By Michael Somerby EBS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
BIG SKY – In the final hours leading up to the inaugural Peak to Sky Festival’s Saturday lineup on July 6, Montana was right on brand—predictably unpredictable with a storm rolling mercilessly through the canyons toward Big Sky.
At the Big Sky Events Arena in Town Center, it seemed as if months of work might be undone by the sudden and powerful winds. Branded scrims tore loose from their moorings and billowed in the stage rigging. Trash bins tumbled through the dirt, taking down others like bowling pins. The artists and their families hunkered down in their tents as staff rushed to anchor flapping ropes.
But then, as if by some divine order, the rock gods smiled upon the venue, the sky cleared and the show commenced for the roughly 4,500 fans in attendance.
“The Big Sky community rallied together to produce one of the most memorable music events in an intimate setting [that] everyone from the sponsors to fans said was all-time,” said Eric Ladd, founder, owner and CEO of Outlaw Partners, the Big Sky media, marketing and events company that organized Peak to Sky. “The turbulent weather added an extra level of excitement …”
Forever more, the histories of the small mountain hamlet of Big Sky and that of rock and roll will be linked. The sheer degree of talent on stage for the culminating performance, which included Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Mike McCready, Chad Smith, Josh Klinghoffer and Duff McKagan, 11-time Grammy winner Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters, three-time Grammy winner Brandi Carlile, members of the all-stars-in-waiting group Thunderpussy, and Paige Rasmussen from Bozeman’s Paige and the People’s Band, was a genuine sight to behold. Many stood transfixed; some even cried.
“… My 18-year old son, an aspiring rock musician, and I flew from Texas to see this show—featuring musicians from many of his favorite bands from my young adulthood, along with my favorite singer-songwriter, Brandi Carlile,” wrote attendee Shannon Van Zandt. “You provided a once-in-a-lifetime event for my son and I, a bonding experience for us before he goes off to college next month.”
Peak to Sky, presented by Title Partner Casamigos, opened its gates for the first-ever attendees on Friday, July 5, kicking off the musical offerings with a performance by Infinite Color and Sound, a collaboration between Pearl Jam’s McCready and New York- and Seattle-based artist Kate Neckel incorporating collage, sculpture, painting, drawing and music to render a one-of-a-kind performance.
Local Big Sky band Dammit Lauren and The Well then christened the main stage, setting the vibe with covers and original music from their recent album, “Warning Signs.”
“It was amazing. To be a part of something that big and energetic was incredible,” said Ben Macht, the eclectic mandolinist of the group. “Just the night before we were playing at Choppers, so to be up on that stage the next night is what you dream of being in a band.”
Then Thunderpussy, Seattle’s all-female rock band on a surefire rise to stardom, took the stage. Many Big Sky residents remembered the epic performance the band delivered at the 2018 Big Sky PBR, where hordes of newly made fans cleared boxes of Thunderpussy underwear, aptly dubbed “Thundies,” and Peak to Sky’s Thunderpussy neophytes cleared this year’s boxes.
Frontwoman Molly Sides, backed by guitarist Whitney Petty, bassist Leah Julius and drummer Lindsey Elias, took no prisoners on July 5, evoking a powerful voice akin to Jefferson Airplane’s legendary Grace Slick. Sides’ wild dancing and command of the stage was extraordinary, fans said, and left many in the crowd exchanging giddy sideways glances.
“This weekend was a rock and roll dream come true,” Petty said. “Thank you, Big Sky.”
July 6, the Big Kahuna day, commenced with a kids’ concert by Chris Ballew, aka Caspar Babypants, former lead singer for the hit 90s band Presidents of the United States of America.
Later in the day, after weather-related delays, Bozeman’s Paige and the People’s Band graced the stage, warming up the crowd with the musical prowess and soul that has made them a staple of the local music scene.
They were followed by Brandi Carlile, the multi-genre superstar still riding a wave of three Grammy Award wins in February. Fans swayed in awe of Carlile, whose barebones performance required only a guitar and her voice to move people to tears.
The highlight of Carlile’s performance came when she played “The Joke,” a Grammy-winning track of her new album “By The Way, I Forgive You.”
“I played on a Brandi album about 10 years ago,” said Chad Smith, drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a member of the supergroup that constituted the main act. “She just keeps rising. It’s great to see her really hitting her stride.”
McCready, a longtime friend and resource in her music making, eventually joined Carlile on stage. The duo covered Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” to deafening screams from the crowd.
Finally, McCready of Pearl Jam, Smith and Klinghoffer of Red Hot Chili Peppers, McKagan of Guns ‘N Roses, who, by the way, played Ophir Middle School’s bass guitar for the entire performance and then signed it, and Hawkins of Foo Fighters took the stage.
Under the charisma of frontman Hawkins, this all-star crew covered songs from bands spanning several decades, including Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Aerosmith.
Despite having only played together for three days, as Hawkins admitted to the crowd, their masterful skills melded with ease, and as the band played the late Prince’s “Purple Rain,” the Montana skies opened up on the crowd, raindrops refracting the purple lights emanating from the stage. To borrow colloquial phrasing, “you just can’t write this stuff.”
“Even though I was one of the people that helped to plan it, I was still blown away by the quality of music in that intimate environment,” said EJ Daws, executive director of sales and marketing for Outlaw Partners. “It was a one-of-a-kind and a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Daws’ sentiments were echoed by other members of the crowd and community.
“As Eric Ladd said when he opened Saturday night’s music, Big Sky deserves to have its hair blown back,” said Bill Simkins, Manager of Simkins Holdings, LLC, the Bozeman-based master developer of Big Sky Town Center. “The crew at Outlaw delivered another top-shelf, multi-day event that will be remembered for years to come—the headline concert seemed to jump from one incredible moment to the next and it looked like the rock icons were having so much fun together on stage.”
Brian Hurlbut, executive director of the Arts Council of Big Sky, said the show was something that you had to see to believe.
“It was amazing to see that much talent on one stage. The energy in the arena was amazing,” Hurlbut said. “It was truly a one-of-a-kind, magical moment that those who were there will remember for a long time.”
The event also placed environmentally conscious practices center-stage. According to Matt Elsaesser, owner of 406 Recycling, which oversaw Peak to Sky’s recycling and compost operations, the festival was notably eco-friendly.
“Peak to Sky was a very green event,” Elsaesser said. “While not 100 percent plastic free, the festival was well furnished to leave as little a mark on the environment as possible. Vendors opted for compostable utensils, plates and cups, while recycling containers for glass, aluminum and plastic were throughout the venue.”
Elsaesser also noted that the dumpster was less than one-third full, an accomplishment considering the number of people involved, and more than 1,000 pounds of material were compiled for recycling—with only nine pounds of plastic bottles collected in total.
Paralleling countless notes of appreciation from the members of the community and crowd, the artists themselves were visibly as engaged and passionate about the performances and the chance to play under the shadow of Lone Mountain.
“People in Big Sky were just so appreciative, saying things like ‘we never get artists like you to play here,’” Smith said. “But we love playing venues like that. I’d love to do it again.”
With just the skeleton of the venue remaining intact, crowd members are left with memories—and a growing appetite for the chance that next year will feature a follow-up to Peak to Sky.