A telling anecdote about the Aber Day Kegger in Missoula, that paradigm of 1970s liberation, subversiveness, feel-good music, pot, mud and 1,000 kegs of beer:

It rained in 1978.

Not hard. Not even steady. But just enough to keep 10,000 kegger-goers - many of whom plunked down $8 or $9 to get into the K-O Rodeo Grounds up Miller Creek - wet all day long.

What's more, the sound equipment for the bands in town slated to play that Wednesday in May was lost somewhere between Calgary and Missoula. The music, scheduled to start at 1 p.m., fired up more than three hours later. Organizers tried to slow the flow of beer so things didn't get nasty.

But three decades and a year later, ask anyone who was there and few seem to recall the unpleasantness.

They're more likely to talk of the shows the Mission Mountain Wood Band and Elvin Bishop put on, or how they were introduced to their beau in the beer line, or their giggling slide down the hillside, or the dancing they did in the rodeo arena.

"The most incredible moment I ever spent on stage was in 1978," longtime musician Rob Quist says an hour into a documentary about the kegger that debuts Thursday night.

"The entire rodeo grounds was filled with people, and then past the rodeo grounds, and then of course that huge hill out there," Quist recalls. "We were performing to a sheer wall of people."

What most people who were at one, some or all eight Aber Day Keggers held from 1972 to 1979 recall about the mid-May weather is how it usually foiled forecasters who called for the worst - and how, at some point after things got rolling, it didn't matter anymore.

The kegger grew out of an earlier-in-the century tradition at the University of Montana, when students and faculty took a one-day hiatus from classes each spring to plant trees and clean up the campus. William "Daddy" Aber, a professor of Greek at UM from 1895 until 1919, initiated the program.

No one's sure what Daddy Aber would have thought about turning his day into a massive music and beer party. As the documentary relates, that idea germinated in professor Marty Baker's social action class at UM in the early 1970s. Baker challenged his students to devise community service projects and someone noted the funding shortage that was hamstringing the UM library's ability to buy books.

The first library benefit kegger was held in 1972 in lower Deer Creek, east of East Missoula. Two years, later it moved to Miller Creek south of town, first in the Linda Vista area in 1974, then to the K-O Rodeo Grounds for the final five years.

The staple act if not the headliner in those latter years was Quist's Mission Mountain Wood Band, whose music provides the background score to the documentary. Interviews with Quist and bandmate Steve Riddle are scattered throughout the movie.

As early as 1974, the kegger was attracting national acts such as Bishop and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Doug Kershaw and Earl Scruggs played in '75 - and Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker, as well as a new sister act, Heart, were there in '76.

A young Bonnie Raitt wowed the crowd in 1977. The final bill in 1979 was made up of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Lamont Cranston, and the local Live Wire Choir, as well as Mission Mountain.

Bob McCue sneaked into his first Aber Day kegger in 1974. He and a friend walked along the Bitterroot River to get to the Retriever Trials grounds in lower Miller Creek. Five years later, McCue was chairman of University Liquid Assets Corp., a nonprofit set up early in the kegger's history. McCue presided over the final party in 1979.

The film details the pressures he and the board were under - from the university, the health department and County Commissioner Barbara Evans - to put an end to the event. McCue directed the words "The Last Benefit" be included at the top of the final poster, designed by Monte Dolack.

"In many respects, we went out on top," McCue said this week.

Liquid Assets made a small profit, he said, the crowd was large, lots of beer was consumed or at least poured, and cars arriving at the party were backed up several miles to Kmart for only a couple of hours.

"People had a great time, it was a great day," said McCue. "But we just decided it was time to close the door and turn out the lights, because nobody else wanted to take it on. It was like, man, I've got to graduate and get out of here, go on with my life."

Liquid Assets had hired Bruce Barrett, now a Missoula attorney, to film the last three keggers, but "then it just went into a box," McCue said. "We were students. We didn't know what to do with it."

The box sat in McCue's basement for most of the next 30 years, until he and Jeff McNaught, who was McCue's predecessor as Liquid Assets chairman, decided to do something with it.

"You know, I spent 30 years really trying to forget (the kegger)," said McCue, who grew up in Missoula and still lives here. "I would just kind of grovel about how I've got all these memories in a box, and should we ever bring them out?"

The answer was ultimately yes, and the 30th anniversary of the last kegger seemed to be the right time to do it.

"After 30 years people still have memories about it, but after 40 years they may not, and it may be a lot tougher to pull all the people together to build this movie," said McCue, executive director of the 85-minute film.

It was created by Becca Sayre and Marcus Chebus, UM graduate students working on their first documentary. Besides the footage of fun and debauchery, it features interviews with more than 30 people who attended, played for, or put on the event, which made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest benefit kegger.

Sayre and Chebus also interviewed Evans, who led the fight to end the affair.

"When you get that many kids together and that much to drink, they lose their inhibitions," said Evans at the time. "There is a considerable amount of sex in the open and urinating upon the hill."

McCue publicly disputed Evans' "sex in the open" assertion and invited her to come to the '79 kegger and see for herself, which Evans and other city and county officials did.

Now he counts the recently retired commissioner as a "pretty good friend." They even sat down at her house a month ago and viewed the film together.

"We had a great time," McCue said. "She had a whole new understanding what it was like to put this on. She didn't realize the pressures we were under."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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