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Al Kraizer thinks he's misunderstood. The common misconception, he tells me, is that Performance International, the non-profit that puts on the LoDo Music Festivalevery year, is loaded. And while it's true that the festival can generate a healthy amount of revenue, Kraizer hasn't personally reaped the benefits -- at least not monetarily. In fact, he jokes that he's one torrential rainstorm away from asking if you "want that supersized."
He's exaggerating, of course -- but when "you make all of your money during four days of the year," as he points out, it doesn't seem like that much of a stretch. While the LoDo Music Festival goes on rain or shine, rain certainly puts a damper on the crowds -- and with them goes the cash.
The LoDo Music Festival debuted in 1993, shortly after Kraizer moved to Denver from New York. Having already done time on the East Coast putting together various multi-arts festivals (bringing foreign theater groups to the States, for example) and a handful of music festivals (Richmond's June Jubilee), he wanted to raise his son away from the noisy, dog-eat-dog confines of the Big Apple. But Kraizer was still producing out-of-state events from his office on Wynkoop Street when he had an epiphany.
"It was clear to me what was happening in LoDo, even then," Kraizer recalls. "I thought to myself, 'I'd like to put together a festival here.'" Having grown up in St. Louis, he was a huge fan of blues and R&B, and that love -- along with the old real-estate adage "location, location, location" -- got the wheels turning.
Around the same time, Kraizer received a phone call from a friend he'd worked with in the past, Norm Langill of One Reel, a non-profit arts organization in the Northwest. Langill had been running a few events in Seattle -- the Bumbershoot festival and a series called Summer Nights at the Pier -- and the concerts were so successful that the corporate sponsor, Cellular One (now AT&T Wireless), wanted to branch out into other markets. Kismet calls, baby, and when it does, you'd better answer the phone!
Kraizer did, and another urban spectacular was born. With the help of One Reel and Langill, who's handled all of the booking since the event's inception, he introduced the first LoDo Music Festival in front of Union Station ten years ago. Artists like Sonia Dada, Little Feat, Johnny Clegg & Savuka, Tab Benoit and Leon Russell shared the inaugural bill, which attracted 4,000 fans -- a fraction of the number who flock to the festival today.
By 1995, the festival had outgrown its original space and relocated a few blocks farther up Wynkoop, in the shadow of the brand-new Coors Field. That year, the music expanded to three stages and the lineup nearly tripled; for the first time ever, local bands were included. Several years and fifty acts later, the LoDo Music Festival even outgrew LoDo.
"In '98, we literally sold the festival out, which doesn't happen that much," Kraizer says. "It's a late-buying audience in Denver to begin with, and with festivals, people think you'll never sell out. We got to the point where the police said to us, 'It's getting really thick out there in terms of the crowd, and we think we should close the gates.' At that time, it was great to have a gate, because if we were just a block party, we would have really been in trouble; we probably turned away 3,000 or 4,000 people."
But just when a move became necessary, fate again intervened. The Ballpark Neighborhood Association contacted Kraizer about creating another festival for the area just northeast of LoDo. Rather than organize another event, though, he opted to move the existing festival, and the 2000-2200 blocks of Blake, Market and Larimer streets have been party central ever since.
The logistics have become so complex that Kraizer and crew start planning for next year's festival even before the current one is over. "Everybody on my staff from the production end will certainly tell you that we can do ten Red Rocks shows easier than doing one festival," he says. "We have a number of guys on our staff who have worked on a lot of the Pepsi Center's shows, and they said, 'Eagles, Stones -- simple.'"
Planning the LoDo Music Festival is like building an event on a moving ice flow, Kraizer says. "We take a space in a parking lot and surrounding streets and transform it. It's like, 'Can I use the water out of this building?' 'Can I get power everywhere?' And I have to leave access for these folks to make their deliveries."
It's a mammoth undertaking, but it creates mammoth memories. In 1994, the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, headlined. "It was amazing, because the man had this regal thing about him," Kraizer recalls. "He has this persona, this style. He's bigger than who he is."
But not all of the big moments involved big stars. "We have this one guy who's been a volunteer for years," Kraizer continues, "and it seems to me like he's had a hard life: He's big and heavy and missing a bunch of teeth, living pretty close to the bone and not far from the streets. And one night, Wilson Pickett was calling people out of the audience, and he calls this guy up -- who doesn't look like he's ready for prime time by a long shot -- and he has this amazing falsetto voice. He completely blew Wilson Pickett away, and everybody saw it. It was nearly religious, this one moment in time this guy was completely transformed. It was too stunning for words."