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Kurt Wilson | The Missoulian

KettleHouse Amphitheater Highlights Western Montana

Missoula, Montana has a new outdoor hotspot that some residents hope will become the “Red Rocks” of western Montana: the KettleHouse Amphitheater.

The 4,000-seat venue, built on the banks of the Blackfoot River in Bonner, just outside of Missoula, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday. And although amphitheater owner Nick Checota admits the venue is nowhere near as large as Red Rocks, it’s unlike anything else right now, according to the Missoulian:

“I think it’s going to be one of the coolest venues in the country,” he said on a tour on Friday. It offers scenic vistas at an intimate scale. Standing at the very back of the amphitheater’s lawn, he guessed it was only 150 yards to the stage. Even in the farthest remove, you could still see what brand of shoes of the artists are wearing.

Because Missoula sits on a route that touring acts take between Red Rocks and the Gorge, he hopes to draw in big acts that will play a smaller venue if the quality is high enough and it has the right infrastructure.

For the first season, they’ve already booked two bands that are stopping at Red Rocks: reunited alt-rock weirdos Ween, and the 10-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band. Once agents and acts see the new digs, he believes even more artists like them will follow suit.

“Next year, we’ll have a different level of band that normally wouldn’t play a 4,000-capacity venue,” he said.

After the first season, he envisions using it for festivals and performing arts events, such as the Missoula Symphony Orchestra or Shakespeare in the Park.

“I like to think this is an asset to the community,” he said. “In the state of Montana, there’s nothing like this. This isn’t limited to just concerts.”

The amphitheater is named for KettleHouse Brewing Co., which owns the land Checota built on. Besides the amphitheater, Checota also owns several local theaters (including Top Hat and The Wilma) and runs local promotion company Logjam Presents. According to KettleHouse owner Tim O’Leary, speaking to the Missoulian, the amphitheater idea came out of a business lunch between him and Checota:

“We discussed the importance of tourism to our businesses in Montana,” O’Leary recalled, standing next to his wife Suzy and speaking to a large crowd on a concrete patio overlooking the river. Afterward, O’Leary walked up to Checota and asked if he was serious when he mentioned wanting an outdoor venue.

“And I said ‘if you’re serious, come out to the brewery because we got a nice flat piece of ground’,” O’Leary recalled. “I thought maybe we’d have a kegger and a couple of bands, you know, an old-time Montana party. Suzy mentioned that this might be a good amphitheater at some point. Well, Nick left, had lunch, and came back with a shovel. And started digging.”

O’Leary was joking, but it’s true that Checota and his wife Robin embarked on an ambitious and aggressive schedule, starting on Jan. 1 of this year, to build the venue. Checota told the crowd that he tries to make sure every facet of his business of bringing live music to Missoula is focused on quality.

“The most important aspect of fulfilling our mission is the venue and the physical facility itself,” he said. “As a result, we take considerable efforts to design our venues and we make a financial commitment to make them a unique and exceptional place to hear music. This project afforded us the opportunity that the Top Hat and Wilma did not, which was to design and construct a venue from scratch.

“From view lines to service areas to green room facilities to the overall look and feel, this project allowed us to create a space that we hope will provide a world-class entertainment experience.”

At the ribbon event, Checota praised the contractors who helped pull off the amphitheater construction so quickly as well as well as the Missoula County government for being “flexible and creative to help us achieve what was a very accelerated schedule.” From the Missoulian:

Missoula County Commissioners Jean Curtiss, Nicole Rowley and Dave Strohmaier were joined by Missoula Mayor John Engen and Gov. Steve Bullock at the event.

“Look around and you can see the amazing growth of our small businesses,” Bullock said. “These folks are creating jobs, growing other local businesses, and encouraging conservation and environmental stewardship in the Blackfoot River watershed. The impact of this on our local economy and on Montana’s economy is great.”

According to the Missoulian, the amphitheater will host its inaugural concert tonight, July 13, with Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.

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