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Wildlands Festival brings magical performances to Big Sky

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Lukas Nelson and POTR play during night one of Wildlands Festival framed by Lone Mountain in the background. PHOTO BY TOM ATTWATER

Festival raises nearly $150,000 for conservation


Editor’s Note: Wildlands Festival is produced by Outlaw Partners. Outlaw Partners publishes Explore Big Sky.

BIG SKY – Though one of the Indigo Girls’ top tracks, “Galileo,” was originally released in 1992, the song bears new relevance when Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the famed folk-rock duo perform it on the second and final night of the Wildlands Festival on Aug. 13 in Big Sky—especially with powerhouse singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile singing it on stage with them.

Penned by Saliers, the song explores the concept of soul.

“Maybe you squandered big bucks in your lifetime, now I have to pay,” the trio sang before a packed crowd in the Big Sky Events Arena. “But then again it feels like some sort of inspiration to let the next life off the hook.”

Brandi Carlile (right) joined the Indigo Girls onstage during their set. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Saliers’ lyrics refer to reincarnation, but on this particular night, in this place, the words permeate the landscape like the rain that fell each night of the festival, taking residence within the festival’s theme.    

In its second year, Wildlands is both celebration of and campaign for its namesake: the wild places that make Big Sky and its surrounding region a treasure. This year, $145,000 was awarded to three organizations working to protect such places. Wildlands is a bid to let the next life off the hook.

Not long after the Indigo Girls and Carlile sang the swaying crowd to tears, Outlaw Partners chairman and founder Eric Ladd took the stage with other Outlaw Partners staff to award the funds to the Gallatin River Task Force, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and the Big Sky Community Organization.

“This place is growing and changing fast and we’ve got to get out ahead of it and make sure that all these young kids running around here in 20 to 30 years get to see big beautiful Montana like we got to enjoy it,” Ladd said.

Inherent in any common purpose like protecting wild spaces as well as a palpable byproduct of last weekend’s festival, community was an organic tenet of the event.

Lukas Nelson throws his hand in the air during his set on the first night of Wildlands. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

The crowd was entranced each night, often connected by linked arms and bonded by shared moments of awe between golden sunsets and the performances.

On the first night of the festival, Bozeman artist Madeline Hawthorne took the stage with her local band to open for Lukas Nelson & POTR and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

No stranger to Big Sky, Nelson and his band lit up the familiar crowd with a rugged Western sound that resembled a tumbleweed blowing through dusty vastness.

Known for his storytelling, Nelson joked about how a song he used to sing with his dad, Willie Nelson, “Georgia on my Mind,” took on unfortunate meaning when his own relationship with a woman named Georgia went south, inspiring him to write “Forget About Georgia.”

The mingling hushed as the audience became immersed in Nelson’s story of unrequited love, reflected in their eyes as their own similar tales. Electric guitar punctuated the song with a twang, breaking any heart in the crowd that still remained whole. 

Nelson’s set closed with a memorable duet with Jason Isbell of “Pancho and Lefty,” a Townes Van Zandt song famously covered by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. When Isbell came onto the stage and the two strummed the first few chords, the crowd fell into an audible collective gasp.

Isbell and his band finished night one with a set that was at times raucous and at others gentle.

In one of his last songs, Isbell sang a crowd-pleaser, “Alabama Pines,” a track emblematic of Isbell’s knack for capturing the concept of home in his lyrics.

Whitney Montgomery, CEO of Big Sky Community Organization, cheers as he is presented with an additional $100,000 from the Hemingway family. PHOTO BY TOM ATTWATER

At the intersection of community and wildlands in Big Sky, the concept of home was echoed the following night on stage when Ladd presented the partner charities each with $15,000. In a surprising twist, Ladd also awarded a $100,000 check to the Big Sky Community Organization on behalf of the Hemingway family.

“That connection of humans to nature is as old as human story itself,” Whitney Montgomery, CEO of BSCO, told EBS on Aug. 15, reflecting on the event. Montgomery, as well as the other beneficiaries, intend to use the funds to further work in their respective concepts to conserve wild land and rivers to maintain such connection.  

An excited fan throws her arms in the air and grins during the Indigo Girls’ performance. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

When the Indigo Girls took the stage Saturday night, an enthused rush of women made their way to the front of the crowd, exchanging stories about first seeing the group in the early ‘90s. But for many, the real treat was seeing the duo and Carlile on the same stage, all icons not only for their genre-bending fearlessness but for their leadership in the gay community.

Sarah Martin, 37 from Billings, waited eagerly for Carlile’s big entrance to the stage.

Martin told a story about listening to an Indigo Girls CD her father gave her when she was in fifth grade. She jokes the group was the “gateway drug for being gay, but being OK with being gay.”

Years later, Martin is still an Indigo Girls fan, and Carlile is also high on her list.

“She’s not selling out,” Martin said about Carlile. “She’s a true artist who loves her craft and it inspires people.”

When Carlile hit the stage in an elaborate fringe jacket she later revealed as a way to indulge her desire to dress like her close friend Elton John, Martin grabbed her partner, Tracy Hylland, by the shoulder and squeezed.

Three years after first performing in Big Sky at Outlaw Partners’ Peak to Sky Festival, Carlile and her band delivered more than two hours of unrelentless rock, vulnerability and wildness.

Carlile’s set twinkled with magic moments, some of which included playing a chilling cover of “Rocketman” in the Elton-inspired coat, bringing her nieces and nephew on stage to play a song and performing tracks from her latest and perhaps most introspective album, “In These Silent Days.”

Toward the end of the night, Carlile got to play fan on stage to the Indigo Girls once again as the duo performed another set of songs with Carlile and her band.

“What altitude!” Carlile shouted after jumping around and singing the Indigo Girls’ “Go,” the black silhouette of Lone Mountain barely visible in the dark night.

Brandi Carlile played for more than two hours wrapping up night two of the festival with an electric performance. PHOTO BY TOM ATTWATER

To close the show, Carlile’s band faded behind the scenes as she stepped to the front of the stage to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It was yet another moment where the lyrics of the famous song took new meaning, performed within sight of nearby trails, mountains and streams and under the ethos of Wildlands.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high,” Carlile sang, cloaked in colored lights. “There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.”

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