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Backwash

Clever as a Fox, Boulderís best club turns ten.

Backwash likes to play a little game at the Fox Theatre: When the music begins, we head up to one of the raised railings that extend from both sides of the stage, set a pint on the ledge, and watch the foamy liquid in the glass pulse along with the beat. The Fox's sound system functions as a kind of sonic defibrillator, making the bones, beers and vital organs of those who stand within its range hum and throb in time with whatever music is emanating from the stage. This can be a strangely pleasurable sensation, especially if there's a good band playing. Fortunately, at the Fox, there usually is.

A former movie theater and current must-stop on the regional-tour circuit for both up-and-coming and established acts, the Fox Theatre is one of the true musical gems of the Front Range -- an airtight, pitch-perfect temple of quality sound and smart booking. Today its glowing marquee is one of Boulder's more familiar landmarks, but the little-theater-that-could had to climb a steep slope to open on the Hill. Ten years ago, when Don Strasburg -- then a 21-year-old graduate of Colorado College, where he'd promoted shows for the school -- and some partners decided that Boulder needed an alternative to the Boulder Theater, a nearby stronghold, they didn't anticipate the difficulties they would encounter. The group had originally eyed the old Marquee Theater (currently the Foundry); when they lost that bid to another business owner, Strasburg stumbled upon the Fox almost by accident.

"I started driving around, just telling myself that there had to be something," Strasburg remembers. "When I saw the Fox and went in, I just started asking questions of the people who worked there, like, 'Does this place do any business?' The woman behind the counter started begging me, 'Please! Buy it! It needs some life!' Her enthusiasm really got me excited, so we contacted the managers and started to negotiate a lease."

Not everyone shared their enthusiasm, however. Strasburg and his partners -- Richard "Dicke" Sidman, Jon O'Leary, James Hambleton and Dave McKenzie -- were originally denied a liquor license, largely because of the objections of neighbors who didn't relish adding another potentially volatile element to the party-heavy Hill, which had seen its fair share of drunken brawls and even student riots during the two previous decades.

"We had them protesting us right away," Strasburg says. "The restaurant across the street thought that it would bring out a bunch of troublemakers. A nearby dentist said it would bring 'rambunctiousness.' A little old lady thought that, since the sound system was so good, she was afraid would she hear it in her home at midnight. The truth is that since the Fox has come in, the Hill has been less rambunctious. The college-bar activity has really moved down to Pearl Street."

When the Fox opened its doors in March, 1992 -- with two sold-out shows by the Meters -- competitors and concertgoers didn't hold back with their predications about its fate: The Fox, they said, was well-intentioned and maybe even necessary in a town with too few music venues, but it was doomed from the beginning.

"The response from the people who actually came to the club was very good, but there were people from all over who were convinced that we would be belly-up by the end of the year," Strasburg says. "People wondered how we could survive the summer when all the students went home. Some people thought it was just a room for a bunch of Deadheads, that there wasn't going to be any diversity in the kind of bands that we brought in. They thought it would all be kind of Bouldery hippie stuff. We really strove to prove them wrong from the beginning."

The Fox's early detractors now have about ten years' worth of crow to eat. In the course of producing approximately 4,000 shows at the theater, Strasburg has morphed into one of the city's more daring promoters, with an ear for emerging talent. The Fox was the first venue in Colorado to book bands like Radiohead and White Zombie, and among the first small halls in the country to feature Phish as a headliner. It was also one of the only Colorado venues willing to take a chance on the then-burgeoning hip-hop movement. Nowadays, the Fox has a reputation as a proving ground for underground acts like Jurassic 5, Kool Keith and Ludacris (who sold out the theater last Sunday), artists that stop in Boulder on their way up. (As a consultant to Clear Channel Entertainment, Strasburg helps place bands that have graduated from Fox-sized spaces to larger ones, such as the Fillmore.)

Starting this weekend, the Fox enters into a three-week-long celebration commemorating ten years in business. It begins with the Project Object show on March 1 -- an evening that will find the strange universe of Frank Zappa channeled through Ike Willis and Napoleon Murphy Brock -- and winds up with Stanton Moore on March 20. The anniversary roster also includes shows by Steve Earle (in an acoustic performance on March 7), Sam Bush (March 9), Maceo Parker (March 13-14) and others. Strasburg views the schedule as a chance to celebrate the life of Fox co-founder Sidman, a former Fey Concerts staffer and Boulder Theater program director who died of cancer three years after the club opened. "He put together the best team," Strasburg says, "and it's almost like he knew it was going to be okay when he left us, because he taught us so well."

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