The chamber of commerce and the census bureau do not appear to keep records on the number of bars per capita operating in our fair city. The Department of Excise and Licenses can tell us that there are approximately 1,200 active liquor licenses on file in the City and County of Denver; more than half of those are classified as cabarets, which means they may legally host various forms of live entertainment, be it karaoke or topless dancing. Westword's own directory of music clubs lists 165 viable venues in the metro area.
However you run the numbers, it's safe to say that it would be very difficult to die of thirst in this town. And it would also be difficult to argue that there isn't anywhere to see live music. (Some would even say there's too much: Backwash recently spent a few happy hours with a longtime scenester who lamented the preponderance of local music venues, theorizing that the scene was more pure and vibrant back when a show was a rare treat rather than merely part of the social routine.)
And beginning this week, barflies who enjoy their cocktails with a shot of rock and roll have yet another choice in the ever-expanding firmament of local venues with the opening of the Larimer Lounge at 27th and Larimer streets, a newly polished dive in disguise owned and operated by former 15th Street Tavern booking manager Scott Campbell and his partner, Mark Gebhardt. The place has an oak bar, colored lights, a big stage -- and the benefit of a seasoned, wild-card promoter at the helm.
"The bottom line is that it was just time for me to have my own club," says Campbell, who tried to buy the Tavern in 1999 and has been looking for another location ever since. "I think of it like an art gallery: It got to the point where the art that we were putting in there was beyond the scope of the gallery. You wouldn't put a Diego Rivera into a run-down space. We've heard from lots of bands who say they just didn't want to play there anymore, because they'd gotten bigger and their audiences expected something more. Some people, like Slim Cessna, just refused to play there because the aesthetic was so unpleasant."
What's that? The Tavern, a run-down space? Well, okay. But isn't that part of its charm? Readers of this column are aware of Backwash's affinity for the 15th Street Tavern. Some have even suggested that Westword has signed some sort of blood contract with its management. We haven't, but we do confess our love for the place, even with its ever-present cigarette haze, its cute, cartoonish beer-mug sign, and, yes, its floor -- as famously sticky as the linoleum in a Kitty's video booth. Much of the venue's success is credited to Campbell, who six years ago began placing local and touring bands into the bar with a couple of friends.
"We were living this dream of running our own punk-rock club," he says. "We were just out of college, and we had no idea what the hell we were doing. We were complete idiots."
Idiotic as he may have been, Campbell eventually managed to convince the Tavern's owners to invest more seriously in the club's musical endeavors by installing better sound equipment and building a larger stage. Since then, he has shown a real knack for consistently diverting up-and-coming artists into the club, in many cases snagging artists just before their touring vans steered in more high-profile directions -- or they were snatched up by competitors such as Nobody in Particular Presents, with whom Campbell has a somewhat legendary rivalry. (Local musicians who've worked with both companies like to tell tales of near fistfights between Campbell and NIPP's Peter Ore, with whom he often competes for shows.)
The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age, the Promise Ring, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Dismemberment Plan and Jimmy Eat World are among the acts who've slung microphones and guitars beneath the Tavern's fiberglass ceiling during Campbell's tenure. Clubgoers witnessed Street Walkin' Cheetahs frontman Frank Meyer's triumphant air-guitar strut across the bar; were once served drinks by Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme; and ducked for cover when two members of the Humpers got into a fight and threw each other through the venue's plate-glass window.
Ah, yes. The Tavern. How can you blame us for loving it so?
"If people think of the Tavern as a success, I take that as a personal compliment," Campbell says. "We were fortunate to get the artists that we did, especially in the shadow of such huge competition. But there were things about the space that became a real impediment. The owners love music because it helps them make money. But they didn't have the mentality to understand why I would need to pay $1,500 for an act like Modest Mouse. You really need to study and understand the industry to be successful. I feel like I've learned enough to apply everything that I know to the new place and to just have a nicer, more professional club all the way around."
Nice or not, the Tavern has been so successful that Campbell is currently in a position of competing with himself: Prior to splitting with the club, he lined up shows that now directly oppose his first month's worth of entertainment at the Lounge, a retro-attractive, dimly lit sanctuary that feels like the Tavern's more sophisticated older cousin. (The Lounge's schedule includes an opening-night triple bill from Check Engine, Jet Black Joy and the Swanks on Friday, December 6; Skeleton Key, Uphollow and Black Black Ocean take the stage on Monday, December 9.) And though Campbell will be severing his ties to the Tavern, bands are not expected to do the same: The club will continue to host live music, with booking duties split among present employees.
"I read an interview with Doug Kauffman [of Nobody in Particular Presents] where he was talking about this business being all about relationships," Campbell says. "I think that's totally true. A club is really not about anything more than the promoter who's controlling it and what their relationships are with the agents who represent the bands. I'm totally confident in my relationships, and I know that those people will follow me wherever I go."
But what about fans who might not be ready to give up their trusty Tavern-side barstool, or those who might be dubious of the Lounge's new locale?
"Free parking -- that's how we'll get them," says Gebhardt, laughing. "Really, I think this area has a reputation that precedes it in a way that isn't totally positive. Once people get down here and see what it's all about, those preconceptions will kind of go away. The feeling of everyone around here is that this area is just going to continue to grow and develop. We just kind of got in on the ground floor of that."
Campbell and Gebhardt are not the first music-minded business owners to move out of the confines of downtown into its largely industrial fringes: A couple of years ago, saxophonist Laura Newman took over duties at Herb's Hideout, just a few blocks down the road from the Larimer Lounge on 21st Street, turning that place into an eclectic and happening spot that's defied those who doubted the viability of its location. Promoter (and former Tavern affiliate) Jason Cotter and partner Kurt Ottaway recently opened the Climax Lounge in the old Raven location on 21st and Welton, revitalizing an area that has a rich history of local music, both aboveboard and clandestine: Once upon a time in the underground, warehouses along streets in the upper twenties hosted illegal shows for the in-the-know sect, and the neighborhood's jazz legacy is hinted at by the grand, if barely used, theaters that line the streets of Five Points.
Today the Larimer Lounge is part of a neighborhood that is very much in flux, with a few art galleries and restaurants sprinkled among the liquor stores, scrapyards and industrial machinery of the upper Ballpark neighborhood. Down the street from the club -- formerly the Sunshine Lounge, a neighborhood watering hole that occasionally hosted live music -- hundreds of newly polished loft-style apartments sit vacant. Everyone, including Campbell and Gebhardt, are banking on the notion that a boom is just around the corner. (For the moment, however, a boarded-up pawnshop is what's really around the corner.)
"I think this place is great," says Campbell. "I'm hoping people are going to find out about it and just sort of freak out."
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Last week, Justin Guarani, the big-haired singer who hammed his way into the preteen consciousness as a contestant on American Idol, was invited to participate in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as part of a float, mugging for cameras and parade-watchers and singing a ballad about trains and mountains while Katie Couric and Matt Lauer chatted about high school baton twirlers.
This is the kind of opportunity that awaits the near-winner of a hugely successful television talent contest. (Meanwhile, Kelly Clarkson, who beat Guarani by a landslide in the final tally, currently graces the cover of Seventeen and reveals her "naughty side" within its pages. We can only imagine!) Still, such dubious rewards haven't deterred new legions of Idol aspirants from vying for the chance to be humiliated on a national network, as evidenced by the throngs who turned up to audition for the show's producers last month. Locally, MIX 100.3/FM has come up with its own variation on the theme with Colorado Idol, a two-tiered regional contest; the second round takes place at the Soiled Dove on Wednesday, December 11.
Even the country-music establishment has decided to give the reality-show concept a try: Next March, the USA Network will begin airing Nashville Star, an Idol/Real World hybrid that follows the career trajectory of ten unsigned songwriters, all selected from regional contests. (One winner will be awarded a recording contract with Sony/Nashville.) As part of one of those contestant-scouting missions, representatives of both the USA Network and Sony will come to Denver on Wednesday, December 11, with a showcase at the Buffalo Rose, presented by the Denver Barn Dance. Though we're not sure the show is one we'd set the VCR for, the showcase is good news for country fans, as it means some of the area's best performers and bands will show up to do their stuff for the Sony brass (who reportedly are looking for new artists for the label, not just the show). It also suggests that Denver's mighty little grassroots country scene -- along with the independent, twang-centric artists thriving here -- is slowly gaining the attention of Nashville tastemakers.
We just hope they don't bring their own float.