BONNER — Colorado has the Red Rocks. Washington has the Gorge.
On Monday, the ribbon will be cut on the KettleHouse Amphitheater, western Montana's own outdoor venue with a scenic view.
The 4,000-capacity facility isn't as large as either of those, but owner Nick Checota doesn't think there's any venues quite like his anywhere — a deep amphitheater bowl with contemporary architecture, top-of-the-line sound and views of the Blackfoot River.
"I think it's going to be one of the coolest venues in the country," he said on a tour on Friday. It offers scenic vistas at an intimate scale. Standing at the very back of the amphitheater's lawn, he guessed it was only 150 yards to the stage. Even in the farthest remove, you could still see what brand of shoes of the artists are wearing.
Because Missoula sits on a route that touring acts take between Red Rocks and the Gorge, he hopes to draw in big acts that will play a smaller venue if the quality is high enough and it has the right infrastructure.
For the first season, they've already booked two bands that are stopping at Red Rocks: reunited alt-rock weirdos Ween, and the 12-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band. Once agents and acts see the new digs, he believes even more artists like them will follow suit.
"Next year, we'll have a different level of band that normally wouldn't play a 4,000-capacity venue," he said.
After the first season, he envisions using it for festivals and performing arts events, such as the Missoula Symphony Orchestra or Shakespeare in the Park.
"I like to think this is an asset to the community," he said. "In the state of Montana, there's nothing like this. This isn't limited to just concerts."
On Friday, crews were putting on the finishing touches, such as the parking lots and some of the bowl's railings, all on track for a ribbon-cutting on Monday with Gov. Steve Bullock and the Missoula County commissioners. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band will officially open the venue on Thursday.
It's a fast turnaround for an idea broached only last October between KettleHouse owner Tim O'Leary and Checota, the owner of entertainment production company Logjam Presents. The KettleHouse was constructing an expansive new canning facility on its property at the former Stimson mill site in Bonner, and O'Leary mentioned the idea of an outdoor venue.
Checota had already been mulling such an idea, an addition to his two large concert spaces in Missoula. The former medical real estate developer bought and renovated the Top Hat Lounge in 2012-13, followed by the Wilma in 2015.
He invested significantly in sound and facility upgrades for the audience and the artists alike, under the idea that the music industry has shifted toward an "experience" model. Bands, for instance, will come to smaller markets like Missoula if they're treated well. Audiences will support venues that have great bands and quality facilities.
"That's our total focus, whether that's how they queue up at the entrance, whether that's how the service is at the bar, whether that's how the production and sound is," he said.
The KettleHouse signed a long-term lease for the land, and Logjam paid for the stage and improvements. They broke ground in mid-January.
Checota served as his own general contractor, working almost entirely with local subcontractors, many of whom he used for the Wilma and the Top Hat. At its peak, 150 people were working on site. Beaudette Engineering designed the structural slab for the bowl, which required Fontaine Enterprises to pour 1,400 yards of concrete. Caras Nursery is handling the landscaping, primarily using native plants.
Checota designed the stage himself, which is nestled farther down toward the river after they excavated the mill's old fill material. The stage and wings are supported by black painted steel, fabricated by Bitterroot Welding.
The fir-panel and steel-lined roof stands 42 feet high in the front and 30 feet at the slanted back end, inspired more by residential design than a commercial building. It stands 60 feet wide and 40 feet deep, which can "handle the rider of almost any artist," he said. "Pearl Jam would accept the rider of this stage."
It can accommodate either the touring band's sound system or the one he purchased for the Wilma.
The back end of the stage sits along the river, and a sloping road at its east side will allow the touring bands' semis to back in and load equipment.
The stage is ringed by audience seating with three main levels: the general admission pit, which will generally be standing-room only with space for 750. (Some shows, such as Lyle Lovett's opener, will have chairs in the pit.)
The next step up are the tiers, which have fixed, reserved seating for 1,100 people. A row of nine, private corporate boxes sits at the top tier. Those are for sale on a concert-by-concert basis this year, and a season-long subscription next year.
The outer ring is a sloped lawn with space for up to 2,000. In theory, it could fit a thousand more, but they're waiting to see how it works with the current cap.
It's steep enough that you won't need a chair to sit comfortably — they're allowing blankets and Crazy Creek camp chairs only.
Even if you pick a seated spot close to the railing, it's designed so you can see right through the horizontal support cables to the stage.
The bowl is deeper than it the appears in the diagrams released earlier this year: the height difference between the front of the stage and the very back of the lawn is 32 feet.
"One of the things about this venue that's so different from anything else in the region is that we're all about view lines, so every single seat in this place should have a view line clear to the stage without anything blocking it," he said. "The reason you have this kind of slope is to maintain view lines from anywhere you're sitting."
In the tight canyon, the sun has been setting before 8 p.m., which will allow bands to put their light and production to use early in the evening.
At either side of the amphitheater at ground level, they've built two permanent concession stands with eight service stations each.
"Our rule is, you should never wait more than two minutes for a drink," he said. Each concert will employ about 100 people, and required hiring about 45 new workers.
The Top Hat will cater, with a full liquor license and KettleHouse beers. The brewery is canning an American light lager, Bonner Logger, to give concert-goers an option that's less heavy than its signature pales, IPAs and Scotch ale. For the Tedeschi Trucks show, they've made a specialty wheat ale, Not My Wheat To Bear, that will benefit a music education group.
(They'll have servers with beer trays working in the lawn, and the private boxes will have drink service, too.)
The Top Hat kitchen will be selling food on site under a "summer grilling" theme, such as local-beef burgers and sausages, sushi and Asian sesame noodle salad, and skewers. There's potential for pre-order picnic baskets as well.
The other concession stand sits along the river on a raised concrete patio. While it doesn't seem like it, the 3,000-square-foot space is larger than the Top Hat. There will be fire-pits and benches, along with a rail that gives a view of the audience and the stage.
The artist green rooms are situated underneath the patio. They'll have their own riverside patio, multiple bathrooms and a catering area.
Elsewhere on site, there's a permanent merchandise booth, a space for 40 portable toilets, a ticket booth and a secure entrance wide enough for seven lines.
In the future, there's potential for tourism packages that sell Montana as a destination and a concert as the anchor, he said. For instance, you could sign up for a guided Blackfoot float trip when you buy your ticket, and get picked up and dropped off right at the venue.
Because construction used up a good portion of the summer, the first season will have six shows, with potential for one more.
"Our goal was to get the word out, cover a bunch of genres, get agents to understand the venue's open for business in 2018, and work out all of our operating kinks," he said.
Word-of-mouth for the Wilma took about one season. By its second year of operation, acts like Mastodon and Fleet Foxes kicked off tours there. He hopes that the unique setting at Bonner will do the same.
The place will "sell itself" as bands tour more, pushed on by the decline in sales of recorded music.
"We just think this is where the industry is going and we're trying to be a leader," he said.