The Pepsi Center is actually an okay place to pass an evening, no matter what's going on inside, if you stick to the outer edges and avoid the actual event altogether. The club level has a couple of bars and a nice patio with a view of downtown. In the Denver Post fake newsroom/lounge, you can order a salad for $8.50 and watch TV. (A tip for the spirit-minded: The upper-level bars sell beer longer than the stands on the concourse, usually for thirty minutes past the end of an event.) On the ground level, the Coors Tap Room is often opened for parents who want to escort their children to concerts or sporting events but don't want to plunk down the money for a ticket.

I discovered all of this on Monday night while trying to find necessary, though momentary, refuge from the more puzzling aspects of the Britney Spears/O-Town show that was taking place on the center's stage. Reading a Xeroxed copy of the evening's agenda in the Ridgeline Bar -- where the staff was cranking Led Zeppelin IV in an attempt to block out the prepubescent screams that never stopped emanating from the venue's belly -- I learned that attendance was estimated at 15,000, that the show was scheduled to be over by 9:45 p.m., and that, because of her dedication to customer service, a woman named Suzanne has been named the Pepsi Center Employee of the Month for November. Overlooking the VIP parking lot, I also learned that Spears and her entourage travel in eleven luxury tour buses and that it takes an entire parking lot full of eighteen-wheelers to transport all of the laser beams, mirrored panels, speakers, monitors, headsets, T-shirts and costumes that are The Britney Show. Monday's concert marked Spears's first Colorado appearance since a stop at the Paramount in 1999: Her scheduled show at Red Rocks earlier this year was canceled because the stage wasn't big enough for her elaborate production. This time, more than 3/4 of the Pepsi Center's floor was used as a three-part stage made up of two large platforms and a snaky catwalk connecting them

The breezy halls of the Grand Atrium were a welcome respite from a distortion-laden, moderately pornographic set by openers O-Town, an act familiar to VHI viewers as the first product of the Making the Band series. A purposely multiethnic and unapologetically prefabricated vocal ensemble whose members, to my companion's great horror, aren't even as cute as the Backstreet Boys, O-Town often appeared as if it were having some sort of emotion-induced group seizure. The little girls loved it -- including one pre-adolescent named Casey who was called on stage and serenaded by a freaky-looking guy with nappy dreads -- but after watching most of O-Town's set, I felt like I needed to take a shower. There's just something inherently creepy about six or seven guys in their mid-twenties telling every ten-year-old in the crowd that they want to "...kiss her lips and her shoulders...all night...get in the insides and around all the corners." While Britney's audience members ranged from just barely upright to middle-aged, with a median that sits squarely in the preteen camp, the fans screaming for O-Town looked like they shared a collective bedtime of about 8:30.

When the set concluded at last, fans on the floor were treated to a thirty-minute intermission during which giant video screens played a loop of commercials (for Pepsi), videos (of Britney kindred spirits Aaron Carter, Destiny's Child and the aforementioned Boys) and movie previews: What better time to let the kids know about Crossroads, the wacky new road comedy that stars our heroine, B.S., than in the excitement-filled moments before she actually appeared before their eyes? For those who preferred to roam the corridors in search of commerce, there was plenty to choose from. For instance, a sleeveless tank featuring a pubic-bone-baring Britney in various states of ecstatic writhing was available for $50, while the long-sleeved variety went for $60; the tour program was a steal at $10. (The entertainment value of trying to guess which older men were buying Spears calendars for their children or for themselves: priceless.) Signs posted around the venue reminded us that because Britney was donating a portion of her proceeds to the Britney Spears Foundation, it was not only fun to spend money on merch, it was the socially responsible thing to do.

When Britney finally did arrive, my objective of trying to determine whether or not she actually has much talent was thwarted by the fact that she could never really be heard above the din of the keyboards, her presence always buried in a swirl of flashing strobes and choreography. Her stage show included a Madonna-esque ensemble of nubile and athletic dancers, all of whom moved with a lot more confidence than Spears herself, who is spunky but seems more like a step-class teacher than a dancer. She lip-synched through a lot of it -- out of respiratory necessity, one supposes, more than anything. Her coy new ballad, "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," was a performance highlight, as Brit actually calmed down and took a seat on a piano bench in order to sing it.

"I'm sorry -- I'm just totally brain dead right now," she said, wiping sweat off her head, in one of her only verbal addresses to go beyond "Whoooo!" Spears then offered a sweet but rambling speech that touched on everything from how happy she is to be her to how much she loves firefighters before disappearing for yet another costume change. By the end of the night, she had been everything from an apocalyptic-angel-slut to a pink-tutued ballerina (who's just waiting for "the person who will come along with the key to her music box") to a bikini-clad Outback babe (fans of bad horror films, think Gator Bait). I thought about what it might be like to have to go through this every evening, and started to feel sorry for her almost immediately. Sure, at twenty she's an international superstar and a femme fatale, but she still has to live in a bus and bust her shapely hump every night. What if, one night, she just didn't feel like gyrating her belly against her male backup dancers? Or touching her breasts every ten seconds? (She made that move so often it began to seem like a nervous tic.) Britney's foiled escape plots were a major theme of the stage show. Her entrance involved her rising out of the stage mounted to a large board, à la the state-fair entertainers who rotate 360 degrees as drunk hillbillies throw knives at them. Mask-wearing dancers followed her around with mirrors, shoving them in her face as she tried to look elsewhere. As Spears pretended to flee the stage, she was alternately trapped, bound, netted and dragged back onto it. Bad Britney. Bad.

But as much as she sometimes seemed like a hapless, Barbie-esque pawn who just happens to star in one of the campiest stage shows ever committed to the boards, Spears also occasionally glimmered with a self-awareness that suggests she knows just what she's into. Strutting the catwalk in various states of disrobement, she flashed funny little crinkly-nosed smiles, as if to say, "Man, can you fucking believe my luck?" Or -- "Isn't this ridiculous?" She also committed acts of bravery, like the moment she hung from suspension cables in the middle of the stage and the time she hung upside down from a tall riser in the center of the stage (providing further empirical evidence for those who, like me, were conducting their own are-those-real experiments; my personal verdict is yes).

Walking out of the Pepsi Center, I tailed a girl who was so young she still wore elastic-waistband jeans, the zipperless style that indicates she has not yet graduated to "big girl" status. Along the seams of her pants, brightly colored, sparkly letters spelled out B-R-I-T-N-E-Y (left leg) S-P-E-A-R-S (right leg). On the pocket was this handwritten, glittery proclamation: "I'm a Slave" -- a reference to a song that appears on the newly released Britney. The girl's mother carried a couple of rolled-up posters in one arm and another little girl, in a Britney shirt, in the other. It seemed like an appropriate end to an evening in which artist and audience seemed equally bound to one another: Britney needs her fans to love her, and they need her to love. As long as the formula works, she'll continue to slave away until the fans grow up -- or the belly grows out.

In October, Leftover Salmon's announcement that it was canceling its East Coast tour was disheartening for local fans as well as Easterners looking forward to the shows. But the cancellation brought with it a more serious piece of news, about the fragile health of one of the band's most beloved members, banjoist Mark Van, who was diagnosed with a severe form of melanoma late this summer. Van has since undergone chemotherapy treatments in Colorado -- an expensive and emotionally trying process that has, among other things, led Leftover to take a pause. This week, though, Van's bandmembers will be joined by a really spectacular roster of friends and fellow players in a series of benefit concerts designed to raise money, and spirits, for the Van family. On Thursday, October 15, at the Fox Theatre, Leftover will be joined by Billy Nershi of the String Cheese Incident, Bill Payne and Paul Barrere of Little Feat, Pete Sears, John Cowan, G. Love, Peter Rowan and Tony Furtado. The following night at the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins, special guests include the All-Night Honky Tonk All-Stars, Reed Foehl, Rowan, Cowan, Furtado, Payne and Barrere. On Saturday, November 17, at the Fillmore, the Yonder Mountain String Band, Béla Fleck, Todd Park Mohr and Pete Wernick join the fray. If you're unable to make any of the shows -- though you should try, as lineups like these don't happen every day -- you can send cash donations and good wishes to Van at P.O. Box 393, Nederland, CO 80466. We wish Van, who smiled and smoldered his way through Leftover's appearance as part of the Westword Music Showcase earlier this year, the very speediest of recoveries.


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