KettleHouse Amphitheater: Montana’s first “state-of-the-art outdoor concert venue”
Nick Checota relishes a challenge. Even so, he says, building a permanent outdoor amphitheater from the ground up was every bit as formidable as completely renovating a century-old theater (The Wilma), or transforming a Missoula dive into a hip, welcoming restaurant and music venue (the Top Hat).
The result, KettleHouse Amphitheater on Cold Smoke Ave. in Bonner, opens to the public July 13 when Lyle Lovett and His Large Band stride onto the stage; and July 16, when Ween plays its incendiary live show to a sold-out crowd.
The season continues with the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheels of Soul Summer Tour (featuring the Woods Brothers and Hot Tuna), Aug. 2; Primus and Clutch, Aug. 11; Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo with Melissa Etheridge, Aug. 12; and a metal marathon with Slayer, Lamb of God and Behemoth, Aug. 17.
Checota, and his production company, Logjam Presents, are partnering with KettleHouse Brewery, which completed a 23,000-square-foot brewing facility at the site of the old Stimson Lumber Co. mill in Bonner last year. The maker of beloved brews Cold Smoke, Eddy Out and Double Haul is leasing the ground to Logjam.
“KettleHouse has a great brand,” says Checota. “We’re grateful to utilize it for the new amphitheater.”
Cradled between the river and its canyon, the amphitheater offers three tiers of seating, from a sloped lawn at the top, to a standing area at the bottom and reserved stadium seats in-between.
It’s just 50 feet from the banks of the fabled Blackfoot River, immortalized by author and fisherman Norman Maclean. However, says Checota, the ripple of the river itself won’t impinge on the concert experience.
“As a true amphitheater,” he promises, “the sound will be exceptional.”
The new venue is unique in other ways too. It’s the only amphitheater within 350 miles (that’s the distance to The Gorge in George, Wash.) that’s “a dedicated, state-of-the-art outdoor concert venue … In our opinion, there is no setting like this in the Northwest, other than the Gorge,” says Checota.
Beyond the setting, he points out that most outdoor concert sites in Montana provide a temporary stage in a vacant lot or empty field. Logjam’s version has permanent seating and infrastructure, including a steel-structure stage, artist green rooms (as opposed to trailers), and concessions stands and restrooms with running water.
Those amenities all contribute to “a great customer experience,” he says.
Remodeling Top Hat, Wilma “taught us a lot about design
Checota hails from Wisconsin and met his wife, Robin, a native of Great Falls, in college. After working in the financial services industry, he earned an MBA from Vanderbilt University in Nashville and eventually went to work for the family business, which designs, develops and constructs healthcare buildings and leases them to hospitals and medical groups.
After 12 years, he sold his share in the business and settled with his family in Missoula, which seemed like “a perfect place to raise kids,” with its mix of small-town ambiance and cultural amenities.
Initially, the Checotas purchased the Army-Navy Building on Higgins Ave., remodeled it, and sold it to Plonk!, a high-end wine and cocktail bar. When the Top Hat came on the market in 2012, “I thought it was a cool opportunity to do something different,” he said in a 2015 interview.
Very different. Running a bar and restaurant and booking music was a “huge jump” from real-estate development and overseeing a crew of engineers and designers.
He educated himself by visiting clubs across the country and paying close attention to what worked, and what didn’t. As for booking, it helps that he’s a “huge music fan. Always have been.”
He did the same thing when it came time to transform a theater and Missoula landmark that was built in 1921 into a 21st century concert hall.
He took the same approach to building this venue. “We conducted an extensive amount of research of like-sized outdoor venues, and toured several facilities around the country,” he says.
“Remodeling the Top Hat, and subsequently the Wilma, has taught us a lot about venue design,” he adds. “View lines, customer circulation, concession service, sound, artist facilities, staging and production were all factors we considered in designing the KettleHouse Amphitheater.”
The new venue also helps Logjam book bigger shows. The Top Hat is maxed out at 600 for a standing-room-only show and The Wilma can accommodate 1,400. His latest addition to the music scene holds 4,000, and each of the six shows currently slated there has already sold more than 2,000 tickets (Ween is sold out).
Checota is proud of the fact that Logjam Presents “is a local, Missoula-based company that’s dedicated to the complete experience of concert-goers and artists.”
According to the website, it’s also committed to supporting “local values like environmentalism and preservation, alongside serving world-class entertainment to our community in the natural space they love.”
To further that vision, Logjam will donate a portion fo the proceeds from its opening concert by Lyle Lovett to the Blackfood Challenge, a nonprofit dedicated to “cooperative conservation” of the river and its watershed. “More important than hosting a concert at this breathtaking location is ensuring that the destination thrives environmentally (and musically) long-term.”
Checota is confident the latest addition to the company’s impressive roster of venues will provide “a much different experience than what is currently available.”
And that music lovers across Montana “will embrace and appreciate its uniqueness.”
- On nights of events, shuttles embark every 15-20 minutes starting at 5 p.m. from the Top Hat in downtown Missoula ($5). Parking is also available at the amphitheater, about 90 minutes before the gates open ($5); and a dedicated pick-up, drop-off zone is located next to the brewery.
- Concessions and beer, wine and spirits are available inside the venue.
- Float in, float out? “Unfortunately, as of now, floating to the venue is not permitted …”