Alone on the Range
For the musician, the romance of life in Colorado comes with a price, because the state's geographic gifts -- the Rocky Mountains, snow and the surrounding open plains -- are a serious obstacle for acts that want to tour for a living. While this may not be a secret among players, these elements are also a pain for another group: music fans. The attributes that make life better here are keeping a portion of the nation's bands from showing up on Colorado soil. Granted, the region's current live-music boom equals that of the state's thriving economy. And it's easy to see that the selection of national acts passing through the area is better than it's ever been, a bonanza fueled by the talent wars waged by House of Blues, Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents and other big-time bookers.
But despite these improvements and the region's growing musical clout, there are still tours -- from small to major -- that skip Colorado all together. The three biggest factors cited by bands and bookers alike in that scenario? The hassles of crossing the Rockies, the unpredictable weather that swirls across the West from fall to spring, and the lengthy drives from here to the next major city.
"Denver's a pretty big city, and we love to play there when we can," says Rick Miller, leader of Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Southern Culture on the Skids. "But, man, it's in the middle of nowhere." Miller's band has been touring nationally for ten years now, doing as many as 250 shows a year. In the past few years, the band's by-van tours have brought it here only twice. The Skids have purposely avoided Colorado several times, even when they were touring the western half of the country. "The trouble with playing Denver," Miller says, "is that once you leave Lawrence, Kansas, you've got another eight hours to Denver. Then another eight hours to reach Salt Lake City."
Erik Deutsch understands these concerns all too well. His band, Fat Mama, began in Boulder and recently relocated to New York City to avoid the long-distance logistics the band faced when living here. He's now on the other side of the Colorado coin, and his band is more concerned with the logistics of getting into Colorado than getting out of it. "It's just so far away," Deutsch laments about his former home turf. "And between the Midwest and Denver, there's a lot of open space and highway and maybe one or two stops on the way. In the time it takes us to get to Denver, we could play five shows out here on the East Coast.
"It costs a certain amount of money to keep a band alive on tour," he adds, "and every day it costs you to eat, to sleep and to drive. When there's a day when you don't play, you lose money." Which is just what he and his Fat Mama peers did following their recent return engagement in town. "We left Boulder and drove to Minneapolis," Deutsch says wearily. "That's a nineteen-hour drive. It wears you out."
Such marathon treks, some area bookers say, are enough to keep bands from calling on Colorado as frequently as listeners would like. Scott Campbell, who books one of Denver's more notorious punk bastions, the 15th Street Tavern, says that many acts on tour in the West are willing to come to town. "But when I start recruiting bands to come here," he says, "that's when I run into the geography problem. A lot of times they'll say, 'Well, you're kind of out of the way.'" Peter Ore books bands for nobody in particular presents, the large independent local promoter that handles the Ogden Theatre, the Bluebird, the Lion's Lair and a few other venues. He says the fact that bands -- both large and small -- are sometimes unwilling to drive to this area is a small but recurring reality. "Out of all the stuff I do," he says, "I'd say it's maybe 5 percent. [But] that's a big number when you consider all the tours out there."
This time of year, the number of acts that pass on passing through Colorado is even greater. Sometimes, slim concert calendars give local fans the impression that a lot of bands aren't touring at all. The truth is that acts often continue to tour aggressively through winter months -- just not here. "In the winter," Ore says, "I've called agents and asked about their tours and had them tell me, 'They're certainly not coming to Colorado.'" Matt Need, the Gothic Theatre's talent buyer (who also served as tour director for Big Head Todd & the Monsters in the band's earlier days), understands why. "You can get hosed driving from here to Salt Lake City in the winter, and that's the truth." Deutsch agrees. "If you're going to try and make it from Omaha to Boulder, at any time of year except for summer, you have to worry about dangerous conditions," he says. "Everybody knows it can snow anytime out there, and if you get stuck in a blizzard in Nebraska, you're not going anywhere."
As artists who tour by van, Deutsch and Miller are among the musicians most affected by such concerns. Unlike acts that tour the country by bus with a paid driver and support staff, these bands regularly finish a Front Range show only to cram into the Ford Econoline and start the drive to the next, distant western gig -- usually with an exhausted band member at the wheel. Such trips through snow and ice are simply dangerous, a lesson that Texas indie-rockers At the Drive-In learned the hard way last month: The band missed a headlining gig at the Bluebird after rolling its van on a snow-covered Colorado road. Drummer Tony Hajjar suffered a broken leg in the accident, and the group was forced to cancel several shows on its tour.
Of course, most acts continue to come to the state in spite of these concerns. "The little bands are the ones that are going to come here, because they need to get out and tour," Ore says, before admitting that "the small band in the van has all the things packed against them. Like not making any money or a guarantee." Campbell points out that "most of the bands we deal with are in their twenties, and they itch to tour. For these indie punk bands, that's part of their fun. But I do feel bad when a band comes to town for a weeknight and can't pocket enough money to even fill the tank to get across Colorado. A lot of bands don't avoid Colorado, but it may not be a good decision financially for them to come here."
Campbell, Ore and other promoters say that the majority of bands that make Colorado stops do so because a show here fills a large gap in their cross-country travels. A Denver/Boulder-area gig is a welcome oasis for the band stretching the miles between the West and the Midwest. And for those groups who don't see it that way, there are people like Jason Miller, from House of Blues, who snicker at the long-drives-to-Denver complaint. "I don't buy it," he says. "We're a perfectly routable destination, a day away from Texas, Wyoming, Salt Lake City. We're the crossroads. We probably get more bands because of our location." Miller works primarily with signed, larger acts that tour with support. Once they come here, he points out, "there's no shortage of places to play."
That's especially true for jam or groove-friendly bands that can cash in on ski resort shows during the winter months. "Colorado has more markets to offer than any other state out there," says Casey Verbeck, of Boulder's Partners in Music agency. His company books such local acts as Yonder Mountain String band and various national bands in the new-grass and jam-band genres. "In winter time," he notes, "some of our bands will do a two-week tour in Colorado alone, playing ski towns." For the alt-country band or punk act, however, those opportunities don't always exist. These acts typically play a show or two in Boulder or Denver, then have to count on modest secondary markets such as Fort Collins, Colorado Springs or Cheyenne, Wyoming, to make up the monetary slack.
Sometimes, the only way to get a particular band to town is to a shell out for airfare. Before agreeing to play this year's LoDo Music Festival, for example, Southern Culture on the Skids asked to be flown in. Such requests are relatively frequent, local promoters say, both for bands on tour and those who are off tour and unwilling to pile back into the van. Those flight costs, promoters note, are then passed on to the ticket-buying consumer. Such options don't work for operators of smaller venues, however. "I have bands request being flown out here," Campbell says, "and I'll try to price it out and kick it around to see if it can work. Then I just give up. I can't afford to be flying bands to the 15th Street Tavern."
For some acts, even a free plane ride doesn't make the jaunt to Colorado worthwhile. Conrad Deisler is a member of the Austin Lounge Lizards, who says his group's long-haul tours are done by plane only. Normally the group lands one primary show with a paid flight, then rents a van and hits a couple more shows in the area of the main gig. The formula works to great effect across the nation, but it gets difficult when trying to work Colorado into the mix. Following the Lizards' recent Swallow Hill gig (their first area show in years), they flew to Reno, Nevada, for another show, then rented a van and drove to California. The band then drove back to Reno before flying home to Austin. That's a lot of travel. The Lizards, Deisler notes, have turned down offers to come here by plane because of these scheduling problems.
"It's pretty murderous," Deisler says. In other parts of the nation, he notes, "We can go there and spend just a couple hours in the car and be in a different city, playing to larger crowds. That population density is important. We get to Denver, what's the next major market? Albuquerque? Salt Lake City? They're pretty darn far, and neither one's exactly full of opportunity." For Rick Miller, whose band counts on short drives and low expenses to turn a touring profit, Colorado doesn't look like a land of much opportunity for the player. "I don't think living in Denver would be at all productive to being in a band," he says. "It's a beautiful place to live and enjoy one's surroundings, but as far as making money, I think it would be an uphill battle."
Granted, those aren't the sorts of sentiments that will make a local musician stand up and cheer about his or her Colorado address. Then again, as local musician and promoter Kurt Ohlen notes, seeing endless drives across the land as a bummer may be a cultural thing. "I can certainly understand a band not wanting to travel out here in the winter," he notes. "But having grown up in the West, distance is not a huge deal for me. And I don't think a band in Denver thinks twice about driving to Texas to play other big towns. We've got to do seven or eight hours wherever you go, and we're used to driving across wide-open spaces."
Besides, even the most road-weary musician can find perks that most major music markets don't offer, from stunning scenery to an open-minded, enthusiastic fan base and the chance to play venues that are out of reach in America's more populous cities. "Honestly," Fat Mama's Deutsch says, "to play a room like the Gothic or the Boulder Theater, we don't get that kind of treatment on the East Coast. Sure, you've got to do Nebraska and you've got to do Kansas. But for us, it's worth it; we've done it and we'll keep doing it. We know they're going treat us like something special and we're going to do well. A band can't pass that up."
Obviously, some can, as evidenced by any number of small and major tours that avoid Front Range tour dates each year, from the current Bon Jovi tour to recent caravans such as Ozzfest and many others. In the next few weeks, Miller notes, the Skids are again heading out (in support of their new release, Lacquered Up and Liquored Down). Their tour will include stops around the U.S and destinations as far away as Australia. But so far, it doesn't include a Colorado date. "We're touring in January, but we're taking I-10, going south and west of Denver. I mean, we love to play there, but it's hard to get there. And every day on the road takes a chunk out of our pocket that we've got to make up somewhere. And when you need to play six days out of seven, those drive days are killers."
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