Bozeman’s newest indoor venue promises a memorable experience
By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – Fred F. Willson, famed architect to many of Bozeman’s notable buildings, was a man who believed in precision and functionality. He went to great lengths to ensure all of his buildings were complete with intricate and artistic detail and would serve its occupants well. This intentionality lives on in one of his masterpieces, what today is the Armory Music Hall in the Kimpton Armory Hotel. More than 80 years later, Jason Wickens and Mandy Connelley of Deco Music Group are looking to bring a unique experience with each show in Bozeman’s newest indoor music venue.
After a year of quiet stages due to the pandemic, these detailed experiences are what people living in and visiting Bozeman crave, Wickens says, and with live shows of all genres and mediums in the lineup, the hall will certainly not fall short on delivering a grounding experience.
“Sitting in the back of the room, you still felt like you were that person in the front row,” Connelly said of the intimate space. “When there’s that few of people, that experience is elevated, you get that connection. You feel like they’re talking right to you, and some of the time they are.”
Wickens remembers walking into the building when steel scaffolding and bird poop still littered the inside. The Armory, built in 1940, housed the Charlie Company and the headquarters of the 163rd Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit with troops from across the state of Montana. After decades of litigation, changing ownerships and uses, the Armory Hotel that stands today—now Bozeman’s tallest building at nine stories—took shape, all with the intention of preserving its history.
“I keep going back to the word ‘intention’ because that’s what’s really driving [this venue] and also really … the history of the place and saving the original use for the rooms, and trying to give people the best Montana hospitality possible,” said Wickens.
Wickens met building owner Cory Lawrence about seven years ago when Lawrence was sponsoring events at Wickens’ other musical brainchild, Live from the Divide. Lawrence bought the Armory in 2012 and worked with Wickens to make his dream of a downtown venue and hotel a reality. This summer, it will serve as the town’s only indoor concert venue—the Elm in Midtown will open in September 2021.
“Having the Armory Music Hall on property aligns with our commitment to creating highly local and one-of-a-kind experiences for guests,” said Courtney Reeves, director of sales and marketing at Kimpton Armory Hotel. “From the moment guests walk through our doors, it’s important for them to feel like they are experiencing the unique elements that celebrate Bozeman. Music is a key component of this idea as it allows guests to experience the sounds of our great state and hometown.”
In March, the music hall hosted Nashville-based country singer/songwriter Kip Moore, and it will kick off a dynamic summer season with the Allman Betts Band, the Love Junkies and Robert Earl Keen July 25.
The opening of the venue has been an experiment, but a successful one, says Wickens. In addition to hosting shows, they are launching a Mountain Artists in Residence program, through which performers will, using the Armory as their home base, tour Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area’s offerings so that once they’re on stage, the artists are as much in love with Montana as the audience members. Their first performers to experience Mountain AIR will be the Love Junkies July 16 and 17.
“We want them to reset and connect and do shows here after they fall in love with Montana,” said Wickens. “We’re proud of that. It’s new and it’s a heavy lift but it’s just the right thing to do and it really reflects on the character of this building and on Kimpton—going above and beyond the hospitality and experience.”
Another unique partnership Wickens has engaged in with the MusiCares Foundation. MusiCares is the nonprofit partnered with the Grammys and provides critical health and welfare services in the form of emergency financial aid, mental health assistance and much more to the performing arts community. The Armory Music Hall will be donating a percentage of every ticket sale to MusiCares.
Along the wall of the venue’s entryway, the firs things guests will see are a row of Bozeman-made Gibson acoustic guitars in their cases. Gibson Guitars, who are in the middle of a massive expansion, which will ad 25,000 square feet to their current facility, is working with the Armory Music Hall to bring in some Gibson family artists.
“We’re trying to show [people] that the Gibson experience is maybe more of an experience than us putting an guitar in your hand,” said John Hannigan, Gibson’s brand manager. “We can contribute to music here locally by partnering with someone like the Armory Music Hall.”
During its participation in wartime, what is now the Armory Music Hall functioned as a stage on which Sherman tanks would practice maneuvers. Today, the hall appears a bit more elegant, but not without the Art Deco features that Willson originally designed. In its iterations to present day, the hall and building as a whole were preserved with intention and the juxtaposed masculine military building and fine art pieces hanging in its interior perhaps best communicate the span of experiences you may have while visiting.
“The whole ambiance is definitely there,” said Connelley. “We keep using the words ‘elevated’ and ‘exclusive’ but [the building] really lends itself to that with all the intention, that every step from when it was just a dream to what we’re standing in right now, to when people are sitting in their seats. Everybody feels it. And that’s what you walk away with, is just all those little details that somebody paid attention to that you might not notice—but if they weren’t there, you may.”
The details Connelley speaks of are everything—the performance, lights, sound, art features and the building itself, all crescendoing into a seamless performance. The Armory Music Hall promises to “not be any one thing,” said Wickens. So, as you walk inside—whether for the first of fourth time—you just never know how you’ll be transformed.
The Armory is a client of Outlaw Partners, publisher of EBS.