Aber Day Reunion Show in Philipsburg

Pat Hill

One of the most hallowed music events in the history of the Treasure State has been given new life, as Philipsburg hosts the 2nd Annual Aber Day Reunion on Aug. 20, featuring the Mission Mountain Wood Band, the Big Sky Mudflaps, and the Lil’ Smokies.

The original Aber Day Kegger took place from 1972-’79. It became of mainstay of Montana music events during that time, and the state’s own Mission Mountain Wood Band was a mainstay of the event for its entire run.

“The most incredible moment I ever spent on stage was in 1978 [at the Aber Day Kegger],” remembers Rob Quist, a founding member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, in a MontanaPBS documentary about the Kegger. “The entire rodeo grounds was filled with people, and then past the rodeo grounds, and then of course that huge hill out there. We were performing to a sheer wall of people.” By that year, the Aber Day Kegger had almost become a rite of passage in Big Sky Country.

“It was such a great tradition,” Quist told the Missoulian. “Even back in the day, it was the thing we looked forward to. One year, we drove all the way from New York City to Missoula straight nonstop for 39 hours to get there to get ready for Aber Day.”
The idea for the Aber Day Kegger came from an early 20th-Century tradition at the University of Montana; each spring a day was taken off from class by both students and faculty to plant trees and pick up around campus. “William Daddy” Aber [a professor of Greek at UM from 1895 until 1919] initiated the program. In a social action class at UM in the early 1970s, students were asked to come up with ideas for community service projects. One student brought up a funding shortage that was making book purchases at the college’s library difficult, and Aber Day was born.

The first library benefit kegger was held in 1972 in lower Deer Creek, east of East Missoula. Two years, later it moved to Miller Creek south of town. As early as 1974, the kegger was attracting national acts such as Elvin Bishop and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Doug Kershaw and Earl Scruggs played in ‘75, and Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Jeff Walker, and a hot new band called Heart were there in ‘76. Bonnie Raitt hit the Aber Day stage in 1977. In 1979, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Lamont Cranston were onhand for the final Aber Day show; so were regional favorites Live Wire Choir, and, of course, the Mission Mountain Wood Band.

That 1979 show was the last Aber Day Kegger held, and only the memories remained, made more vivid by two MontanaPBS documentaries, one about the Kegger itself, and another about the Mission Mountain Wood Band. But Quist and fellow founding band members Steve Riddle and Greg Reichenberg get together several times a year to perform, and last year Ed Lord of the Philipsburg Rotary Club came up with an idea.

“I did a lot of thinking,” Lord told the Missoulian last year, “and I thought, well, it’s 40 years since the height of the Aber Day Kegger in Missoula. I wonder ...” Quist and friends had helped baptize the Philipsburg amphitheater as a concert venue in 2010 and returned to play the next

“They were really successful and they really liked our venue,” said Lord, who helped build the Winninghoff Park amphitheater and kept in touch with Quist after the 2010 and 2011 concerts. At Quist’s suggestion, Lord contacted the UM Alumni Association and Bob McCue of Missoula. McCue was student president of Missoula Liquid Assets Corp. at the last kegger in 1979 and revived the organization as a nonprofit in 2009 to put out that PBS documentary remembering the Aber Day Kegger. MLAC now owns the Aber Day name. Everything fell into place and the Aber Day Reunion was born.

“They’re doing good things up in Philipsburg and that’s why we got involved,” McCue told the Missoulian. “We’re providing the Aber Day name, and that’s kind of the hook. All these (music) festivals going on in western Montana are just kind of a blur now. Aber Day has kind of a cult status.” Quist is also quiet enthusiastic about the Aber Day Reunion.

“It’s amazing, because a lot of the elements of the former Aber Day are kind of present,” said Quist. “The UM Alumni Association is involved and so is Missoula Liquid Assets, and of course the Philipsburg site is probably the closest you could find to the old Aber Day venue up Miller Creek.” The large terraced hillside amphitheater at Winninghoff Park has room to seat thousands of fans, with excellent acoustics and plenty of room for dancing down front.

“We always have a good time. It’s always just a party surrounding it,” Quist said of modern-day Mission Mountain Wood Band shows. “It’s just amazing to me that we could have a band that toured so heavily in the ‘70s and then come back now and do six or seven shows in a summer and just have this epic adventure every time.”

This year’s Aber Day Reunion looks like it will be another epic adventure. Advance tickets are on sale now at www.grizalum.org for $35 for adults and $15 for 7-12 year olds. Children six and under get in free. Only 3,500 tickets will be sold, so get on it, and get in on the action in Philipsburg on Aug. 20 with some legendary live Montana music.  

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Pat Hill

Pat Hill is a freelance writer in Bozeman. A native Montanan and former advisor to Montana State University’s Exponent newspaper, Pat has been writing about the history and politics of the Treasure State for nearly three decades.

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