Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio seemed pleased with the view at the new Big Sky Brewing Company Amphitheater.
After a few songs, he paused to banter about the panorama from the stage, which included a sun-drenched Lolo Peak.
"You've got the moon, you've got the mountains," he said on Saturday night, before continuing the inaugural show on the venue's massive new stage and grassy bowl.
Audiences there to hear Anastasio and his seven-piece backing band seemed equally happy with the new venue.
Knitting Factory Presents, the promoter for the summer concerts at the brewery, invested in significant improvements on the site of Airway Boulevard, where they've held shows for 10 years. The new stage, with 40 feet of clearance, allowed plenty of room for Anastasio's band and their lighting designs.
Viewing that action is vastly easier with the engineered bowl, which slopes about 6 vertical feet from the back to the front of the stage. It's a boon to concert-goers who are below average height.
The crowd of about 2,000 people was as easy-going as you'd expect for an Anastasio show on a Saturday in June in Montana. Toward the front on the concrete pad, people danced feet from the stage, which is raised about 4 feet from the ground. While Phish long ago outgrew venues in the Missoula area, at this show it didn't take much effort to reach the front where you could see Anastasio, a preternaturally cheerful performer, up close.
The sound was as solid as could be. Anastasio didn't bring the simplest group to mix, either. His band comprises a three-piece horn section, who doubled on back-up vocals; himself on guitar and vocals; keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, drummer Russ Lawton, and the superb percussionist Cyro Baptista. While many in the audience seemed winded by the 85-degree heat, Baptista, situated behind a custom kit of percussion gadgets including sheet metal, wore a fur hat the entire show. Perhaps what counts as heat in western Montana doesn't mean much to a Brazilian.
Anastasio was also proud to announce that after 19 years, he was playing with his bassist and Helena native Tony Markellis in his home state. "That's the way they play bass in this part of the country," Anastasio said, "Like this."
On cue, the band members dropped out for a few bars of Markellis solo. Indeed, the bass at the new venue was powerful but not overwhelming.
With that mix of instruments, often in kinetic funk jams, the sound remained clear at various spots around the bowl. At the opposite end of the grounds by the food trucks, there was some slap-back, but there's not a compelling reason to linger that far from the stage anyway.
It almost goes without saying, but Anastasio puts on a great live show. The Vermont native, ranked No. 73 on Rolling Stone's list of best guitarists, has a deeply melodic and unindulgent way of soloing at length. He's assimilated the major-key generosity of Allman Brothers' Dickie Betts, a dash of Santana's legato phrasing, and some of Frank Zappa's harmonic weirdness. He also has a deep sense of the pocket, buoyed by a serious rhythm section.
He's a generous bandleader, and gave ample space to his horn players. Saxophonist James Casey turned out excellent solos on tenor and baritone. Natalie Cressman on trombone and Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet were featured from the get-go as well, and all three lent a sense of structure and drama during the extended jams. For good measure, there was a big band-style swing tune.
The engineered bowl makes a huge difference from the previous level field.
In years past at Big Sky shows, people would often show up early to put down blankets and small chairs. By the time the band had started, though, you'd often find yourself sitting behind a standing crowd. With the bowl, it's easy to snag a spot toward the back where you can sit and still have an unobstructed view of the stage.
Some parts of the back, too, were undesignated, family-friendly kids' zones, where future Phish fans were running around and playing like it was a free Caras Park show.
Some shows will allow for first-come, first-served seating. At some, such as UB40, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals and Lee Brice, there will be dedicated seating in the bowl.
At Anastasio's show, shade was at a premium. Temperatures were hitting the mid-80s, and many early arrivals snagged the spots around the bowl where a small retaining wall provided a bit of precious cover.
Tickets started at $42, and the band didn't leave room for anyone to feel cheated. They powered through two sets with no opener, working their way from tighter songs at the introduction, and then stretched out after the sun went down and the crowd energy picked up in the cooler temperatures. Minus an intermission, they played from around 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Toward the end of the second set, the band went a cappella for a short rendition of "The Parting Glass," an Irish traditional tune with the lyric, "Goodnight and joy be with you all." Naturally, it broke back out into an extended funk jam before the evening closed out.
Phish hasn't played in Missoula since the '90s, making an Anastasio show a novel way to introduce the new venue. More than one person said it was a 100 percent improvement, and the energy seemed to bear out that sentiment.
There's lots of parking on site, but there are some options for alternative transportation:
- An Uber from the downtown area runs at about $17 to $24 on the way there. Not long after the show ended, prices were an agreeable $23 for an UberXL. Oddly, an UberX was listed at $48. Surge pricing can often spike the cost, and it could be a fluke, considering that the XL was so reasonable.
- Alternatively, biking from downtown takes about 30 minutes. If you'd like to avoid pedaling along West Broadway, you can take Cemetery Road on the Westside. The route has significantly less traffic, except for crossing Reserve Street to reach Expressway Boulevard.
- The second beer and wine station wasn't open yet but service at the single station was fast, taking less than 5 minutes. Volunteers from nonprofit Trout Unlimited are quick pours and will get a cut of the proceeds, like all shows at Big Sky.
- Unlike many outdoor venues, Big Sky isn't in the bottled water business. You can bring in one sealed bottle of water or a canteen, and fill it up at the water stations on the side of the building.