Prairie Lights: Oly-dimmed memories of Aber Days past


Aber Day Kegger

A band performs for a sea of people at the Aber Day Kegger, sometime in the 1970s.

The first Aber Day Kegger I attended was in 1974, when the annual bash was still held at Bonner Flats, or maybe on Lower Miller Creek, just outside of Missoula.

Anyway, it wasn’t yet on Upper Miller Creek, the venue of legend where it eventually ended up. What distinguished the concert grounds in 1974 was that a vast area in front of the stage was covered in about a foot of wood chips.

If you dropped something into that seething mass of humanity, the lost item was quickly churned into the depths of the wood chips. I didn’t lose much—a jacket and a canteen, I think—and I probably wouldn’t have gone back the next day to look for them if a friend hadn’t lost his glasses.

When we arrived late the next morning, the grounds were already occupied by dozens of people, maybe hundreds, down on their hands and knees searching for whatever they had lost the day before. They looked like scavengers on a battlefield.

I don’t remember anybody finding anything, at least not what they were looking for, but it did give us all a chance to reminisce about the fantastic time we’d had, or were pretty sure we’d had, the previous day.

That memory was sparked by the Aber Day Reunion Concert in Philipsburg, scheduled for Saturday. I had hoped to go there and write about the event, but for various reasons I couldn’t make it.

It’s probably just as well. I’m sure there will be plenty of media coverage of the reunion. All I can do is try to give you some idea of what Aber Day was like back when it was real. I will try to explain why the original Aber Day Keggers became so infamous, and in memory so glorious.

Between 1972 and 1979, the years of the kegger, the world was a different place. It was all in black and white or washed-out Kodachrome, for one thing, and it was a world of almost primeval innocence, in the sense that bicycle helmets had not yet been invented, most cars didn’t have seatbelts and driving back to Missoula from Miller Creek after downing two or three gallons of Olympia beer was not considered wildly inappropriate.

Once the annual bash got big, the crowd of 10,000 people would go through 1,000 16-gallon kegs of Oly. We liked to get roaring drunk in those days, partly for economic reasons. It seems ridiculously cheap now, when you hear that admission, which included all the beer you could drink, was just $6, or $7 at the gate.

But that was a lot of money, at least in my circle of friends. In those days you could buy a quart bottle of Lucky Lager at Freddy’s Feed and Read for 75 cents, or a six-pack of Bohemian beer, which was even weaker than Oly, for 99 cents. If you had to shell out $6 or $7, in other words, you were going to get your money’s worth, by God.

It was also a makeshift world in those days. Just go to the Aber Day website and look at those photos: the stage was constructed of cheap plywood and primitive scaffolding. The revelers were dressed in cut-off jeans and T-shirts and the guys all looked like they cut their own hair, if they cut it at all.

There were no Crazy Creek chairs back then. You sat on a blanket or a piece of cardboard or, in a pinch, on your butt. And you had to invent your own games in that long-gone world.


Aber Day Kegger

There was no lack of beer at the Aber Day Keggers. Unfortunately, it was all Olympia.

I was pretty proud of the game my brother and I came up with one year. We scratched a big circle in the dirt, put a canteen full of Oly in the middle and then fought to see who could get out of the circle holding the canteen. It was dirty and a little bloody and, in retrospect, really stupid, but it was a blast.

The best game ever was one year when the bikers—every kegger attracted a slew of bikers—organized “slow races.” The premise was simple: you had a start line and a finish line, maybe 100 feet away. The last one to cross the finish line won, and if you put your feet down to catch your balance, you were disqualified.

Watching the overweight, inebriated bikers on their big Harleys falling over one by one, in slow motion, was priceless.

There was a big stink one year when Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans complained that the kegger was thick with people urinating and fornicating in public. The first charge was true enough, but the sex was hardly rampant. I saw only one instance of it at the four or five Aber Days I attended.

And that act of public fornication might not have been witnessed by the man ostensibly participating in it. He was lying in the back of a pickup, dead-drunk to the world, while a lady friend of his (I assume they were friends) did some bareback riding.

Have I even mentioned the music yet? The Mission Mountain Wood Band, the local favorite, was there almost every year and was always a good time. Doug Kershaw played a couple of times, and that Cajun wildman with the giant black sideburns sawed at his fiddle until his bow had shed most of its horsehair.

Bonnie Raitt was a crowd favorite. She was young and crazy then and played slide guitar with a Budweiser bottle (the bands got the “good” beer) and then, after her set, came out front and danced to the next band. Elvin Bishop was at the top of his game then, and another local band, Live Wire Choir, tore it up with its frenetic bluegrass.

But Aber Day was about more than music and beer and sex. It was the capstone to another year of school at the University of Montana, an assertion of youthful free-spiritedness that the powers-that-be for some reason tolerated, at least for a few years.

All in all, it was probably as stupid as that game with the canteen, and I’m sure what killed it was the dawning sense of near-disaster, the lurking fear of liability, though back then even the lawyers were less active and not quite so humorless.

So much has changed. I haven’t drunk an Oly in 30 years, and it’s been at least that long since I wrestled with my brother. But don’t believe the saying that youth is wasted on the young.

While it lasted, Aber Day was like Montana’s own Woodstock, and those of us lucky enough to have been there appreciated it and we knew it was something we’d remember—in fragments, somewhat vaguely—for the rest of our lives.

Editor’s note: I realize that I wrote about  Montana music festivals last week and dive bars the week before that, and here I am writing about a music festival that was basically a giant outdoor dive bar. I’ll give the booze-and-music stuff a break after this, I promise.

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