By Sam Orazem EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT
EMIGRANT- The Old Saloon was established in 1902 to service the thirsty travelers of a railroad line crossing Paradise Valley. The institution has survived fires, ownership changes and prohibition. It now stands as a relic of a simpler time that transports both patrons and newcomers back to the era of its inception through its architecture, décor and musical offerings.
The Old Saloon journey begins in an open field repurposed as a parking lot, where it immediately becomes clear that the party starts as soon as a car’s ignition is killed—gaggles of buddies stand around their vehicles laughing, chatting and sipping cans of beer in preparation for a night of music.
A short bus ride to the venue facilitates intermingling between groups of strangers, and strips of LED rainbow party lights run the length of the retired public transit vehicles, setting a festive vibe. After unloading at the venue gates, the bus riders separate into two tribes: those looking to imbibe more dancing-juice at the saloon’s watering hole, and those zealously shuffling in to catch the opening act.
The Old Saloon sports an exterior lined by weathered wooden boards and equally well-worn décor, featuring sentimental knickknacks, glass-eyed animal busts and pictures of ladies’ naked behinds on the walls. Unapologetically Montanan, one could say.
An old-fashioned upright piano with a pronounced, detuned twang, the likes of which Wild Bill Hickok would have cozied up to with his seventh whiskey, neat, demarcates the entrance to a small casino. A true Montana saloon always needs some gambling opportunities, afterall.
Outside, the stage faces a lot layered with a simple, wooden platform—the saloon’s owner, Brett Evje, strives to create “ a brand that mimics, or at least aspires to mimic, the great dance halls and venues in West Texas.” It dutifully serves an extension of the original building, rather than a hastily tacked on addition, and the synthesis of the saloon and stage meld two distinct pieces of Western culture to manufacture a wholly unique atmosphere.
On Aug. 9, the iconic bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, who once counted phenom Chris Stapleton in their ranks, took the stage to the stomping of a raucous crowd, kicking boots and sandals against the wooden slats beneath their feet. And as the Grammy-winning band plunged into hit after hit, the urge to dance and sing along spread through the crowd like wildfire, with unabashedly off-tone crooning and often-sloppy moves there in abudance.
In 2019, it’s become commonplace for even the tallest gents in a crowd to crane their necks around a sea of iPhone screens. The good people at The Old Saloon, however, are there for the music and rubbing shoulders with friends, leaving phones holstered.
As Evje puts it, “For the most part, at our shows, people are singing, having fun, and dancing – doing the things you should be doing at a concert.”
It’s a simple yet charming quality that underscores the pure intentions of everyone involved; a testament to the quality of The Old Saloon’s music and the character of those who shell out cash to see it.
At the close of the show, audience members, still buzzing from the world-class music, lined the chainlink for the bus ride back to the parking lot, already reminiscing in earnest amongst each other about the memories they had jointly formed. Everyone knew they had just experienced something special, but a question floated around the vehicle: Who’s up next and when?
While Evje is tight-lipped regarding future concerts, he reiterates The Old Saloon’s goal is “to have artists that capture people and hold their [the audience’s] attention,” the types he sees one day headlining the likes of legendary venues like Madison Square Garden in New York City. It’s this commitment to quality that lend a vertiably timeless aura to each Old Saloon gathering.
The Old Saloon is a champion of the “come-as-you-are” and “get ready to move” Old West party atmosphere that teleports attendees to a different time and space. There is no shoving and no fighting, a “be good or be gone” vibe, perhaps the only difference between those cigarette smoke-filled times of old. Just 2,000 strangers, enjoying music together as if lifelong friends.