I went into the Under the Big Sky Music & Arts festival in Whitefish over the weekend anticipating a well-run operation because I knew of promoter Johnny Shockey’s experience and his desire to curate a singular spectacle for the Flathead Valley. Still, I walked away with my already high expectations greatly exceeded. My colleagues and family members who attended offered the same assessment.
By all noteworthy measures, from the logistical to the experiential and aesthetic, the first Under the Big Sky festival appears to have been a rousing success. And reports of record-breaking clientele from local businesses suggest the event’s impact spilled well beyond its boundaries into the broader economy.
My own experience was marked by family, which presented both restrictions and opportunities. I left before the final acts performed to put my two young boys in bed, but not before I had the privilege of witnessing the grand scene through their bright eyes. My exit wasn’t dictated by the band schedule, but rather by my toddler, who made clear, loudly, when it was time to depart.
But I had seen enough to know I was part of special moment for the Flathead Valley.
A good festival has a way of creating its own enclosed ecosystem that makes the world at large seem distant and foreign. Under the Big Sky utilized its natural topography and geography to foster an atmosphere in which everything seemed at once perfectly close at hand yet set across a landscape that felt comfortably sprawling. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful chunk of land.
Shockey and his team obviously put a great deal of time and money into planning the festival and sprucing up the already striking venue, with paved walkways snaking through forested rolling hills and new structures built to accommodate vendors. The huge main stage, flanked by two towering screens displaying the musicians, was a formidable presence with all the markings of a world-class operation.
Through his event-production company, Outriders Present, Shockey has organized and promoted major festivals across the country, primarily in the music-hotbed markets of Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area. Clearly, he’s good at what he does, and he’s been doing it for a while.
Mike Murray, one of the local acts on the festival’s ticket, told me in an interview before the event that he was impressed with the high-level professionalism of Shockey’s team, and in an interview after his set with a Beacon reporter he sounded as transfixed by the festival’s aura and moment as the attendees were.
With some 15,000 people in attendance, the lines for food and drinks were manageable, even short, and the general atmosphere never felt conspicuously crowded. Smartly organized parking and traffic flow along with shuttles prevented heavy congestion.
The festival was also thoroughly family-friendly. My toddler made several trips through the petting zoo, and from a nearby perch he gawked at riders on bucking broncs in the festival’s rodeo, organized by Brash Rodeo. Sweet Peaks Ice Cream provided a perfect ending to the hot day.
Then, of course, there was the music. From local acts who had perfected their sets through long practice sessions to big-name national groups who brought all-star flourishes to their performances, the heavily anticipated lineup didn’t disappoint.
As Brent Jameson, one of the festival’s local acts, told our reporter after the festival: “I just can’t thank Johnny enough. So, so good.”