In June 2004, Peter Pilkey, a relative newcomer to the Bitterroot, introduced himself to the community by staging a one-night concert in Hamilton the likes of which had rarely, if ever, been seen or heard, at least in these parts.
The show featured blues guitarists Cash McCall and Johnny Rawls, names unknown to most Bitterrooters, but since it was a mild early-summer evening, and because the show was at the Eagles Lodge, which boasts the biggest and best dance floor in Hamilton, a modest crowd was persuaded to come out.
The locals were a bit taken aback by McCall and Rawls before they played so much as a note; one doesn’t often see black, urbane blues musicians decked out in cherry-red fedoras and white patent leather shoes at the Eagles Lodge. They sure looked like the real deal. And with a single thrum of their guitars, they proved they were, propelling the crowd out of their seats and onto the dance floor for one of the area’s most surprisingly memorable shows.
That concert was Pilkey’s way of advertising his first Smokin’ Blues Festival, which was held on Hamilton’s streets and in Hamilton’s bars the following month. As a concert, Rawls/McCall was a blue-ribbon trout stream of live music, and as advertisement, it appeared brilliant. It seemed a shame, then, when Pilkey lost $25,000 on that first festival.
“I could have said, ‘well, I lost my butt,’ and walked away,” Pilkey says. “But it was too beautiful.”
That first spectacularly money-losing festival was indeed beautiful. The beauty of it, as well as encouragement from both McCall and Rawls, was enough to keep Pilkey moving forward with the blues festival he first thought up at Bitterrooters’ favorite watering hole, the Bitter Root Brewery. And it was at that same brew pub where he reminisced just last week.
Pilkey is a retired firefighter from Seattle who spent 11 years in eastern Washington before relocating to the Bitterroot in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. His years in eastern Washington honed his love of blues, thanks to the blues concerts held there nearly every weekend.
“But after 9/11, I needed a new place to go,” he says. He arrived in Hamilton, bringing his enthusiasm for live blues with him. Hashing out a germ of a plan with the regulars at the pub, he said, “what if I could bring some blues here?” So he lined up some audio, lighting and stage guys, called a few musicians and commenced to put on a show. “It was so easy it was pathetic.”
Until opening night, when, despite the great word-of-mouth that had blown around town following the McCall and Rawls concert only weeks earlier, few people showed up. “The worst thing that happened was looking out and seeing no one,” Pilkey says.
Pilkey spent the next year and half paying off the $25,000 he lost in year one. He blames his financial losses on himself and his ignorance of the promotion game. Last year, the second annual blues fest, also held on the streets and in the bars of downtown Hamilton, was a financial success, with “success” defined as breaking even.
A much more commercially savvy Pilkey says he’s now on the downhill slope of the learning curve, and this year the Smokin’ Blues Festival is everywhere: radio, flyers, corporate sponsorships. “I learned to get sponsors. We made it very lucrative for everyone at all different [sponsorship] costs, and we’re starting to draw corporate attention, like DirecTV.”
Last year, Pilkey vowed to turn the one-day festival in Hamilton into a three-day affair at a larger venue. He found a willing landowner near Stevensville with a 50-acre hayfield and landed in a convenient win-win match: the farmer has already gotten his second cutting of hay, and now he’ll make a percentage of the take by renting out a field that has given up its crop for the season; there’s plenty of room for a great party; parking is more than adequate; there’s room to expand, if need be; the blare of guitars won’t bother anyone but the coyotes; and it’s less of a drive for blues-lovin’ Missoulians.
The third annual Smokin’ Blues Festival features 10 bands, including Saturday headliner Big Jack Johnson, Hamilton favorite Lisa Haley and the Zydecats playing gospel on Sunday morning, and McCall, another local favorite making his third festival appearance.
Asked to describe his long-term vision for the blues fest, Pilkey simply says, “This.” He plans to hold the event in the Bitterroot Valley every summer, and aims for destination status.
The third annual should put the Bitterroot on the blues map, he says.
That first concert, “Everyone thought, ‘oh my God, it doesn’t get any better than this,’” he says. “But guess what? You’ll be shocked, because it will be.”
The Bitterroot Smokin’ Blues Festival takes place in Stevensville Friday, July 21, through Sunday, July 23. Festival passes are $50 in advance or $60 at the gate. Single day ticket costs vary. For more information, directions and a complete lineup, visit www.bitterrootsmokinblues.com.