Though much of the West has been suburbanized, Montana has held on to its frontier spirit, and with that, a healthy love of raucous conviviality, libations and entertainment. The untamed postcard landscape, and the hearty and down-to-earth people make an ideal ecosystem for the flourishing Big Sky live music scene. Below are 10 of the best venues in Montana.
A downtown music mecca since 1952, the Top Hat’s band list is an impressively-eclectic mix of artists. Many big names visit the area, making the modernized, highly intimate lounge an excellent host for long-lasting musical experiences. Whether one is looking to hear blues, stoner rock, country, death metal, or anything, really, the case for Top Hat is strengthened by a very decent locally-sourced tapas menu. So, after mosh-pitting, grab a cold beer and any number of delicious, sharable apps and sandwiches.
The “Pub Station” is a primo music venue, combining the charm of the building’s history as a Greyhound bus station and a vast selection of brews—there are 32 on tap. The place is an ideal spot to see live music and enjoy an excellent beer (or glass of wine). Shows are held Thursday-Monday, and the venue itself is primarily general admission (standing). There are two strengths to the Station: a strong calendar of artists, ranging from the heavier Cavalera Brothers and Obituary to pop stars like Aaron Carter, and a great happy hour from 4-6 p.m., in which all beers are only $2! (Some age restrictions apply at certain events.)
Home to the yearly International Wildlife Film Festival and a host of famous acts, the Wilma is immediately noticeable from the street downtown: Its retro-chic, lightbulb-laced marquee simulates the nostalgia of decades’ past. The first high-rise built in Missoula, the venue’s 100-year history is steeped in cinema and live entertainment. Now under the same ownership as the nearby Top Hat, the Wilma was renovated in 2015—updating the stage, seating and sound system. But the historic foundation and nature of the building has remained largely unchanged—it still possesses the charm of mid-1900s architecture and residual popularity of the era of the Silver Screen.
The Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park are unavoidable magnets for camera-toting tourists—and the Stonefly Lounge attracts all the best music acts traveling amongst the traffic. It’s an ideal rest-stop for a good selection of whiskey, great live music and local Montana brews. The venue itself, “The Cube,” sports the most modern lightning and soundboard, and the stage is surprisingly roomy. The Stonefly benefits from being a great stopover for any number of bands traveling to larger Montanan cities or the Northwest writ large. It receives an eclectic mix of bands of the Mountain-Western-Northwestern variety: mixtures of blues, rock, bluegrass, country, alternative and fusion.
Within the campus of Montana State University, “The Brick” complex houses both an 8,900-person stadium and a more intimate theatre space with great layout and acoustics. Come a smaller-scale live play or live music, the 9,000-seat complex transforms into the 3,300-seat Theatre at The Brick (all tickets are seated). Given its ability to adapt to the configuration of most any show, The Brick receives professionals throughout the artistic spectrum: From Toby Keith and Elton John to MSU basketball and Shakespeare. And the fact that it’s cosmopolitan Bozeman, there’re any number of other bars and street corners to catch some tunes.
The Lewis & Clark Brewery is actually a collection of buildings, the oldest of which date back 125 years. First, it was a smokehouse, then a seed company, then a successful paint company, and finally, a brewery/event space, with each incarnation adding buildings and square footage. The long history of Lewis & Clark still remains in Montana, and this pioneer spirit informs the brewery’s take on beer and hosting music. The complex has plenty of indoor general admission and outdoor deck space, accommodating larger-scale, more produced bands or more intimate, crowd-centered ones. While enjoying regional or national rock stars, sip a local ale, and grab a local brat or pizza, with crust made from spent beer grains.
Billings rests near the conflagration of seven mountain ranges, and as such, is an intersection of arts and culture. Alberta Bair is a renowned member of the Billings (and Montanan) community, and responsible for funding the restoration of the capital theater that was to bear her name. The ABT is now the largest art center in the region and the ideal venue for both classical music and classical theatre. This 1,400-seat beauty has an upper and lower balcony, and larger floor section, ideal for intimate shows and orchestral sessions. Check the website for show details and tickets.
Being a ski resort, Big Sky has the advantage—perhaps unfairly so—of resting upon some unmatched Montanan mountain real estate. So, seeing any event, music or otherwise, is sure to leave an imprint—perhaps it’s the scenery, perhaps the elevation. And the Mountain Village is the particularly beautiful setting in which most concerts occur. The main retail and accommodation thoroughfare threading the resort, the village is cradled by log and stone architecture and flows with warm libations and conversation. And regular concert series keep the tunes going all year—for summer, it’s Music in the Mountains, and Big Sky Big Grass in February. It’s hard to beat the vibe of a crowd of exhausted skiers and tourists, gaining their second wind amongst likeminded strangers, reinvigorated with food, a drink and great live music echoing from snow-capped cabins and from the powdery slope of Big Sky.
Though assuming the name “Casey’s” in 1967, for over a century, the building has always been a place for pool, beer, and lately, live music. The Central Avenue establishment has long drawn locals and tourists, but a 2012 renovation has increased the traffic. This influx is largely due to a multi-level, multi-experience design, including a rooftop Sky Bar, VIP balcony, lounge and larger street-level dining and dance floor that transforms when the sun goes down. The venue is great for drinks and grub, and the recent renovation has modernized the space, attracting a promising hodgepodge of artists, from EDM to progressive bluegrass. And when there isn’t a great local or national artist performing, a DJ is in house each Friday and Saturday, and Wednesday hosts open mics.
The casino and poker tables aside, the Railyard is a great live gathering place for libations, laughter and live music. It has an impressive selection of beer, especially local Montana brews, that’s best enjoyed during happy hour (4-6 p.m., drafts $2-3). For the most part, the Railyard toes the line between dive bar and brew-pub, to which the time-tested rule can be applied: The more divey the bar, the better the music—or the very least, the tunes are grittier, less pretentious and raw. But if you prefer poppier or dance-oriented music, the venue also draws a variety of genres, including dance, hip-hop and a smattering of assorted DJs.