If you’re wondering why Magic City Blues has lasted so long and has been so successful, it’s not because Tim Goodridge is a master planner or strategic thinker.
He just knows a few important things, one of which is that people get bored quickly. That’s why Goodridge, who founded the downtown Billings music festival in 2002, has continued adjusting, tweaking and changing the event year after year.
“I’m not a sit-down-and-plan-things-out kind of guy,” he said.
This year’s Magic City Blues will open Thursday night with a free performance by the band Cornmeal at St. John’s Lutheran Home and end with Huey Lewis and the News playing Sunday night in South Park. (Full schedule here.)
The big change this year involves moving the Saturday show from Montana Avenue to South Park, where there’s room for a bigger stage and a bigger audience.
Goodridge said he could sell 8,000 tickets for a show at South Park and there would still be plenty of room. On Montana Avenue, 5,000 people would pack the street for the big shows, but everybody would be standing elbow to elbow.
It might be hard to picture now, as large as the event has grown, but when Goodridge and his wife, Pam, put on the first Magic City Blues in 2002, it was a Friday-Saturday festival and the stage and most of the audience were packed into the parking lot between the Rex Restaurant and the Venture Theater, now NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.
Montana Avenue was used for some seating, but they couldn’t close the street until 4 p.m. each day, meaning the whole stage and sound system and all the associated equipment had to be set up and taken down twice, in a big hurry.
Since 2004, Montana Avenue has closed for the whole weekend. But thanks to Goodridge’s quest to prevent anyone from getting bored, things never got easy.
In 2006, he introduced the smaller Stillwater Stage in the parking lot of the McCormick Café. Because of the buildings between them, and because the Stillwater Stage faced south and the one on Montana Avenue faced west, it was possible to put on simultaneous shows a block and a half apart.
There were many other innovations over the years. It gradually expanded to include a Sunday show, and then a free Thursday night show, piggybacking on the St. John’s Summer Concert Series.
For two years, in 2006 and ’07, Magic City Blues put on a series of 13 concerts leading up to the festival. That Friday night series was called Montana Avenue Live.
“It was like a nightclub,” Goodridge said. “Like setting up a nightclub every night.”
Goodridge brought in other acts throughout the year to promote the festival, and he once teamed up with the Billings Gazette’s 501 Blog to sponsor a summer band slam.
There was also Frostbite, a two-day midwinter blues festival at the Holiday Inn Convention Center. That series included a memorable performance by the recently departed Johnny Winter in 2006.
A big change was introduced in 2010, when Magic City Blues expanded to South Park for a Sunday show. The move was made partly to promote that neglected park, and also to take advantage of the venue’s great acoustics.
“The beauty to me of South Park is you get the pristine sound down there,” Goodridge said, attributing it to the lack of sound-bouncing buildings.
He also likes South Park because it is flat with lots of open space, has electrical boxes big enough to power a major concert and it is surrounded by 50-foot-wide streets. There was only one problem.
“I needed to figure out a way to shade it because that’s the Achilles’ heel down there,” he said.
His solution was to work with Mar Ricketts, of Portland, Ore., the founder of Architect of the Air, to create a mass of shade sails. Made of nylon and polyester sheets, the brightly colored sails of different shapes and sizes will be tethered to cottonwood trees at South Park, up to 30 feet in the air, providing shade for thousands of concert-goers.
The sails are being underwritten by Cape Air, an airline that started serving Montana in December.
In conjunction with the festival, Cape Air is offering package deals for customers flying in from Glendive, Glasgow, Havre, Sidney or Wolf Point. In addition to cheap flights — $49 each way — Cape Air has teamed up with four Billings hotels to offer special room rates and free shuttle transportation to the blues festival.
Also new this year at South Park will be a craft beer garden under the recently rebuilt gazebo and food offerings from the Rex.
Goodridge said Gene Burgad, the owner of the Rex, has been a strong supporter from the start, and without his help the festival probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.
“How in the hell did I convince Gene Burgad to close down his restaurant for two days and take a flyer on a show?” Goodridge asked.
The move to South Park has made it possible to bring in a bigger stage for the main acts — Huey Lewis on Sunday and Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite on Saturday.
Even with those big draws at South Park, Goodridge, tickets for the Friday night show, featuring headliner Jonny Lang, have been selling briskly. Goodridge figures that in addition to people who just really want to see Lang, there are lots of fans who love the urban setting on Montana Avenue and don’t want to miss a show there.
Goodridge is sure the transition from Friday to Saturday night is going to be hectic. All the sound equipment will have to be taken down on Montana Avenue and moved to South Park in time for Ben Harper’s planned sound check at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
“It’s just going to be nuts,” he said. “That’s the day everybody’s going to be tearing their hair out.”
“Everybody” includes about 100 volunteers and a nearly equal number of stagehands, sound technicians, security workers and cleanup people.
Ticket sales are going well, but Goodridge has learned to be patient, since he typically sells 80 percent of his tickets in the final 30 days.
“It’s no wonder I get anxiety-ridden,” he said.
Speaking of tickets, Goodridge said that until four years ago, he was basically the entire ticketing system.
“We did everything manually,” he said. “It was me and a telephone.” Despite the difficulties of that setup, he said, “what that did was it developed a relationship with our customer base that you can’t beat.”
He now has an automated system that allows people to print tickets at home, and tickets can still be purchased at Holiday Station stores in Billings and at Rimrock Mall.
Although their core audience is still Billings, Eastern Montana and northern Wyoming, Goodridge said, he continues to sell tickets to people from all over the country and Canada. This year he’s even sold tickets to people from Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, the music capitals of the United States.
Because Magic City Blues has been around so long and consistently attracts good crowds, it’s gotten easier to book acts, Goodridge said. Nearly everybody who plays Magic City Blues contacts him about bookings, he said.
And even though the second week in August is probably the biggest entertainment week of the year all over the country, he said, top-notch bands continue to choose Magic City Blues.
“It’s a real honor, besides the fact that I pay them a huge amount of dollars,” Goodridge said.