My family and I moved to Missoula last September. My wife grew up here, attending Big Sky High School, but moved to LA in 1998. I grew up in rural Virginia but left there to join the Navy, and was assigned to a California base in 1977.
Spending the last 30+ years in California, including the past seven in LA, I missed those wonderfully simply family traditions that I had grown up with in Virginia. As you can imagine, life in the big city is quite a hustle and bustle. Although I had been to a First Night celebration in Fullerton, California about 10 years ago, it was nothing compared to the incredible First Night celebration event here in Missoula.
This Missoula tradition began in 1994, making this year's celebration their 20th anniversary. The event is put on every year by the wonderful people at the Missoula Cultural Council. This year's event was spearheaded by Executive Director Tom Bensen and Program Direction Matt Anglen.
As you can imagine, there are far more activities than any one person can experience in a day, so there's a lot of "picking and choosing" to decide what to do. Lucky, there are plenty of great choices. Some of the events take place throughout the day, like the ice carving, Kung Fu movie marathon, rides on the Carousel, ice skating at the Glacier Ice Rink, and swimming at Currents Aquatic Center, providing a change of pace from the musical, theater, and other cultural events which occur at set times.
Another unique feature of Missoula First Night is the use of special buttons, which can be purchased in advance, saving a couple of dollars over the price on First Night. These buttons allow the patrons to visit and take part in any of the 90 events going on throughout the day and night of First Night at a multitude of venues scattered around the downtown and University areas of Missoula. There are activities going on from noon to midnight.
Our first stop was the Missoula Art Museum, where we listened to some incredible jazz performed by The Captain Wilson Conspiracy, a four piece consisting of pianist Keaton Wilson, guitarist DR Halsell, percussionist Ed Stalling and Steve Kalling on doublebass. The room was packed with people and the smooth jazz sounds permeated the air, creating a great start to the day.
From there we moved on to the Dana Gallery for more jazz, this time with Jazz Graffiti, a sextant of incredibleness who were celebrating their 10th anniversary playing together. They had such a remarkable unity that made their music sound all the sweeter. Among their members was UM Professor Beth Lo, who is also a member of Big Sky Mudflaps.
We had some time to kill before heading over to the Wilma Theater, so we wandered around downtown a bit and checked out the ice carving going on at the Courthouse. The sculptures were amazing, and many patrons stopped by, took pictures and enjoyed them.
We headed over to the Wilma for a pair of shows. The first featured local singer/songwriter Kira Means and her special guest Doug Barrett. Kira is a UM student who won the prestigious First Night Star competition in 2010 when she was just 15 and a student at Hellgate High. She studies music therapy psychology by day and writes and performs incredible music by night. Her set was sweet with a good mixture of originals and jazz standards. Besides her original numbers We'll Stay, Sentimental Lady, Water and Color Me February, my favorite part of the show was the duet between Means and Barrett on Baby it's Cold Outside. It was the perfect segue between Means and the artist who would follow her, local icon Jenn Adams.
Adams teamed up with Beth Youngblood, and it was a match made in heaven. The addition of Youngblood's violin and mandolin truly complemented the smooth tones of Adams' guitar and vocals, soothing the packed house with some of the finest music I had heard since arriving in Missoula. Adams' set was packed with powerful covers and originals, culminating in their own take on one of Bach's classic concertos, played on guitar and mandolin. The set came to an end with one of the best arrangements I have ever heard of John Lennon's classic anthem for world peace, Imagine. It was obvious that a lot of thought had gone into her set list, as she excelled on such classic covers as Sitting on the Dock of the Bay and Back to the Garden, infusing them with her own blues twist. I especially enjoyed the Adams' original Four White Ponies.
We left the Wilma and headed over the the University Center to close out our evening. We stopped in for a few songs by another local icon, Bill Mize and Beth Bramhall before heading into the Ballroom for Big Sky Mudflaps (BSM).
BSM bills themselves as Montana's premier dance band, and they delivered on that claim. Many of the audience members took to the dance floor and danced the night away. It was a good final stop for us before we headed over to a New Year's Eve party at the home of the one and only Howard Kingston to ring in 2014. I can't wait to do it all over next December 31.