MISSOULA — The wheels had been turning long before Paul McCartney took the stage under a golden sunset in Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Tuesday evening and proceeded to light up the August night.
Beer kegs had been pressurized, yellow buses had been gassed and old T-shirts remembering The Beatles had been excavated from the bottom of many dresser drawers, including that of Gary Pearson.
The former KYLT-AM radio disc jockey in Missoula sported a red T-shirt recalling the group’s 1964 American tour. He wore it proudly to a pre-concert party in downtown Missoula, one that helped launch the historic evening with a cover band dedicated to The Beatles.
“When I was managing KYLT in ’65-’66, the year ‘Paperback Writer’ came out, some promotional manager in California called me at the station and told me he would send me the record the day ahead of everyone else in Montana,” Pearson said. “We were No. 1 in ’65-’66, but there were only four AM stations back then.”
The pre-concert festivities played out as downtown Missoula came to life on what would otherwise be a monotonous Tuesday evening. Streets became gridlocked and school buses converted to concert shuttles ran full to the stadium, where passengers joined a growing throng of eager fans already numbered in thousands.
By 6 p.m., a mass of concert-goers in tie-dyed shirts and summer skirts spread across the campus greens. Lines ran long around the Adams Center and security roamed the crowd en force.
“The Beatles I deeply respect, and I’m not speaking hyperbole,” Tawnie Rivkena said before the show. “We’re talking the peak of Western civilization in culture as far as I’m concerned. Not a day goes by I don’t listen to The Beatles.”
Tickets for the show sold out after going on sale earlier this year. Yet those willing to pay $200 or more on location had their chance to buy as others looked to sell.
Neil Bruno tried the free route, holding a cardboard sign reading, “If U can’t help me a ticket, still help.” Others noted the time and took their place in line.
Well before the concert began, University of Montana officials promoted the event as the largest concert in state history. A large covered stage filled the south end of the stadium floor facing 25,000 fans who took their seats at 8 p.m.
Several hundred others hiked Mount Sentinel and peered down upon the throng, watching as fans did the wave while waiting for McCartney to take the stage. UM President Royce Engstrom and Missoula Mayor John Engen had dubbed the mountain “Mount McCartney” for the day.
Joining the crowd on Mount McCartney were Japanese students Airi Hasegawa and her friend. Neither had ever heard of Paul McCartney, though they did know The Beatles, thanks to their parents, and Nirvana thanks to their friends.
Seated nearby was South Korean student Woongsoon Jang. She knew The Beatles well, along with McCartney.
“There was a concert McCartney planned in Korea but it was canceled,” said Jang. “We’re lucky to be here. Who doesn’t like The Beatles?”
McCartney’s performance in Missoula was something of a musical coup for this city of 70,000 people, which has recently dazzled music fans by landing iconic shows, including the 2006 performance by the Rolling Stones and a 2012 showing by Pearl Jam.
But in a concert where a single beer went for $9 a bang and the cheapest tickets started at $50, not everyone could afford entry to see McCartney live. Dozens sat with their faces mashed against the chain-link fence outside the stadium hoping for a glimpse of the rock icon on the jumbo screens.
Others opted for a hike up the mountain.
“I was looking at tickets online but they were pretty steep,” said Kathleen Bowler. “I’ve still got my paycheck and a free spot on the hill.”