Moonlight MusicFest brings big music to Big Sky – Explore Big Sky
Moonlight MusicFest brings big music to Big Sky – Explore Big Sky


BIG SKY — The days were warm and the evenings brisk during Moonlight MusicFest, held the weekend of Aug. 16 on the slopes of Moonlight Basin. In its second year, the festival brought in fresh ensembles to perform a variety of music beneath the panoramic landscape of Lone Peak.

Bayard Dominick,
vice president of planning and development for Lone Mountain Land Company, the prominent Big Sky developer that
manages Moonlight, Spanish Peaks and various Town Center developments, emphasized that selecting strong musical
acts is the foundation for any successful festival. “Part of the strategy … is
to have an eclectic collection of bands to draw people who follow those bands
from all over the country.”

LynnAnne Hagar, the
event’s chief organizer, echoed Dominick’s sentiments. “People came to
the festival not always knowing a lot of the bands, but were totally excited
about how great they were, and realized they even knew some of the more popular

In a time when many
music festivals appear to celebrate gaudy outfits and iPhone photography more
than the music itself, Moonlight MusicFest stands out. While the majesty of
Lone Peak dominated the optics, music reigned supreme, much to the enjoyment of
the earnest assembly of fans in attendance.

Day 1:
On the first day of the festival, coach buses shuttled concertgoers up the
mountain, a lively forum for friends to debate which artists they were most
excited to see. None were more exhilarated than return visitors such as Gary
Wheeler. Hailing from Tacoma, Washington, Wheeler and his family attended last
year’s inaugural event on a whim but immediately recognized they were a part of
something special.

“We had to come
back as soon as we saw [the festival] was happening again,” Wheeler said. “We only
came because of The Wood Brothers last year but ended up loving the whole thing
and the areas, as well”

As the buses approached
the venue, the rugged Headwaters ridge came into sight, with Lone Peak standing
proudly behind. Upon arrival, some concertgoers idled in the entryway, lined
with food and merchandise vendors, while others explored the remainder of the

The stage stood at
the base of Moonlight Basin’s Cupajo ski run and the audience spanned up the
length of a headwall. The Spanish Peaks decorated the northern view and Lone
Peak claimed the south, resting bare of snow before another Montana winter.

Satsang took the stage first at 4 p.m., breaking the ice with a blend of rock
and roll, soul and reggae sounds. Their performance was the band’s last before
turning their trio into a quartet. The hillside crowd made their way down to
the stage-front area for a personal look at the band, whose frontman, Drew
McManus, said, “Whether we’re on a beach in Florida or Cali, the mountains are
just where I want to be.”

After Satsang
finished their set, Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band took the stage. Ritter,
sporting a trademark infectious smile and with palpable electricity, kicked the
festival into full swing with his unique take on the Americana genre. The crowd
swelled as Ritter’s sprightly vibes took hold of fans, causing many to abandon
their perches along the headwall.

By the time St.
Paul and the Broken Bones took the stage, a soft evening light had cloaked the
crowd in gold—a perfect aesthetic for the bold style of frontman Paul Janeway,
adorned with a flowing sequined robe, a modern act with a presence akin to that
of Elton John.

The New Orleans band’s
style, Janeway said, is inspired by “David Bowie, Otis Redding, and a mishmash
of artists, but [one that] all boils down to good bass, good drums and good

The audience crooned
lyrics alongside the band and egged-on the lead singer’s showmanship and vocal timbre
with raucous applause and dancing, enticing him to climb into the audience for
a one-of-a-kind moment.

Trampled by Turtles, the Duluth, Minnesota, based bluegrass powerhouse closed out night one with a tremendous performance, complete with expert picking and harmonizing. PHOTO BY JUSTINE ESSLINGER

Closing out the
first evening of world-class talent, Trampled by Turtles began its set around
9:30 p.m. Luckily for the Duluth, Minnesota, based bluegrass sextet, bluegrass
and a Montana audience go hand in hand. Fast-paced plucking, expertly picked
mandolin and frantic fiddling sent the crowd into a jigging, two-stepping

By the time the
encore came to a close, nearly everyone had rushed into the fray. But even
after the stage cleared, the party kept going: The parking lot had a few
buskers for those looking to squeeze a few last drops of music out, and the
ride back down the mountain was filled with off-pitch singing, passionate
conversation and laughter shared between friends—old and new.

Day 2:

The second day of
Moonlight MusicFest arrived with as much promise as the first and fans
clambered onto busses with enthusiasm equal to that of the day before—even
those that had slightly overindulged the previous evening. As Montana native
Virginia O’Donnell so succinctly put it, “We [Montanans] like the sort of fun
that comes back to bite us.”

Bozeman’s The Dusty
Pockets provided a perfect introduction to the day with their performance of
their self-proclaimed genre, “recreational Americana.” Their take on the music
style featured a faultless balance between soulful melodies and gritty, lively
harmonies. It was confirmed then and there: day two was the real deal.

Dwayne Dopsie & The Zydeco Hellraisers brought things into full swing with their New Orleans flair. Harmonica, washboard and accordion made welcome additions to the more-common instruments of the festival, and the band’s Bayou soul invigorated the audience. Band members routinely walked into the crowd to join in on the fun, climaxing in a conga line led by frontman zydeco master Dwayne Dopsie himself.

The War and Treaty
piggybacked on the success of the previous two bands and kept the crowd dancing
with their slower breed of rock before one of the most anticipated bands made
their entrance.

The Wood Brothers,
a Grammy-nominated assembly and a repeat booking at MusicFest, delivered on the
hype generated by their previous visit, leading the crowd in singalongs, cracking
jokes and appearing right at home on a stage nestled into the mountains of
southwest Montana. Toward the end of their set, The War and Treaty joined in on
the action to forge a memorable amalgam of voices, reminding the audience of
the talent they had seen over the last two days.

As evening hues pulled westward across the sky, the crowd flowed onto the hard-packed dance floor to get down with The Record Company, whose music presented a slight deviation in style from those that preceded them on the MusicFest stage; their more archetypal rock set them apart from the soul, folk and Americana groups of the day and the audience took advantage of one of the most energetic shows of the festival.

Blackberry Smoke, the second evening’s headliner, brought MusicFest home with a Grade-A performance. PHOTO BY JUSTINE ESSLINGER

it was time for headliner Blackberry Smoke to take the stage. While many of the
attendees with younger children had made their exit, the band called on the
crowd for one last ecstatic push. As they wound down their set, the realization
that this magical weekend has come to a close permeated through the audience. Bittersweet,
as they say.

Dominick says the
festival represents more than the sum of its parts. “The MusicFest is really
about community building,” he said, “both in terms of expanding and growing the
Big Sky community, but also sharing what Moonlight is all about.”

Part of this year’s
revenue was allocated to the Arts Council of Big Sky and the Moonlight Community
Foundation and the leftover catered food was donated to the Big Sky Community Food
Bank. In keeping with a new trend for events in the area, 406 Recycling helped
reduce the environmental impact these sorts of large-scale events can have.

Moonlight MusicFest
bookends a jam-packed summer in Big Sky that featured more events than ever
before. As days quickly grow shorter and evening temperatures dip into the 40s,
events are waning but the warm glow of an unforgettable summer still remains.