By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
Big Sky – It was almost reminiscent of any other Thursday summertime evening—staff from Jereco Studios tested lights and sound as members of the bluegrass band Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs warmed up on stage. There were obvious differences, however: the setting was the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center instead of Town Center Park and a majority of the viewers—aside from the few masked guests allowed into the theater—watched virtually.
“In lieu of the live Music in the Mountains in Big Sky, this is definitely a treat for us,” said Lena Marie Schiffer, vocalist for Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs, from the WMPAC stage in between songs. “I kind of feel like I’m in a dream right now, where I’m playing a live show with full production. It’s crazy.”
For more than a decade Music in the Mountains has been a Big Sky summer tradition. The free outdoor concert series produced by the Arts Council of Big Sky has featured up and coming as well as established artists in the Center Stage at Town Center Parkfor locals and visitors every Thursday from June through September. Each season the series also includes an annual July 4 concert followed by a fireworks show, the Bravo! Big Sky Music Festival and a free performance from Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.
This year, faced with the challenges of COVID-19, the Arts Council, like most of the arts and entertainment industry, had to cancel Music in the Mountains, and adapt.
“We kind of knew that’s what we had to do,” said Brian Hurlbut, executive director of the Arts Council. “From the health and safety part, that was easy, but the fact that so many people look forward to the concerts and it’s such a huge thing for Big Sky economically, and for the Arts Council too, but more for the community … it’s just the thing to do in the summertime.”
Hurlbut teamed up with WMPAC Executive Director John Zirkle, and armed with the performing arts center’s state-of-the-art theater and technology, the virtual version of Music in the Mountains was created. This summer, the adapted Big Sky staple featured The Waiting, the Kitchen Dwellers, Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs, concluding with Dead Sky on Sept. 3.
Currently, WMPAC can host up to 40 people, including staff. For the Bird Dog’s show last week there were 23 people in attendance, each wearing masks for the duration of the show and adequately spaced in the theater that typically seats 280. Each guest had their temperature checked and hands sanitized upon entry.
The show is broadcast on the Arts Council’s Facebook Live and YouTube channels with Jereco Studios at the helm of lighting and sound, in addition to five cameras including a GoPro for up-close stage shots. Behind the scenes in the video production room, Lone Peak High School intern Ace Beattie, who has been working with WMPAC since June, attends to the production’s camera controls and live broadcast.
The result is a high-quality production, not only for those lucky enough to be in attendance but also those watching from home. It’s like Big Sky’s own Austin City Limits.
“It’s fun, it’s hard. It’s just like something nobody’s ever done before,” Beattie said of having to adapt to this new virtual audience—the series has been drawing viewers from all over the country.
Not only is this a way to generate income for the Arts Council, but also a way to give back to the community, while helping local musicians. The gratitude in the theater was palpable, both from those in attendance and on stage.
“As tough as it’s been to not play live music, there have been some silver linings in it all and one of them is that we’ve had a lot of time to sit down and write,” Schiffer said. “That’s a luxury we don’t often afford ourselves.”
As for next year, Hurlbut says although he hopes they can use the new Town Center Park stage in some fashion, he can’t yet foresee how they’ll do so safely.
“I think people are going to be really hungry for live music,” Hurlbut said. “At this point I’m not convinced we’re going to be able to do anything, although I hope we can. I think two years in a row without it is going to be tough.”
Thursday’s Music in the Mountains was sponsored by Big Sky Resort Tax, 3Rivers Communications, American Bank, First Security Bank, Big Sky Landscaping and Hammond Property Management and can be enjoyed on the Arts Council’s YouTube channel.
As for the band, they’re just happy to be in front of something other than an empty room.
“It’s like being a garage band again, but in a really nice setting,” vocalist and guitarist Josh Moore said jokingly, looking around the sparsely seated room of attendees, then at the camera, as it broadcasted to thousands of viewers outside the walls of the theater.