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Backwash

Scott Campbell moves down the road and away from the 15th Street Tavern.

The chamber of commerce and the census bureau do not appear to keep records on the number of bars per capita operating in our fair city. The Department of Excise and Licenses can tell us that there are approximately 1,200 active liquor licenses on file in the City and County of Denver; more than half of those are classified as cabarets, which means they may legally host various forms of live entertainment, be it karaoke or topless dancing. Westword's own directory of music clubs lists 165 viable venues in the metro area.

However you run the numbers, it's safe to say that it would be very difficult to die of thirst in this town. And it would also be difficult to argue that there isn't anywhere to see live music. (Some would even say there's too much: Backwash recently spent a few happy hours with a longtime scenester who lamented the preponderance of local music venues, theorizing that the scene was more pure and vibrant back when a show was a rare treat rather than merely part of the social routine.)

And beginning this week, barflies who enjoy their cocktails with a shot of rock and roll have yet another choice in the ever-expanding firmament of local venues with the opening of the Larimer Lounge at 27th and Larimer streets, a newly polished dive in disguise owned and operated by former 15th Street Tavern booking manager Scott Campbell and his partner, Mark Gebhardt. The place has an oak bar, colored lights, a big stage -- and the benefit of a seasoned, wild-card promoter at the helm.

"The bottom line is that it was just time for me to have my own club," says Campbell, who tried to buy the Tavern in 1999 and has been looking for another location ever since. "I think of it like an art gallery: It got to the point where the art that we were putting in there was beyond the scope of the gallery. You wouldn't put a Diego Rivera into a run-down space. We've heard from lots of bands who say they just didn't want to play there anymore, because they'd gotten bigger and their audiences expected something more. Some people, like Slim Cessna, just refused to play there because the aesthetic was so unpleasant."

What's that? The Tavern, a run-down space? Well, okay. But isn't that part of its charm? Readers of this column are aware of Backwash's affinity for the 15th Street Tavern. Some have even suggested that Westword has signed some sort of blood contract with its management. We haven't, but we do confess our love for the place, even with its ever-present cigarette haze, its cute, cartoonish beer-mug sign, and, yes, its floor -- as famously sticky as the linoleum in a Kitty's video booth. Much of the venue's success is credited to Campbell, who six years ago began placing local and touring bands into the bar with a couple of friends.

"We were living this dream of running our own punk-rock club," he says. "We were just out of college, and we had no idea what the hell we were doing. We were complete idiots."

Idiotic as he may have been, Campbell eventually managed to convince the Tavern's owners to invest more seriously in the club's musical endeavors by installing better sound equipment and building a larger stage. Since then, he has shown a real knack for consistently diverting up-and-coming artists into the club, in many cases snagging artists just before their touring vans steered in more high-profile directions -- or they were snatched up by competitors such as Nobody in Particular Presents, with whom Campbell has a somewhat legendary rivalry. (Local musicians who've worked with both companies like to tell tales of near fistfights between Campbell and NIPP's Peter Ore, with whom he often competes for shows.)

The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age, the Promise Ring, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Dismemberment Plan and Jimmy Eat World are among the acts who've slung microphones and guitars beneath the Tavern's fiberglass ceiling during Campbell's tenure. Clubgoers witnessed Street Walkin' Cheetahs frontman Frank Meyer's triumphant air-guitar strut across the bar; were once served drinks by Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme; and ducked for cover when two members of the Humpers got into a fight and threw each other through the venue's plate-glass window.

Ah, yes. The Tavern. How can you blame us for loving it so?

"If people think of the Tavern as a success, I take that as a personal compliment," Campbell says. "We were fortunate to get the artists that we did, especially in the shadow of such huge competition. But there were things about the space that became a real impediment. The owners love music because it helps them make money. But they didn't have the mentality to understand why I would need to pay $1,500 for an act like Modest Mouse. You really need to study and understand the industry to be successful. I feel like I've learned enough to apply everything that I know to the new place and to just have a nicer, more professional club all the way around."

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