The Beatdown

The mountains win again at the South Park Music Fest.

God damn. Mountain air is thin. You already know this, right? Because unlike me -- a confirmed city slicker who makes the trek to ski country once every five years, whether I need to or not -- most people come to Colorado for the mountains. But this past weekend, I spent three of the most relaxing, enjoyable days in recent memory some 9,000 or so feet above sea level, at the second annual South Park Music Fest.

The wife and I rolled into Breckenridge just before dusk on Thursday and checked in at Treehouse on the Park, an absolutely mind-blowing multimillion-dollar estate managed by Paragon Lodging, the outfit that worked with festival organizer Matt Fecher to house industry guests. In a scene reminiscent of The Real World (name the season), we clumsily introduced ourselves to our new housemates, soaked in the stunning, seven-bedroom, Cribs-worthy spread -- complete with hot tub, cinema, game rooms and a deck bigger than most Wash Park back yards -- then headed to Music Fest headquarters in Fairplay, the heart of Park County. As we navigated the hairpin turns of Hoosier Pass, we knew that even if the event turned out to be a flop, the scenery would be once-in-a-lifetime spectacular.

But the event was no flop. We made it to the Fairplay Hotel just in time to catch a remarkable set by Hot IQs. Although I've watched the IQs perform numerous times, there was something special about seeing the three-piece play its songs in this ancient, rustic ballroom. The Fairplay Hotel has a pastoral-yet-creepy charm and elegance that falls somewhere between the hotel in The Shining and a rickety Old West saloon.

A little later, on my way to catch Rubber Planet's midnight set at the Park Bar a few blocks away, I was pleasantly surprised to find a cluster of local luminaries -- Angie Stevens, Hapi Skratchers Chris K and Morris Beegle, Tommy Nahulu and Intrigue Management's Samantha Hanson -- gathered on the front steps of the hotel. Their excitement over the event was exhilarating and infectious -- but unfortunately, it didn't rub off on the locals who made up most of the crowd for Rubber Planet's set. Even though the Rubber boys turned in one of their trademark, ass-shaking, orgiastic romps, the audience remained remarkably sedate -- save for a lone, inebriated geriatric broad, who informed Silver, Rubber's charismatic frontman, that she was "ready to dance." Meanwhile, a grizzled cowpoke at the back of the bar kept bellowing something about "dirty punks" between songs.

After Rubber's set, we started the half-hour drive back to our mansion. But before we even made the top of Hoosier Pass, I was suffering from full-blown AMS -- Acute Mountain Sickness. I had an excruciating headache, lungs that felt like they were on the verge of total collapse, and vertigo that rivaled eight hours on the Twister. Even sleeping didn't help. When I woke up, I had to admit that the altitude had gotten the best of me -- me, a Colorado native. But later that day at the lodge where the industry panels were held, I discovered I wasn't alone: Just about everyone was feeling woozy.

Despite this handicap, all of the panels -- including mine, Meet the Press -- turned out to be engaging, informative and productive, unlike similar gabfests at so many other festivals. Afterward, we drove back to the Park Bar in time to catch Aubrey Collins and her ace backing band bring down the house. Her seductive matinee performance had dirty old men foaming at the mouth. At the end of it, I turned to Michael "Caddy" Cadwell, who's working with the not-ready-for-prime-time chanteuse, and asked what it felt like to be sitting on such a gold mine. If this young lady's record, currently in the final stages of production, is half as compelling as her live performance, anyone associated with Collins will soon be shitting in tall cotton.

After devouring a couple of pizzas with Scooter and Taylor from Love Me Destroyer, we returned to the Park Bar, where the fellas worked the crowd into an utter frenzy. To paraphrase AC/DC, if you want dirty punk, you got it. Winded and sweaty after his set, Scooter was downright giddy at having inspired South Park's first mosh pit with a scathing set of molar-rattling punk. Then it was over to the Fairplay Hotel for Eric Halborg and the rest of the Swayback, and while the trio didn't inspire such spontaneous fits of revelry, it was every bit as riveting.

By Saturday morning, even though the oxygen-starved altitude had me in a headlock, I'd never been more relaxed. We made it back to Fairplay in time to see Yo, Flaco! throw down in a decidedly rural street-fair setting. As I watched audience members seated on hay bales sway back and forth to the group's urban-centric material, I thought I'd seen it all. But then I was accosted by a pair of baby goats, who started chewing on my shorts during Melissa Ivey's blistering set on the Gazebo stage. That capped the South Park Music Fest for me.

While I'd planned to hit more shows that evening, once I was back at the Treehouse, I just couldn't peel myself away from the hot tub. As I sat there soaking and smoking, I ruminated on what a perfect getaway the South Park Music Fest has become. And that's exactly what Fecher, a recent Denver resident who previously served as executive director of the Midwest Music Summit, had in mind when he founded the event last year: He has hopes that this industry retreat will become the musical equivalent of Park City's Sundance Festival.

It was certainly what this overworked music minion needed. While South Park is much smaller than South by Southwest, I still didn't see as many acts as I intended -- but the ones I did catch were outstanding. From a festival perspective, though, it still has a way to go. I didn't see many industry heavyweights, and while I caught some interesting national artists, I was much more impressed with the Denver acts that Fecher had imported.

Things will change, though, once word leaks out about how cool the South Park Music Fest really is. I'm confident that with some minor tinkering (including relocating the panels out of the forest and closer to town, and providing a map of the venues), South Park could quickly become one of the country's premier music conferences. I'm already looking forward to next year -- assuming I can stock up on a gaggle of O2 canisters before then.

As I settled into bed on Saturday night, lungs and senses ravaged by the altitude, Krystal 93, Breckenridge's locally owned radio station, perfectly summed up my South Park experience by playing Blues Traveler's "The Mountains Win Again."

Head for the hills.

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