By Samuel Orazem EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT
BIG SKY — The days were warm and the evenings brisk during Moonlight MusicFest, held the weekend of Aug. 16 on the slopes of Moonlight Basin. In its second year, the festival brought in fresh ensembles to perform a variety of music beneath the panoramic landscape of Lone Peak.
Bayard Dominick, vice president of planning and development for Lone Mountain Land Company, the prominent Big Sky developer that manages Moonlight, Spanish Peaks and various Town Center developments, emphasized that selecting strong musical acts is the foundation for any successful festival. “Part of the strategy … is to have an eclectic collection of bands to draw people who follow those bands from all over the country.”
LynnAnne Hagar, the event’s chief organizer, echoed Dominick’s sentiments. “People came to the festival not always knowing a lot of the bands, but were totally excited about how great they were, and realized they even knew some of the more popular tracks.”
In a time when many music festivals appear to celebrate gaudy outfits and iPhone photography more than the music itself, Moonlight MusicFest stands out. While the majesty of Lone Peak dominated the optics, music reigned supreme, much to the enjoyment of the earnest assembly of fans in attendance.
On the first day of the festival, coach buses shuttled concertgoers up the mountain, a lively forum for friends to debate which artists they were most excited to see. None were more exhilarated than return visitors such as Gary Wheeler. Hailing from Tacoma, Washington, Wheeler and his family attended last year’s inaugural event on a whim but immediately recognized they were a part of something special.
“We had to come back as soon as we saw [the festival] was happening again,” Wheeler said. “We only came because of The Wood Brothers last year but ended up loving the whole thing and the areas, as well”
As the buses approached the venue, the rugged Headwaters ridge came into sight, with Lone Peak standing proudly behind. Upon arrival, some concertgoers idled in the entryway, lined with food and merchandise vendors, while others explored the remainder of the grounds.
The stage stood at the base of Moonlight Basin’s Cupajo ski run and the audience spanned up the length of a headwall. The Spanish Peaks decorated the northern view and Lone Peak claimed the south, resting bare of snow before another Montana winter.
Montana-based Satsang took the stage first at 4 p.m., breaking the ice with a blend of rock and roll, soul and reggae sounds. Their performance was the band’s last before turning their trio into a quartet. The hillside crowd made their way down to the stage-front area for a personal look at the band, whose frontman, Drew McManus, said, “Whether we’re on a beach in Florida or Cali, the mountains are just where I want to be.”
After Satsang finished their set, Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band took the stage. Ritter, sporting a trademark infectious smile and with palpable electricity, kicked the festival into full swing with his unique take on the Americana genre. The crowd swelled as Ritter’s sprightly vibes took hold of fans, causing many to abandon their perches along the headwall.
By the time St. Paul and the Broken Bones took the stage, a soft evening light had cloaked the crowd in gold—a perfect aesthetic for the bold style of frontman Paul Janeway, adorned with a flowing sequined robe, a modern act with a presence akin to that of Elton John.
The New Orleans band’s style, Janeway said, is inspired by “David Bowie, Otis Redding, and a mishmash of artists, but [one that] all boils down to good bass, good drums and good rhythm.”
The audience crooned lyrics alongside the band and egged-on the lead singer’s showmanship and vocal timbre with raucous applause and dancing, enticing him to climb into the audience for a one-of-a-kind moment.
Closing out the first evening of world-class talent, Trampled by Turtles began its set around 9:30 p.m. Luckily for the Duluth, Minnesota, based bluegrass sextet, bluegrass and a Montana audience go hand in hand. Fast-paced plucking, expertly picked mandolin and frantic fiddling sent the crowd into a jigging, two-stepping frenzy.
By the time the encore came to a close, nearly everyone had rushed into the fray. But even after the stage cleared, the party kept going: The parking lot had a few buskers for those looking to squeeze a few last drops of music out, and the ride back down the mountain was filled with off-pitch singing, passionate conversation and laughter shared between friends—old and new.
The second day of Moonlight MusicFest arrived with as much promise as the first and fans clambered onto busses with enthusiasm equal to that of the day before—even those that had slightly overindulged the previous evening. As Montana native Virginia O’Donnell so succinctly put it, “We [Montanans] like the sort of fun that comes back to bite us.”
Bozeman’s The Dusty Pockets provided a perfect introduction to the day with their performance of their self-proclaimed genre, “recreational Americana.” Their take on the music style featured a faultless balance between soulful melodies and gritty, lively harmonies. It was confirmed then and there: day two was the real deal.
Dwayne Dopsie & The Zydeco Hellraisers brought things into full swing with their New Orleans flair. Harmonica, washboard and accordion made welcome additions to the more-common instruments of the festival, and the band’s Bayou soul invigorated the audience. Band members routinely walked into the crowd to join in on the fun, climaxing in a conga line led by frontman zydeco master Dwayne Dopsie himself.
The War and Treaty piggybacked on the success of the previous two bands and kept the crowd dancing with their slower breed of rock before one of the most anticipated bands made their entrance.
The Wood Brothers, a Grammy-nominated assembly and a repeat booking at MusicFest, delivered on the hype generated by their previous visit, leading the crowd in singalongs, cracking jokes and appearing right at home on a stage nestled into the mountains of southwest Montana. Toward the end of their set, The War and Treaty joined in on the action to forge a memorable amalgam of voices, reminding the audience of the talent they had seen over the last two days.
As evening hues pulled westward across the sky, the crowd flowed onto the hard-packed dance floor to get down with The Record Company, whose music presented a slight deviation in style from those that preceded them on the MusicFest stage; their more archetypal rock set them apart from the soul, folk and Americana groups of the day and the audience took advantage of one of the most energetic shows of the festival.
Finally, it was time for headliner Blackberry Smoke to take the stage. While many of the attendees with younger children had made their exit, the band called on the crowd for one last ecstatic push. As they wound down their set, the realization that this magical weekend has come to a close permeated through the audience. Bittersweet, as they say.
Dominick says the festival represents more than the sum of its parts. “The MusicFest is really about community building,” he said, “both in terms of expanding and growing the Big Sky community, but also sharing what Moonlight is all about.”
Moonlight MusicFest also managed the festival’s waste responsibly, commissioning 406 Recycling, which oversaw recycling for other major Big Sky summer events like Big Sky PBR and the Peak to Sky Festival. 406 Recycling is introducing a new trend in the Treasure State, and managed to recycle nearly 900 pounds at Moonlight MusicFest through the help of participants and staff, a portion of which was transported to Helena for sorting via a van running on locally made biodeisel made from fry oil.
Part of this year’s revenue was allocated to the Arts Council of Big Sky and the Moonlight Community Foundation and the leftover catered food was donated to the Big Sky Community Food Bank. In keeping with a new trend for events in the area, 406 Recycling helped reduce the environmental impact these sorts of large-scale events can have.
Moonlight MusicFest bookends a jam-packed summer in Big Sky that featured more events than ever before. As days quickly grow shorter and evening temperatures dip into the 40s, events are waning but the warm glow of an unforgettable summer still remains.