PHILIPSBURG – Even though I was a University of Montana student, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the original Aber Day Keggers.
But I now have first-hand knowledge of the Aber Day Reunion concert 36 years later. On Aug. 22, the Philipsburg Rotary Club rekindled the event in Winninghoff Park.
All I can say is: Wowza. What a party.
Of course, I know well the legendary history of Aber Day due to the Montana PBS series, well-worn tales of muddy students sliding down the original Miller Creek rodeo grounds with pitchers of beer in their hands – and the headliners, Mission Mountain Wood Band.
MMWB, in its current incarnation led by original members Rob Quist and the very happy Steve Riddle, attracted a huge chunk of its now-older fans, still crazy after all these years.
Ecstatic with the big turnout, the Rotary committee outdid itself last weekend. Three thousand buoyant fans crammed lawn chair-to-lawn chair on the terraced amphitheater that sits snugly, perfectly below the town’s main street.
The concert set an attendance record in the welcoming little town that has a lot going on, including community theater.
“It was more than double the attendance than what we’ve done before,” said Jim Jenner, event marketing director for Rotary, which built the amphitheater in 2003.
“For a town of 800 people to host three times that many people is a pretty good test.”
John and Robin Hein, who celebrated the original Aber Day Keggers so long ago after meeting at UM, danced with the euphoric masses in front of the stage on Saturday, when MMWB headlined once again.
Carrying keepsake color photos of their 1970’s long-haired selves from the first keggers, the Heins reveled in the equally overjoyed fans around them.
“I went to three Aber Days, in 1974, ’75, ’76,” Robin told me. “And John went to five, from ’73 through ’77. We’ve seen MMWB numerous times since the 1970s … we love seeing them each time.”
Quist and Riddle told the crowd many times how much they love Montana and their devoted fans – even though most of the familiar faces are older, like them.
Unlike their usual concerts, MMWB started with some of their hits like “Take a Whiff on Me.” No working up to their most popular songs; they jumped right in.
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“They’ll probably sing it again later because they’ll forget,” cracked one jovial dancer, not-so-young herself.
And sing it again, they did.
Event coordinator Ed Lord and Jenner told the crowd that they take special pride in the reunion as a nonviolent, upbeat event – unlike many concerts where beer-drinking and other extracurricular vices may prevail.
“At every Aber Day, there was no violence – that’s one of the most amazing things,” Jenner added. “It was a bunch of wild kids putting on a kegger with no violence. That was a tradition we wanted to maintain. It was a phenomenal legacy that we wanted to make happen.”
Again, that is.
Last weekend, opening acts were Shane Clouse and Stomping Ground of Missoula and Conrad native and master yodeler Wylie Gustafson and the Wild West. Then MMWB took the stage.
Even the wildfire smoke dissipated, the sun showed its face and a fresh breeze drifted through the amphitheater, cooling off jitter-buggers, musicians and sitters alike. A few other whiffs hit the air, too, in typical MMWB fashion.
“We built the arena with the idea that we’d have outdoor concerts,” said Jenner.
So far the group has hosted six concerts since 2010.
In the winter, the dancing area transforms into a community ice rink, complete with a Zamboni ice resurfacing machine.
But on Aug. 22, folks from around Montana, many of whom kind of recognized one another from their college days, descended upon P-Burg to celebrate the state’s beloved MMWB.
The Heins have been married for 37 years – one year longer since the last Aber Day Kegger.
“We’ve had a lot of concerts there, but this had a lot of energy,” said Jenner. “It’s a great outdoor facility and the acoustics are good. So many people remembered the Aber Day Kegger. We were so happy about how it all came together.”