.”

To his credit, and despite last year’s monetary troubles, Pilkey didn’t cut corners when planning this Saturday’s second annual festival. The headlining act on the main outdoor stage is long-time blues stalwart Roomful of Blues, a constantly changing electric blues band that’s won five Grammy Awards since its inception in 1977. Also performing outside are Deborah Coleman, Daniel Castro and last year’s most popular performer, Nick Vigarino.

“Word got around last year—the musicians that played had a good time, knew that we were putting on a top-notch event, and they talked about it. That’s how we got Roomful of Blues—on a good reputation,” says Pilkey, noting that it’s the New England-based band’s only Western date over the summer.

In addition to the main stage, three local venues—the Rainbow Bar, Eagles Lodge and Silver Coin Casino—will showcase local performers, including John Floridis, Mike Bader, Full Grown Men, Greenhouse Effect, The Gorgeous Franks and Wang Bang Doodle.

“There’s just a lot of raw talent here,” says Pilkey. “You don’t always want that polished stuff, the cover songs all the time. I want the guts coming out on the street and the new, local energy. We’re showcasing them just like the national acts. All these local blues bands, we’re creating a scene for them. That’s very important to me and gets to the heart of why I’m doing this.”

Logistically, Pilkey has made changes to this year’s event to ensure he doesn’t repeat last year’s mistakes. He’s improved the ticketing services and security to ensure gatecrashers don’t get in (“I think the national sport of Hamilton is sneaking in,” he says) and shortened the day’s music (it starts at 4 p.m. instead of noon) to better showcase all of the bands.

“We’ve timed it so people can duck inside in between sets and catch the local acts while the main stagers are setting up,” he says.

Another major change is that the main stage will not be erected on Main St. At the request of the city of Hamilton, it has been moved one block over to Pinckney and 2nd St. to accommodate local stores. It’s an example, according to Pilkey, of how he thinks his festival will soon outgrow its current surroundings.

“I don’t think the city realized when I asked about doing this that I wanted it to grow into a major operation,” says Pilkey, who promotes the event through his corporation, Bitterroot Smokin’ Blues, Inc. “I think everyone assumes that when you do something like this it’s a small, non-profit thing. Well, this place is non-profited to death. Right now I am definitely a non-profit, but not like that—we just haven’t made money yet.”

In fact, when Pilkey talks about the future of the Bitterroot Smokin’ Blues Festival, he already imagines it moving to a larger space with camping, parking, more acts and two-days of music. Never mind past troubles and the fact that this year’s promise has yet to materialize, Pilkey hears another guitar plunking in his head as he looks forward to planning next year’s event.

“I’m a tough old nut,” he says. “I’ve been known to bend some noses, but I mean well. You can’t beat an honest man, you know?”

Pilkey catches himself looking too far ahead and snaps back to the present. “I’m just excited because we’re getting bigger,” he says. “But for now we got the music back and that’s what it’s all about.”

The Bitterroot Smokin’ Blues Festival returns Saturday, July 23, at 4 P.M. in downtown Hamilton. Tickets are $25 and available in Missoula at Rockin Rudy’s, Bernice’s Bakery and Worden’s Market. In Hamilton, tickets can be purchased at numerous locations, including, of course, the Bitterroot Brewery. Call 363-5495 for more information.

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