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Think of First Night Missoula as a community barn-raising for the performing arts.

On New Year's Eve, around 7,000 to 8,000 attendees will fan out across downtown Missoula, at Southgate Mall and the University of Montana to celebrate what the city has to offer in music, dance, visual arts and more.

This year, that list includes 85 events and activities at 30-some venues, according to Tom Bensen, executive director of the Missoula Cultural Council.

It includes something for everyone, including return acts and some new ones.

Tom Catmull and Radio Static will take the big stage at UM's Dennison Theatre at 10:15 p.m.

Bensen said perennially popular groups are returning, such as the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Wilma Theatre.

Per tradition, the Ed Norton Big Band will offer a classic brassy closeout to the evening from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. in UM's University Center Ballroom.

For a different genre at countdown time, the Drum Brothers will perform at the same time in the UC Commons.

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There is the usual smorgasbord of non-musical events blended in with the tunes that First Night acolytes have come to expect.

On the Missoula County Courthouse lawn, ice-carvers will be chipping away from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and art venues also have joined the action.

The Dana Gallery at West Broadway and Higgins Avenue will host Jazz Graffiti, Blue Moon, and James Wallace and Pete Hand.

The E3 Convergence Gallery on West Main Street will host a slate of singer-songwriters starting at 3:30 p.m., and the Zootown Arts Community Center on North First Street will have a lineup of rock bands.

Over at the Roxy Theater on South Higgins, a First Night button will earn you free admission to a daylong marathon of classic kung-fu films.

The Dennison Theatre will turns its stage over to a host of dance organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre, Ballet Arts Academy, Bare Bait Dance Company, Headwaters Dance Company, the Brass Consort, and Unity Dance and Drum.

First Night Spotlight, a local high school singing competition, has grown so popular that tickets are sold in advance. The extra $2 ensures that everyone can get a seat, Bensen said.

The 13 finalists will compete in front of judges Greg Boris of Missoula Children's Theatre; musician Adrienne Dussault; Matt Doucette, manager of the Holiday Inn Downtown. Billy Jenkins of KYSS-FM will emcee.

The judges will select a winner based on "voice quality, song choice, stage presence, audience engagement, dramatization/choreography and costume choice."

The top three will receive a medal, gift basket and recording sessions at Sound West Studios to help kick off their musical career.

Bensen said they're discussing a performance by Victoria Valentine, a previous winner of the First Night Spotlight and current Miss Montana.

Once the 10th annual competition is over, KBGA 89.9 FM College Radio will take over the venue for a dance party.

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula will kick off Missoula 150, its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Missoula. Head over the MCT Center for the Performing Arts on Adams Street to see its interactive historical displays.

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Bensen said First Night attendance has held steady for several years at between 7,000 and 8,000 over the course of 12 hours, which he said is a comfortable level where attendees can see their desired acts without too much crowding. Traffic peaks between 6 and 10 p.m., he said, with many families attending events earlier in the day.

To minimize traffic, shuttle buses will run between downtown and UM from 6 p.m. to midnight. Mountain Line also will run for free during its regular hours.

Bensen said the Missoula Cultural Council has also received grants to distribute free buttons through the Women, Infant and Children Program, Youth Homes and other nonprofits so that disadvantaged folks can afford the cost of admission.

He said an important aspect of the festival is paying its performers, and that's why the button system is in place. It's crucial that "we understand and appreciate the value of art," and part of that is paying the cost of admission, he said.

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