Prairie Lights: Notable venues put Montana on musical map

Montana doesn’t have any concert venues with the wide renown of places like the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado or the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington state.

But how many states have three venues as cool as the White Sulphur Springs cow pasture that is the home of the Red Ants Pants Music Festival; uptown Butte, with its Montana Folk Festival; and Montana Avenue, site of the Magic City Blues festival?


Ed Kemmick

I asked myself that question Friday night, as I stood in the aforementioned cow pasture listening to Hayes Carll, an amazing singer-songwriter out of Texas. He was playing on the first night of the Red Ants festival, just after the Mission Mountain Wood Band.

That Montana band was a fitting choice because no other Montana festival I’m aware of comes as close to capturing the spirit of the old Aber Day keggers in Missoula, at which the Wood Band made an annual, much-anticipated appearance.

But the Red Ants festival is an even more distinctly Montana event. The organizers work hard to get the massive concert grounds and car-camping pastures ready for the long weekend, but fortunately they don’t entirely succeed. It wouldn’t be as much fun if you weren’t dodging cow pies and prairie dog holes as you amble across the sprawling venue.

And who ever gets tired of looking out over that broad, rolling valley, with the Big Belt Mountains in the distance?

(As a side note, Mrs. Kemmick, who is trying to learn Spanish, thinks the festival would be even more popular if it became known as Las Hormigas Rojas Pantalones Fiesta de Música. I’m with her.)

Three weekends earlier we were at the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, about which I won’t say too much, since I have written about it here and here. But honest to God, I don’t know where else on earth you could hear such a variety of world music in a city of such unusual beauty.

Yes, beauty. Those old brick buildings, those mining headframes, those mountains ringing the valley—there’s no place quite like Butte, and no festival quite like the Montana Folk Festival.

Up next—next weekend—is the Magic City Blues festival on Montana Avenue in Billings. That venerable concert series is now in its 15th year, having begun just after Montana Avenue came back from decades of neglect and blight.

Like so many of the people who helped revive Montana Avenue, Magic City Blues organizer Tim Goodridge saw the latent possibilities in a street which, even in its decline, had so much appeal. Goodridge experimented with expanding the festival into South Park in recent years, but this year he’s putting it all back on Montana Avenue.

He realized that people love the urban feel of the Montana Avenue venue, that rocking out on the big stage in front of the historic Billings Depot creates a vibe that brings people—music fans and an impressive roster of great musicians—back year after year.

I should add this: Before heading up to White Sulphur Springs on Friday, we took in Almeda Bradshaw and the High Country Cowboys at the St. John’s Summer Concert Series on Thursday evening. This series of free concerts, now in its 19th year, is in a pretty fine setting itself, on the grounds on the campus of St. John’s Lutheran Ministries at Rimrock and Shiloh roads.

There is something almost impossibly Norman Rockwellish about the series, with bands performing under a gazebo, young kids and older couples dancing on the apron of brick in front of the gazebo and hundreds of listeners stretched out over a wide green lawn.

St. John’s also partners with Magic City Blues, saving the last show of the season for an act also appearing in the blues festival. This Thursday that act will be Billings’ own Guthrie Brown and the Family Tree, with Jessica Lechner opening.

We owe all these festival organizers a huge round of thanks. They’ve made summers in Montana one of the best places a music lover would want to be.

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