Last year, when Clear Channel vice president Chuck Morris first announced his company's plans to open the CityLights Pavilion at the Pepsi Center in partnership with Kroenke Sports, newly reinstated House of Blues head Barry Fey vowed to send a private plane over the crowd, streaming a banner that read: "Wouldn't you rather be at Red Rocks?"
Fey kept his promise last Friday night, when CityLights opened with a premiere performance from Barry Manilow. He's also held fast to his criticism of the new performance space, having repeatedly dismissed it as a "tent in a parking lot." Which, as a matter of fact, is just what it is.
But it's an awfully nice tent in a parking lot -- part Sydney Opera House, part Denver International Airport terminal. For a venue that seats just over 5,000 people, it has a surprisingly intimate feeling. The venue's sound system is state of the art; its lighting system is fanciful and agile; and its easterly view of the downtown skyline makes the place feel very urban and sophisticated.
Early on, Denver officials worried that CityLights would pull business from city-owned Red Rocks, and the proposed venue's operators hastened to open a dialogue with Mayor Wellington Webb and his staff. The city's fears were assuaged when Clear Channel, and later House of Blues and Nobody in Particular Presents, promised to book at least twelve shows into Red Rocks -- a sweetheart of a deal for the city, rather than a promoter.
Still, CityLights experienced some dark times on the road to its opening. Concerned residents in already heavily trafficked LoDo met for months with representatives from Kroenke, Clear Channel, the City of Denver and CRL Associates, a lobbying firm representing the project. (In one concession to those with concerns about sound issues, CityLights gave neighbors a phone number leading directly to the venue -- and a human being -- making it easier to complain if the concerts get too loud.) And two petition efforts against the facility, led by Paramount Theatre leaseholder Randy Ship, sought to halt both its construction and its ability to sell alcohol on the premises.
Although he'd been fighting the project since November, Ship recently dropped both campaigns. In a surprise twist, Ship is currently entertaining the possibility of selling the Paramount to Kroenke Sports, which already owns the Avalanche, the Denver Nuggets and the Pepsi Center. (Were such a deal to go down, Kroenke would be required to honor an exclusivity contract that the Paramount currently has with House of Blues, an arrangement that would place Fey, et. al., in uncomfortably close proximity to their biggest rival, Clear Channel. Ah, show biz!)
As a companion good-faith gesture, a group that includes members of the Paramount Foundation dropped its own counter-initiative, which would have required Ship to pay more than a half-a-million dollars in order protect the theater's designation as a historic landmark. (For the record, according to the Denver Election Commission, both sides' petitions are still technically in play.)
CityLights still faces some obstacles, however. For one, its acts must compete with the screaming wails of G-force-fed children at Elitch Gardens, the amusement park that's just a jump across the shallow Platte River and whose hours mirror those of the seasonal CityLights. (Plans call for the tent to be dismantled in the fall, and then rebuilt each summer.) More ominous, though, is the fact that ticket sales are slumping across the concert world, and with every promoter in town bringing lots and lots of shows to the area this summer, the competition for audiences is at an all-time high.
From the beginning, Morris has characterized CityLights as targeting an older crowd. Judging by the venue's concert calendar, he's stuck to his vision: The summer roster includes plenty of long-toothed artists, such as James Brown, Kenny Rogers, Engelbert Humperdinck, Yes and Kansas, suggesting that CityLights will indeed be the domain of the more-mature (and, hopefully, ticket-buying) listener.
Will Denver, which already has an abundance of concert venues, support yet another entertainment facility -- even one as conveniently located as CityLights? Ticket-sales operators are standing by.
Back in 1991, when Boulder's Nick Forster began hosting e-town, the nationally broadcast radio program he co-produces with his wife, Helen, he made a conscious choice not to feature his band, Hot Rize. Eleven years later, he's revised his thinking on the matter: On Tuesday, June 25, Hot Rize will perform during a special e-town taping at Chautauqua Auditorium, with saxophonist/ pianist Maia Sharp. Guitarist Bryan Sutton, a Nashville player who's been a member of both Ricky Scaggs's and Jerry Douglas's bands, will play guitar in place of original Rizer Charles Sawtelle, who died from complications of leukemia in 1999.
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"I originally wanted there to be a real line of demarcation between the band part of my life and the other aspects of my career," Forster says. "All of the guys had played as guests on the show at one point or another, but never as a band. I regret it a little bit now that Charles is no longer with us; Hot Rize never had the opportunity to experience e-town with him."
Though Hot Rize, which formed in 1978 and enlisted Forster, banjo player Pete Wernick, guitarist Charles Sawtelle and fiddler/mandolinist/vocalist Tim O'Brien, formally disbanded in 1990, the band remained an ongoing part of the Front Range bluegrass scene. Through the years, the players have regrouped several times; in 1996, Forster recorded one of their reunion shows at the Boulder Theater -- without his mates' knowledge. ("There's a difference between playing when you know the tape is rolling and when you're just playing," he explains. "I had the sound guys very quietly set up with some recording equipment.") The tapes from that performance (which were lost and then recovered in a closet in the Forster home) have been edited and remastered; earlier this year, they were released as So Long of a Journey, on the Sugar Hill label. The e-town performance, as well as a short string of Hot Rize gigs throughout the region this summer, are the band's way of celebrating both its history and the new album.
"We all just feel so good about this record. Absent a full-blown tour, we think the record deserves a national hearing," Forster says. "Hot Rize music is really fun to play -- and it's a body of material that none of us is really playing right now. There are a couple hundred songs that we've recorded that we all know. I feel pretty confident that this setting and being on a radio show is going to be a good combination."