The Montana Lyric Opera debuted its first professional, semi-staged opera, Giuseppe Verdi's famous Rigoletto at the University Theatre. Local aficionados founded the company in January 2008, and spent the next year and a half doing educational outreach programs throughout the region to drum up support. The wildly successful Opera on Draft series—beer, opera, casual talks about the art form—drew standing-room-only crowds and general intrigue. And it worked. Despite some technical difficulties, the Verdi performances were packed and generously received, proving, perhaps, that our mountain town isn't afraid to embrace entertainment often misconceived as stuffy and elitist.
The local nightlife scene suffered two tragic shakeups when the owners of two popular establishments died just four months apart.
In February, Steve Garr, the owner of the Top Hat, died, leaving behind the club he'd worked at since 1974 and owned since 1984. The Front Street club, best known for its bluegrass, blues and jam band shows, remains open under the direction of Garr's children, but is also listed for sale for $1.9 million.
A few months later, in May, Tom Reed, the longtime owner of Buck's Club and The Other Side, also died. The large venue at the corner of Regent and Strand often booked mid-tier bands that were either too big for downtown clubs or not big enough for the University of Montana, such as The Melvins, The Coup and early Gourds shows. The Other Side closed immediately after Reed's death, and has remained shuttered ever since.
In the late 1990s, actor Severt Philleo entertained Missoula audiences with Marlene Dietrich impressions, starring roles in countless theater performances and singing engagements, in drag, with the likes of the Jody Marshall Trio. For four straight years, Philleo won Best Actor in the Indy's annual reader poll—and, one year, Best Actress—cementing his place in local lore. But in 2000, he moved to his hometown of Polson and in 2004, to Palm Springs, Fla. Philleo finally made his triumphant return to Missoula stage in March with "A Wilde Night with Severt Philleo," a benefit performance at the Crystal Theatre that included a staged reading of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
Blast from the past
Pearl Jam bassist and UM alum Jeff Ament is the closest thing to a celebrity in Missoula. That's what made the resurrection of his old hardcore band—and its understated show in a downtown basement venue—so memorable.
Ament and his former Deranged Diction bandmates released a new album in May that featured some old Missoula recording sessions from the band's heyday in the '80s, and then scheduled two shows—one in Seattle and one in Missoula. The Missoula show saw a sea of fans pack the Palace Lounge for a truly old-school affair.
Death of a king
Michael Jackson's death shocked the international music community, and had a surprising trickledown effect to Missoula. Rockin Rudy's sold out of all of Jacko's albums within days of his death. The Carmike 10, meanwhile, was one of 28 theaters to screen the $1 million memorial service for free. Interestingly, the 11 a.m. show opened to no one.
This year's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival treated viewers to something completely different. South, the 1919 classic documentary about Ernest Shackleton's harrowing Antarctica expedition, fit the festival's usual—and increasingly impressive—lineup of award-winning films. But what made the screening of the silent film all the more special was live accompaniment from a trio called the Alloy Orchestra. Incorporating clarinet, accordion, musical saw and piano, the group created an otherworldly soundtrack to an already surreal film.
Under the stars
The biggest thing in local concerts this year turned out to be an open field just 30 minutes east of Missoula off Interstate 90. Ryan Creek Meadows debuted with the Pedal to the Metal tour in August, Michael Franti in September and an all-night art, music and dance party called Shine in October. The fledgling venue owned by entrepreneur Toby Hansen garnered some rough reviews due to seating and traffic problems, but others saw the long-term potential of Hansen's eventual dream—building an actual amphitheater to attract top national acts for approximately 12 concerts a year.
Celebrated children's singer-songwriter Bill Harley won his second Grammy Award this year with an album recorded live in Missoula. Yes to Running! uses material from two separate 2007 Missoula shows, and showcases what Harley's best at: writing folk and blues songs that speak smartly and with humor to—not down to—kids.
October's Montana Festival of the Book doubled as a chance for some of the nation's best crime novelists to pay tribute to the late James Crumley, who died in September 2008. A retrospective of his life's work included references to classics like The Last Good Kiss and The Right Madness, and featured a panel of renowned writers Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman and James Grady. The four spoke of Crumley's influence on their own work, and debated his plots (or lack thereof), distinct word choice and, most of all, the soft side that didn't always come through in his writing. The session gave a poignant sense of the high regard in which Crumley continues to be held both in and beyond his genre.
As with everything this year, the Missoula arts scene suffered at the hands of a brutal economy. The Whooping Crones and Gibson & Schweyen galleries both closed partly due to economic factors, and several others reported historic drops in sales. Area theater, music and dance organizations—plus most individual artists—struggled to secure grant funding and maintain donations. The annual Missoula Art Museum auction, for example, brought in $40,000 less than it did in 2008.
But it wasn't all bad news. The Montana Cultural Council announced that funds received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are slated to go to state arts councils, with Montana getting $291,000 for the 2010–2011 fiscal year. Enterprising local artists like Leslie Millar and Adelaide Every talked to the Indy about ways they were re-marketing their work to adapt to the economy. And other organizations, like the Zootown Arts Community Center, hired new staff and diversified its programs to meet new challenges. As one would expect from Missoula's irrepressible arts community, many viewed the recession as a call for creative solutions that they were more than willing to provide.