Alone on the Range

Our purple mountains' majesty can be a headache for traveling bands -- and for fans who crave live music.

For the musician, the romance of life in Colorado comes with a price, because the state's geographic gifts -- the Rocky Mountains, snow and the surrounding open plains -- are a serious obstacle for acts that want to tour for a living. While this may not be a secret among players, these elements are also a pain for another group: music fans. The attributes that make life better here are keeping a portion of the nation's bands from showing up on Colorado soil. Granted, the region's current live-music boom equals that of the state's thriving economy. And it's easy to see that the selection of national acts passing through the area is better than it's ever been, a bonanza fueled by the talent wars waged by House of Blues, Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents and other big-time bookers.

But despite these improvements and the region's growing musical clout, there are still tours -- from small to major -- that skip Colorado all together. The three biggest factors cited by bands and bookers alike in that scenario? The hassles of crossing the Rockies, the unpredictable weather that swirls across the West from fall to spring, and the lengthy drives from here to the next major city.

"Denver's a pretty big city, and we love to play there when we can," says Rick Miller, leader of Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Southern Culture on the Skids. "But, man, it's in the middle of nowhere." Miller's band has been touring nationally for ten years now, doing as many as 250 shows a year. In the past few years, the band's by-van tours have brought it here only twice. The Skids have purposely avoided Colorado several times, even when they were touring the western half of the country. "The trouble with playing Denver," Miller says, "is that once you leave Lawrence, Kansas, you've got another eight hours to Denver. Then another eight hours to reach Salt Lake City."

Erik Deutsch understands these concerns all too well. His band, Fat Mama, began in Boulder and recently relocated to New York City to avoid the long-distance logistics the band faced when living here. He's now on the other side of the Colorado coin, and his band is more concerned with the logistics of getting into Colorado than getting out of it. "It's just so far away," Deutsch laments about his former home turf. "And between the Midwest and Denver, there's a lot of open space and highway and maybe one or two stops on the way. In the time it takes us to get to Denver, we could play five shows out here on the East Coast.

"It costs a certain amount of money to keep a band alive on tour," he adds, "and every day it costs you to eat, to sleep and to drive. When there's a day when you don't play, you lose money." Which is just what he and his Fat Mama peers did following their recent return engagement in town. "We left Boulder and drove to Minneapolis," Deutsch says wearily. "That's a nineteen-hour drive. It wears you out."

Such marathon treks, some area bookers say, are enough to keep bands from calling on Colorado as frequently as listeners would like. Scott Campbell, who books one of Denver's more notorious punk bastions, the 15th Street Tavern, says that many acts on tour in the West are willing to come to town. "But when I start recruiting bands to come here," he says, "that's when I run into the geography problem. A lot of times they'll say, 'Well, you're kind of out of the way.'" Peter Ore books bands for nobody in particular presents, the large independent local promoter that handles the Ogden Theatre, the Bluebird, the Lion's Lair and a few other venues. He says the fact that bands -- both large and small -- are sometimes unwilling to drive to this area is a small but recurring reality. "Out of all the stuff I do," he says, "I'd say it's maybe 5 percent. [But] that's a big number when you consider all the tours out there."

This time of year, the number of acts that pass on passing through Colorado is even greater. Sometimes, slim concert calendars give local fans the impression that a lot of bands aren't touring at all. The truth is that acts often continue to tour aggressively through winter months -- just not here. "In the winter," Ore says, "I've called agents and asked about their tours and had them tell me, 'They're certainly not coming to Colorado.'" Matt Need, the Gothic Theatre's talent buyer (who also served as tour director for Big Head Todd & the Monsters in the band's earlier days), understands why. "You can get hosed driving from here to Salt Lake City in the winter, and that's the truth." Deutsch agrees. "If you're going to try and make it from Omaha to Boulder, at any time of year except for summer, you have to worry about dangerous conditions," he says. "Everybody knows it can snow anytime out there, and if you get stuck in a blizzard in Nebraska, you're not going anywhere."

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