At a recent gathering in eastern Montana I ran into friend and lead guitar player Mark Iwaniak, who lives in Butte. I’d been looking forward to seeing Mark – with whom I’ve played shows through the years – to tell him I’d taken a job as editor of the Boulder Monitor and was now in the area. 

During the visit Iwaniak spoke fondly of Boulder, particularly the Music and Arts Festival, where he played in 2016 with Butte singer/songwriter Heather Lingle. 

“I really enjoyed that gig,” he said. “It’s very laid back, very professional, always pleasant.”

“Well, it’s funny you bring that festival up,” I replied. “I was going to ask if you wanted to play it with me this year.”

Jefferson County Events Coordinator Bruce Binkowski and Boulder Chamber representative Pat Lewis were gracious enough to add my trio as a last-minute opening act, kicking off the festival at 11 a.m. My ensemble also included Helena blues harmonica player John Turner, an old friend from my Lewistown days, who had also performed at the festival before. Like Iwaniak, he was excited for an opportunity to play at Veterans Park again, especially after so much live music was shut down during the pandemic. 

We got there, set up, did a sound-check and kicked off our 30-minute set with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” debuted original material to a new crowd and then closed with Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Iwaniak was right. Everything about the experience was pleasant, especially the weather. It was actually a little chilly in the morning, requiring us to tune our guitars a few extra times, but when 11 a.m. rolled around we were dialed in. 

The three of us had never played together. In fact, Iwaniak and Turner met on stage. Considering I’d played with both on multiple occasions, however, I’d had a good feeling it’d work out, and I was glad to hear others agree.

“Nice job rolling the dice,” said Lance Handyside, a Jefferson City musician who followed us with an impressive country solo acoustic set. The crowd was just getting warmed up at that point, and more and more people made their way downtown with their lawn chairs. The Ranger Creek Wranglers kept them moving, followed by the remarkably talented old-timey brother-sister duo Brigid Reedy and Johnny Guitar, who received a standing ovation from many in attendance. Wylie and The Wild West followed, bringing their signature rockabilly honky-tonk, which got people dancing. Staples Clint Rieder and  the Longhorn Band kept them dancing, even after a full day of entertainment.

“It was a great Saturday of music,” said Binkowski. “Crowds were the biggest I can remember. I would estimate throughout the day – with people coming and going – we probably had at least 400 attendees.”

This included, Binkowski added, visitors from Washington, Idaho and all around southwestern Montana.

There was a lot to be happy about Saturday. The summer heat escaped us and we were greeted with a taste of autumn. There was no wind, and – miraculously – no smoke. A versatile mix of vendors surrounded the park, all friendly and unique, including the local Kiwanians, who served excellent burgers. After taking it all in, I sat down in my lawn chair, focusing intently on the tasteful harmonies of Reedy and her brother with my wife and good friends by my side. I felt at peace. 

This sense of peace went well beyond the music. What I enjoyed most about it was the welcoming and warm reception I received by the Boulder community. It was a pleasure to introduce my wife to many of the people I’ve been getting acquainted with and also to meet members of the community for the first time. It takes a while to get situated and feel a part of a new place. Such an occasion as the 14th Annual Boulder Area Chamber of Commerce Music and Arts Festival made for a meaningful introduction to a place my wife and I feel grateful to call our new home.

Iwaniak was right. It’s a wonderful event, and I’m happy to say Binkowski gave us the green light to play again next year. I’m already looking forward to it.  


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