Liberty Theater to be Made Concert Venue

By Beacon Staff

Bid farewell to Flanagan’s, but not yet to the music.

Some people in the valley think Flathead’s live music scene is just getting revved up, including Phil Harris, who owns Stadium 14 theaters and the Strand and Liberty theaters in downtown Kalispell. Harris has plans to turn the Liberty into a major concert venue with sophisticated sound, lighting and acoustics by next spring.

“A lot of big name entertainers like smaller, more intimate settings,” Harris said. “I’m hopeful we’ll get some of them.”

The Liberty will also host comedians, lecture series and whatever else that can make good use of the 425 seats and proposed 1,600-square-foot stage, Harris said. He already has a design layout and construction prices figured out. Building should begin within 60 days or so, he said.

With the closing of Flanagan’s Central Station, the Flathead loses its main music venue, where performers like the Gourds, Sam Bush and North Mississippi All Stars have stopped in and helped give the valley some degree of relevance in Montana’s music scene. Even without it, though, the local music scene is relatively healthy, thanks to an assortment of venues throughout the area. From Packer’s Roost in Coram to Red’s Wines and Blues in Kalispell to the Garden Bar in Bigfork to the Great Northern Bar in Whitefish, music can be found every weekend.

None of those venues, however, bring in the big names on a regular basis like Flanagan’s did and Harris’s venue hopes to.

“Flanagan’s closing – it’s too bad,” said local musician Andre Floyd. “Bands were actually leaving Interstate 90 and coming up here.”

Those involved with trying to create a live music resurgence in the Flathead face a two-fold problem: conditioning bands to come here and conditioning people to go see them, even if it requires paying. You have to pay for good music, Floyd said, and professional musicians need to promote this idea by not playing for peanuts and beer. It takes cooperation from musicians, bands and event organizers.

“People have to be taught to pay,” he said. “Flanagan’s was doing that. It’s teaching people to invest in music.”

Bringing in good shows and charging people for it sets a cycle in motion, Floyd said. When a good band comes to town, people are willing to pay. Then, he said, the band’s audience is there to listen to music, as opposed to just drink and ignore the performers.

“It has to have event status to justify a $10 ticket price,” he said. “Then you feel like you’re getting something, not just another band from Boulder.”

Floyd would know. He used to run the Blue Heron in Missoula, which attracted big name bands for years. The Flathead, he said, needs more places like Flanagan’s before the community will get serious about live music.

“Is there a need for two or three decent venues?” Floyd said. “Yes. Even just one.”

Bill Goodman, the owner of Red’s Wines and Blues, agrees that the area needs a base of a few solid music venues to build a live show culture. He sees it happening with the current music venues and the addition of the Hilton’s Blue Canyon and Harris’ place. Goodman, however, is skeptical of people’s willingness to pay, even for a quality concert.

“People in this area balk at a cover charge,” he said, pointing out that he still doesn’t charge a cover when he gets bigger acts from out of state.

Goodman gets consistent quality acts at Red’s, he said, because of John Simpson from Simpson Motors, who organizes frequent Flathead tours from Seattle-based bands. He considers live music a great complement to any nightlife atmosphere, but not a rewarding business venture.

“Music doesn’t make us money,” Goodman said. “It’s part of who we are, but it doesn’t pay for itself.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort is also trying to promote a live music resurgence in the Flathead. Its concert series this summer was unlike anything the resort has tried to do for nearly a decade, said Josh Knight, the resort’s events and recreation manager. But despite the big name shows, the concert series struggled.

“People are just now relearning to think of us as a concert venue,” Knight said. “(The turnout) was lower than expected.”

Knight said about 4,500 came to the four concerts combined. Half of that number, he said, went to the Marshall Tucker Band show alone. He doesn’t know if there will be another concert series next summer, though he guarantees there will be music in some form.

“We learned some lessons and we’re reevaluating,” he said.

A major problem with attracting shows to the Flathead is location. It’s almost impossible to bring a well-known band specifically to the valley, Goodman and Knight said. Instead, places have to try to catch bands en route, which Harris plans to do.

“We’re kind of in a hole as far as where we are geographically,” Knight said. “It’s easier to do (shows) during the week because they’re on their way to other shows. We get a lot of midweek.”

In the meantime, Floyd and Goodman say, enjoy the talent within the Flathead. Harris said he hopes local talent will be a staple at his place.

“Support your local music,” Floyd said.

Knight wonders about the future of Flathead’s music scene without Flanagan’s – especially if the bar completely shuts down instead of simply trading hands.

“There wasn’t anything like Flanagan’s before Flanagan’s, so it remains to be seen what will happen,” Knight said. “I don’t know how soon or how lucky we’ll be to get another philanthropist who wants to come here and bring in a million good acts.”

Perhaps Harris is that man.

“I think we’ll fill a niche,” Harris said.