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Backwash

Red Rocks has Friends in high places.

Mike Ballard and the small army of volunteers who compose Friends of Red Rocks -- a musically minded not-for-profit organization that claims Twist & Shout owner Paul Epstein, former Herman's Hideaway general manager Sharon Rawles, chanteuse Lannie Garrett, COMA president Dolly Zanderand other local rock-and-roll representatives as members -- have not been spotted wearing silly hats or waving around strange inflatable phalluses, à la delegates at last week's Republican National Convention. (Of course, Backwash cannot speak to what these people do in the privacy of their own homes.) But considering the enormity of the project the group has undertaken in the past couple of months -- namely, organizing and producing a mammoth local music festival to be staged at the dinosaur-bone-laden amphitheater in the summer of 2001, an endeavor whose logistics might send VP-hopeful Dick Cheney back to the cardiology ward -- FORR might consider adopting some of the flashy tactics of the elephantine contingent that gathered in Philadelphia. Because, as Ballard can attest, the effort to move the Rock the Rocks festival out of the conceptual stage and onto a physical one has been plagued by a consistent and nagging little glitch: money. Or, rather, the lack of it.

"At this point, it's really coming down to brass tacks. We're thinking we need to raise a minimum of $60,000 in order to secure the headliners we need," says Ballard, who's functioning as co-promoter, along with Jessica Vogelsgesang, a sometimes-contributor to the bi-monthly pop-culture tabloid Go-Go. In a tone that he admits borders on the idealistic, Ballard describes Rock the Rocks as a one- (or possibly two-) day-long extravaganza, replete with four to five stages built to showcase different local styles (one for country, one for hip-hop, one for metal, etc.) to be headlined by one of the region's more well-known acts. He envisions an event that will serve as a fundraiser for FORR's ongoing preservation and educational programs at Red Rocks park -- as well as a showcase for local talent.

"First, the idea is to establish Friends of Red Rocks as a stewardship organization for the park and amphitheater," Ballard says. "My hope is that this will become an annual event. And a national event. We want to invite Rolling Stone. We want to invite A&R people from major labels. We want this to be a comprehensive showcase of the talent that is here in this community. The challenge now is to determine whether Denver, as a city or community, really wants it," he adds.

To those who happen to thumb music-trade publications, or scope the figures of what some promoters put up for in-demand artists, sixty grand might not seem like that daunting of a number for the kind of festival that Ballard et al. have in mind. But FORR's fundraising efforts are made all the more complicated by the fact that the organization has a self-imposed code of ethics by which it will hunt and gather its cash. FORR is a nonprofit whose primary directive included preventing the City of Denver from splashing Red Rocks with all-too-familiar corporate logos; last fall, the group was instrumental in convincing the city that certain aspects of a planned renovation of Red Rocks park and amphitheater -- namely, the projection of corporate logos onto rocks, the replacement of planter boxes with corporate box seats and turning the grassy southern slope into a sprawling concession area -- wouldn't fly with a community of music lovers and concertgoers who appreciated the park's decidedly trademark-free atmosphere ("Denver Hears the Music," January 27). As such, its own search for financial backers begins and ends with companies and individuals who are willing to accept a kinder, gentler approach to sponsorship.

"People have really expressed that one thing they like about Red Rocks is that they don't have all that stuff in their face all the time," says Ballard. "I think when you are seeking out sponsors, but you want to avoid having one huge sponsor or whatever, you just have to be more creative. We'd like people who are involved to feel proud that they are sponsoring Friends of Red Rocks -- they could use our logo in their literature, instead of the other way around. I think if we found someone who said, 'I'll give you $20,000, but our logo has to be everywhere,' we'd turn them down. We'd rather have sixty sponsors give us $1,000 than one big corporation plunk down the whole thing and feel some kind of ownership of us. The whole idea here is one of community togetherness, a kind of grassrootsy, 'Kumbaya' thing."

Ballard -- a first-time concert producer -- is quick to admit that he's in a tenuous position to be rejecting any checks that might come addressed to FORR. As a musician who handles the booking duties for his own band (Michelle and the Book of Runes) and carries a day job, he's not rolling in the kind of cash that more established promoters might have at their disposal. And though the money has not come in yet, Ballard maintains a careful optimism that it will: A series of Rock the Rocks benefit club shows, held at the Soiled Dove and Herman's Hideaway and designed to build interest in FORR and the festival within the local music artists community, have been well-attended, with local bands clamoring for space on the roster. On Tuesday, August 15, FORR will host a reception at the park, where it will make a presentation of its plans to a group of reporters, entertainment-industry hotshots and businesspeople in order to raise awareness -- and funds. It's just a matter of time, he hopes, before FORR's own enthusiasm becomes contagious. If not, it'll clear up some of his own perceptions about the scene in which he toils.

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