It's been a little over four years since Aaron Bolton, co-owner of the Badlander/Palace, died. He left Missoula for Seattle on a chilly February weekend to pick up new speakers for the bar and was found in Elliot Bay the following morning. His death was considered an accidental drowning. The news came as a shock to his family and friends in Missoula and Seattle, but also to the local music and nightlife scene. Some people seem immortal, and Bolton was one of those larger-than-life characters: generous, charismatic, endlessly kind, wilder and more talented than most.
In the years since his death, the downtown music venue he co-owned has had enough staff turnover and new rounds of college-age patrons that there's a good chance a lot of people walking through the doors know very little about who Bolton is and what he meant to the place.
An urn filled with some of his ashes and his dad's golf ball sit on a shelf behind the Badlander's main bar, accompanied by two photos of Bolton DJing under his moniker, Major Terror. It's a small, makeshift shrine—easy to miss or simply dismiss by those who didn't know him. Badlander co-owner Scott MacIntyre is also worried the shrine is too exposed.
"We have live music that vibrates everything in the bar," MacIntyre says. "And my fear is that one day he would come crashing down and a bartender would be scarred for life. We want to propose a more permanent resting place."
Recently, MacIntyre and the venue's staff decided to put on a three-day music festival in honor of Bolton to raise funds for a local charity and also provide a more permanent presentation for his memorial in the bar. (The Badlander has already raised $10,000 from sponsorships, which will go to Create Missoula, a nonprofit that gives money to local school arts programs and is run by John Combs, Bolton's former high school band teacher.)
The three-day event is called Saudade, a Portuguese-Gaelic term (pronounced "so-dah-che") meaning "nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone." It kicks off Thursday, Aug. 18, and features a diverse lineup with soul artist Lee Fields and metal band Red Fang as the headliners, plus local acts like Reverend Slanky, Kris Moon and Dead Hipster. It's a perfect fit for Bolton's legacy, considering he booked hip-hop and rock shows and played drums himself in addition to his DJ work.
"Anyone who knew Aaron knew he liked crazy electronic music and that he also liked live music," MacIntyre says. "He played along to anything, tapping his hands on his thighs."
On a recent Sunday night, I met up with MacIntyre in the VIP-style bar at the back of the main Badlander space. MacIntyre opened the complex—which includes the Badlander, Palace, Golden Rose and a currently empty restaurant space—in 2007 along with Bolton, Chris Henry and Mark McElroy. The little back bar is where the owners spent their after-hours during the rocky early years of running the business. They'd review the day's events and unwind. Bolton liked martial arts and would inevitably goof off, trying to kick as high as he could toward the ceiling, which sometimes sent him tumbling backward.
- photo courtesy of Ear Candy Music
- Aaron Bolton helped cultivate the local electronic music scene and became an inspiring character as a co-owner of the Badlander.
The memories at the Badlander bar are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bolton's influence on Missoula. The main bar was named after Bolton's childhood home—a house in the lower Rattlesnake that he took over when his parents moved out. Friends moved in and out (and back in) over the years and several animals resided there, including a dog, a cat, a snake and sometimes a pet pig. One of Bolton's friends dubbed the house The Badlander and the name stuck. It was a party house, but more than that it was a place where music was created. Turntables and milk crates stocked with records occupied a good chunk of the living room. It was one of the first venues—official or unofficial—to host electronic music shows and cultivate that scene. Bolton's affinity for all kinds of music meant there were plenty of nights where DJs spun records in between live rock and roll sets.
A few years later, Bolton, Henry and their friends started hosting shows around town—in warehouses and other makeshift spaces—under the Badlander name. When Henry heard that MacIntyre and McElroy, two of Bolton's childhood friends, were planning to start up a European-style sports bar in the Badlander space, he convinced them to let him and Bolton get in on it. The sports bar idea fell to the wayside. Bolton and Henry were able to enliven the venue with some of the most compelling underground electronic acts at the time and draw in touring bands that whetted Missoula's appetite for rock and roll. One of their major undertakings came in 2009 when they became the permanent host to Missoula's popular independent music festival, Total Fest. The Badlander and Palace continued in that role even in the last few years after Bolton's death. By its final year in August 2015, Total Fest had garnered attention across the Northwest. Saudade will fill the weekend the festival left behind.
Bolton was known as an even-keel, happy-go-lucky, adventurous owner. I knew him since grade school and for a long period of time he shared a house (this one dubbed "The Toole Shed") with some of our other friends, so I saw him almost daily. He had lots of friends and family, though—an overwhelming crowd of them from different periods in his life—and many much closer than me. But the day he died I happened to be the person who picked up a phone call from one of his best friends in Seattle. I was tasked with driving the short five minutes to the Badlander to break the impossible news to MacIntyre. We then drove together to Henry's house to tell him.
"I had just had my second son with my wife a few weeks prior," MacIntyre recalls. "I remember the feeling of I didn't want to do this anymore. It was draining as it was and then with him gone, it was deflating. He was the glue of the partnership and so much of what we did relied on him."
Henry left the business to pursue other local music endeavors and McElroy stepped back to be a silent partner. They decided together that MacIntyre would stay on. He's just one of four people left at the downtown building who worked with Bolton. MacIntyre's hope is that Saudade will serve as an annual event that will keep Bolton's legacy alive.
"Reality hit us that we've got to keep going or we'll lose everything," MacIntyre says. "And that's not in anyone's best interest. That's not what Aaron would have wanted, for it to all go away. Sometimes I get nostalgic in weird ways, but I hope to be part of this downtown business the rest of my life. When we started this place we started something that's bigger than us—and I want to keep being a part of that."
The Badlander hosts Saudade Thu., Aug. 18–Sat., Aug. 20 featuring Lee Fields, Red Fang, Judgment Hammer, David Starfire, Reverend Slanky, UNIQU3, Laila McQueen and more. $40 full pass/$20 per night. Visit the Badlander's Facebook page for more info.