It will take a DIY approach to rebuilding Denver’s beaten down live music scene

It will take a DIY approach to rebuilding Denver’s beaten down live music scene

The future of live music is not held hostage by the government

MusicAugust 31, 2020 By Thomas Hinds

In the five months since the onset of America’s societal unravelling, Denver has been plagued by a stagnant tension hanging thick in the air and lurking ominously across empty streets. This restlessness, though still fringed by the viral fears and anxieties circulating throughout the globe, is defined by a far deeper pain eating away at the foundation of our collective spirit. More than anywhere I have yet experienced, the raw and unfettered radiance of this city is cultivated directly from our unparalleled music and arts scene; since March we have gasped beneath an all-encompassing FOMO, a monolithic malaise of latent energy and wasted potential brought about by the merciless snatching away of our once-vibrant culture of live music.

I will never forget where I stood when the first domino in 2020’s horrible chain of events fell, the moment at which the pandemic’s culturally crippling potential reared its gruesome head – Thursday, March 12th, a sold out show at the Ogden Theater headlined by none other than jazz-funk visionary Thundercat. Just before the end of the performance, I stepped away from the crowd and headed towards the front of the venue to edge out the swiftly approaching bottleneck of human bodies that would soon spill out onto Colfax. A line had formed waiting for the proprietor of the merchandise booth, who had temporarily stepped away from her post to receive an urgent piece of news. Upon her return, the woman’s demeanor was more than slightly perturbed as she announced to the concertgoers present that the remainder of Thundercat’s tour – which had begun only two weeks prior – had been entirely canceled. Both parties were duly shocked, the former confronted immediately by the abrupt loss of her life’s structure in the month to come and the latter only beginning to consider the repercussions that would slowly ripple out into the whirlpool of uncertainty we face today. 

When asked about what brought me all the way to Denver from the east coast, I always refer to what I call “The Three M’s” – Music, Mountains, and Marijuana – in that order. The stunning depth and stylistic diversity of our music community (which I rank high above the blissfully immediate accessibility to cannabis and the whimsical appeal of Colorado’s outdoors culture) was the primary factor drawing me to this city, and I know the same is true for thousands upon thousands of transplants still pouring in to this day. Throughout my time living here, the cohesion and constant support that our denizens openly share with one another continues to profoundly impress me. But the keystone that ultimately holds this arch together is not simply the solidarity and lush variety of the scene; rather, Denver’s philosopher’s stone is its ability to illuminate the hearts of even those marginally involved in our aesthetic world. Individuals standing at the periphery of the scene are gladly welcomed in by those at its core, even celebrated for the unique and atypical perspectives they provide. Exclusivity and arrogance are cast aside for camaraderie and collaboration, with the archetype of the “normie” or “plebeian” valued just as highly as the well-involved veteran.

Denver’s lust for live music is palpable, yet it is far more complex than the simple act of listening to the music itself. The beauty of our revelry lies in the connection it provides, often with total strangers who quickly become friends. We crave the social aspect of music-based gatherings so badly that when June’s explosive protests broke out at the Capitol, glitch-hop hero GRiZ arrived with his Funktion-One bass-boosted sound system and a massive dance party broke out in the streets. It is no coincidence that these protests, functioning almost as a surrogate for an urban festival, were defined by direct conflict between average citizens and law enforcement – for once, it seemed that an irreverent, anti-establishment sentiment was the most just course of action available to us, and given no other outlet to unite in the pursuit of our shared passion, our celebration was in itself a form of protest.

Given the circumstances, one might imagine that the DIY, of-the-people-by-the-people spirit of Denver would wither in the face of such multi-faceted opposition. But in fact, quite the opposite has proven to be true: thanks to our combined impatience and desire to return to form, this tsunami of mounting pressures and limitations has not crushed, but rather galvanized us towards the singular goal of reopening the musical floodgates by whatever means necessary. Throughout July, as bars and restaurants slowly reopened, many of Denver’s independent clubs and venues began to deftly maneuver amidst a chaos of constantly shifting regulations, guidelines, and curfews in order to provide some semblance of normalcy to the yearning hearts of their patrons. 

The North Broadway nightclub scene was the first to boldly step into this arena of ambiguity, with Club Vinyl and Bar Standard/Milk being the first to introduce “socially distant” clubbing experiences at limited capacities both indoors and on their respective roofs. Though this initial resurgence did not immediately catch flame (both locations were summarily asked to slow their roll), they were each able to press onwards and are now hosting events largely confined to the rooftops, where the open-air nature of the setting implies a more lenient attitude towards the wearing of masks. Upon the realization that the public’s COVID-related fears were largely mitigated in an outdoor setting, music group Lion’s Share 360 had incredible success with the Dirty Drive-In series of concerts, a brilliant conceptual fusion of the traditional outdoor festival with an old-fashioned drive-in at which concertgoers were required to stay next to or inside their vehicles. Hosted at the Mile High Flea Market in Henderson, the Dirty Drive-In flew much closer to the proverbial sun than any of their compatriots in the scene, eventually being forced to delay the second half of the planned four-week run. Despite a minor delay, however, the event’s third edition was still a massive victory for its hosts and attendees alike, with bass music champion Minnesota bringing the heat as its replacement headliner.

The Black Box, arguably Denver’s most robust DIY establishment – has been a major pioneer in reigniting the musical mecca that is Capitol Hill. Taking a stealthy and incredibly gradual approach as to avoid sabotaging the scene’s bright-eyed hopes of a full return in the days to come, the club first re-introduced themselves with events limited to the confines of their outdoor patio aided by the addition of five-star cuisine from local eateries. And although the entire venue is still limited to tabled seating with a temperature-check for each individual that passes through their doors, they have recently expanded to reincorporate their two indoor rooms as well, the full building now being utilized for a packed schedule of concerts. Along with their 13th Avenue neighbors Your Mom’s House (who have taken initiative with their own less pronounced yet still effective relaunch), The Black Box has undertaken methods of incredible care and diligence to bring live music back to the city with no major negative repercussions thus far [insert aggressive wood-knocking here]. 

So what exactly will our course of action look like in the days to come? If anything, the key to success lies in stealth, caution, and an approach of gradual subtlety towards the rebuilding of our former vibrance. Inevitably, musicians will continue to perform and organize concerts regardless of social context, especially in a city so thoroughly saturated with a love for music. If we truly value the health and welfare of the public, we must work together to create a contingent plan with some semblance of order, rather than waiting until the wooks and hippies are so antsy that their anxiety drives them to ignore the tenets of safety entirely and end up at a cesspool-type environment. This is the responsibility of the concertgoers as much as it is the hosts and organizers, and thus far our collaborative efforts have paid enormous dividends in putting us leagues ahead of the rest of the nation. Where other cities have found themselves locked into a total standstill with no path to progression in sight, Denver is actively fighting tooth and nail for the rite of passage that is live music. Just as every forest needs fire to encourage new growth, this autumn will serve as a ground zero, a conceptual breeding ground for new ideas cleared by the inferno that was quarantine. Many are still trepidatious about venturing into public spaces for social reasons, but this is no reason to give up our endeavor. If anything, it lends to the limited-capacity structure by which many are planning to reopen clubs and venues.

The future of live music is not held hostage by the government, it is not locked away in the executive offices of big business, and it is certainly not online. Instead, it rests in the hands of the everyday people that recognize and maintain its immeasurable value in their lives. One cannot access the full spectrum of warmth, emotional fulfillment, or wholesome human interaction through a computer screen, or even in a house with just a handful of good friends. Given the option, nobody truly wants to attend an online festival, let alone pay for one. We may as well watch YouTube videos of old live sets from Electric Forest pre-2016: when viewed through the cynical rosy lens of nostalgia, so many millions see those days as preferable to the present, and now have a logical reason to think so.

In the time I have spent in Denver, the city has demonstrated to me that its role as a pioneer on the forefront of aesthetic and societal innovation is largely due to a healthy dose of subversion: in other words, Denver is a city of loopholes. If those involved in the DIY underground music scene can harness this spirit of ingenuity in re-building the future, they will maintain the upper hand against the larger corporate entities eating away at the music scene as long as the pandemic persists. If we act now, the weeks to come will serve as our best chance to level the playing field between those who build from the ground up and those who control from the top down. Despite the uncertainty we face, artists and fans alike continue to thrive here due to their undying faith in and love for our community. The deepest facets of this scene are the blacksmith’s red-hot forge of groundbreaking new ideas that eventually overflow into the world at large. So let us return to that furnace with bright eyes and fiery hearts together as we begin to craft the future from the shattered remnants of the past.