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There's no shortage of music history on the 21-block stretch of East Colfax Avenue between Grant and Josephine streets. The Fillmore Auditorium and the Ogden Theatre may be the obvious anchors, but the roots go much deeper.
There are stories of the legendary folksinger who crashed on friends' floors and gigged in small clubs along this stretch before he went on to win international fame. There's the famous musical alum from East High School and her high-profile friends who helped kick off a local scene here decades ago. More recently, the city's most high-profile hometown heroes all made the requisite stops at the dozens of bars and clubs along the avenue before they landed in the national spotlight. That past, present and future is what the upcoming Root 40 Music Fest is all about.
"Who are we? What is our identity? That was the big question," declares Stephanie Salazar, economic-development director for the Colfax Business Improvement District, a quasi-governmental agency that represents the stretch known as Upper Colfax. "We realized that Denver's music culture started here. It was born in upper Colfax. This is the epicenter."
The CBID worked with Colfax business owners and local sponsors to pay tribute to that identity by organizing last year's Root 40 Music Fest as a pilot program, an event that would expand on the concept of the many successful festivals that take place every year across the city. The event's title comes from Colfax's former status as the city's main artery, when Highway 40 was a common route for residents, merchants and interstate travelers.
In addition to local bands playing in venues up and down that section of East Colfax, last year's Root 40 Fest included a piece for young musicians and would-be industry professionals looking to learn the ropes. Organizers combined the live music of a typical festival with forums and workshops featuring industry experts, promoters, venue owners and professional musicians, each offering input about finding traction in the scene.
This year's week-long event is set to follow a similar model, though live performance is still at the heart of it. More than one hundred acts, including Drop Switch, Chris Daniels and the Kings, FaceMan, PLACES, the A-OKs, the Gypsy Swing Revue and Esme Patterson, among others, are slated to play at places like the Cheeky Monk, Independent Records, Prohibition, the Squire Lounge and the Irish Snug, as well as the Fillmore and the Ogden.
"Every single act had their music heard, and then it was a matter of matching the talent to the venue," Salazar says about last year's outing. "You can't fit the same act into the Cheeky Monk that you would at the Lion's Lair or the Irish Snug," she points out, adding that the festival will also feature DJs and solo acts in addition to full bands.
And beyond the acts on stage, the fest will be conducting the business of music. Billed as "7 Days of Music and the Business of Making Music," the Root 40 fest is set to combine the live performances with workshops, panels and vendor expos straight out of a music-industry trade show. One of the goals is to make a direct impact on the community, and Salazar and other organizers also hope to raise money to contribute to the music education program at East High School.
"Our objective," says Salazar, "was to drive business into the businesses and not just have a festival. Our distinguishing factor is the education component. We are trying to provide a platform where up-and-coming musicians can learn about the business and get some education about the music industry."
Indeed, that theme will drive the festival's opening event this Sunday, April 21: the Root 40 Expo at the Fillmore, with keynote speakers, listening sessions and a forum for music-related businesses and products. A panel on live music at the L2 Arts and Culture Center the next day will feature input from AEG Live's Rob Thomas, Planet Bluegrass's Steve Szymanski, singer Hazel Miller and Chris Daniels.
Daniels, who's playing the Root 40 Expo with the Kings, has had a lead role in the educational component of the festival since its inception. Daniels teaches music business at the University of Colorado Denver, and he brings that experience to his work with the event. A longtime veteran of the scene, Daniels believes that Root 40's dual focus on local business and wider education makes it stand out from other local projects of this kind. "I think they're doing something that's really unique," he observes. "They're focusing on an area, and giving all these great young bands a chance to get out and get in the marketplace and get their name in front of people. The one different thing that Root 40 is doing is the music-business part."
Students from Daniels's program at CU are using the festival as an opportunity to practice marketing and business skills learned in the classroom. To coincide with Root 40, for example, Daniels and his students will host an outdoor concert at the Auraria campus on Thursday, April 25, titled the "Cam Jam," with Bop Skizzum, You Me and Apollo and Ian Cooke. "All these really good young bands," notes Daniels. "It's an entire day of free music outside. That's all put on by my class. That's part of the Root 40 event; we're doing that in partnership."
Connecting music-business students with bands, companies and performance is only part of the appeal of the Root 40 Fest for Daniels, who has his own connections to that segment of East Colfax. "I think I saw my first major rock show at Mammoth Gardens," he recalls. "I think it was John Sebastian. I saw Zephyr when Tommy Bolin was with them in 1969."
Nor is Daniels the only one with strong musical ties to that part of the city. In 1960, Bob Dylan spent his summer crashing on floors and playing gigs at the Satire Lounge, a spot favored by acts like the Smothers Brothers and East High School alum Judy Collins. The Fillmore Auditorium, formerly known as Mammoth Gardens and Mammoth Events Center, has maintained its status as one of Denver's premier spots for live music. Down the street, the historic Ogden Theatre has built its own reputation as a stop for national artists since reopening as a music venue in 1993. Then there are the dozens of smaller venues that line the avenue, spots like Independent Records and the Lion's Lair, that have hosted everyone from Andrew Bird to Jonathan Richman.
Clearly, music is part of the very fabric of this sretch of Colfax. The business owners, residents and organizers behind the Root 40 Music Fest want to make sure that thread remains strong. "We'd like to see some community support coming in, and not just attendance," Salazar concludes. "We'd like to see the business community support music in general.... I don't think they realize it's all in one neighborhood. This is a little entertainment district."