Show Business

Denver's music scene deserves to be heard.

Flobots were on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last week. And Last Call With Carson Daly before that. Yeah, I know — old news now, right? But five years ago, when I first started writing about local music for this paper, such an event wouldn't have been treated like just another story about a Denver band done good, forgotten in a few days. It would've been the story, front-page news. We'd be talking about it for weeks, months, even years. And I know this because we did just that the first time around. We've been here before.

Case in point: the Fray.

Things were decidedly different when that band broke. The talent pool was more shallow and the scene itself fragmented, revolving around only a handful of bars and clubs. There was no hi-dive, no 3 Kings or Bender's Tavern, no Marquis or Oriental theaters, no Walnut Room, no Meadowlark, no Old Curtis Street, no Bar Bar, no Falcon, no Rhinoceropolis — places that today devote a great deal of their programming to local music. This is not to disparage other rooms that were around back then, joints that stuck their neck out and booked local music consistently, like Cricket on the Hill, Herman's Hideaway, the Larimer and Climax lounges, 15th Street Tavern and the Lion's Lair. They were the lifeblood of the scene, and some of them remain so. But outside of those venues, locals were thought of as openers, not headliners — and not just by promoters, but by the media.

Bela Karoli’s Julie Davis (clockwise from left), Paper Bird’s Esmé Patterson, Nathaniel Rateliff and Jessica Sonner are helping create quite a scene in Denver.
Anthony Camera
Bela Karoli’s Julie Davis (clockwise from left), Paper Bird’s Esmé Patterson, Nathaniel Rateliff and Jessica Sonner are helping create quite a scene in Denver.
Bela Karoli’s Julie Davis (clockwise from left), Paper Bird’s Esmé Patterson, Nathaniel Rateliff and Jessica Sonner are helping create quite a scene in Denver.
Anthony Camera
Bela Karoli’s Julie Davis (clockwise from left), Paper Bird’s Esmé Patterson, Nathaniel Rateliff and Jessica Sonner are helping create quite a scene in Denver.

To compound matters, the music industry had difficulty finding Denver on a map, making this a city starved for national notoriety. So when the Fray garnered a major-label deal and suddenly focused the spotlight on our town, that was our lightning-in-a-bottle moment. For many of us, the act's success transcended the music. We were living vicariously through the Fray and drunk with possibilities — at least I was (witness my wanton hyperventilation over the Fray's every movement from 2004 to 2006).

But there were plenty of people who maintained an icy detachment and refused to drink the Kool-Aid. And as jaded as those folks might have seemed at the time, they were right. In the sober light of day, Denver is indeed more than just the Fray — or any of the other acts that have been called up to the majors. We're elated for and proud of those bands that have graduated, of course, but to pin all of our aspirations on them is more than a bit shortsighted. A decade from now, these acts will only be part of our story, not the whole thing. What will stick with us is the music and the countless nights we spent drinking, sweating and smiling together in small clubs, watching all the other groups that make up this scene. There's just so much bubbling beneath the surface.

Will these bands go on to become rock stars, icons that change the face of music? Maybe, maybe not. Many certainly deserve to, and even while others may not be breaking new ground, as some critics have cynically asserted, they're all changing lives — our lives. They're creating our soundtrack.

A number of years ago, I glibly suggested that Denver could be the next Seattle if only folks would pay attention — but I was being facetious: We didn't have a singular unifying sound to exploit. That was a good thing then, and it's truer than ever today. Our diversity is our strength. If we must compare our scene to another, Denver's actually like a composite of numerous cities across the country. It's a little Portland, a little Austin, a little Brooklyn, a little Omaha, a little Montreal and a lot of Toronto. The vast, unexpected collaborations and camaraderie we have here — arguably one of the best aspects of our scene — recalls that last town, in particular, and its Broken Social Scene.

Keeping all this in mind, I don't think we've actually started taking our time in the national spotlight for granted; it's more like our priorities have shifted. Don't get me wrong: It's still invigorating to catch DeVotchKa on Conan, or to see guys like Nathaniel Rateliff written up in Billboard, or to see acts like the Swayback, Cat-A-Tac and Everything Absent or Distorted (a love story) gaining notice from CMJ. Or to hear an outfit like Bela Karoli featured on NPR, or to find Pictureplane and Rhinoceropolis lauded in Pitchfork. But when it comes right down to it, all of that validation, the very thing that we sought for so long from outsiders, has become secondary. Fact is, it's far more exhilarating to actually be a part of a scene that is as vibrant as it is expansive than it is to have that scene get national attention.

And we built this scene together: the bands, the fans, the venues, the studios, the producers, the record labels and the media — particularly stations like KTCL, that champion the music made here, treating it like it's every bit as relevant as the glossier imports, which it is. Putting together this year's Westword Music Showcase was a particularly eye-opening experience. Going to shows several nights a week, I always knew there was a wealth of talent in our city. It wasn't until I stopped and put it all down on paper, though, that it truly dawned on me just how deep that well is.

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