Denver Concert Wars: The Next Chapter.
In early 1998, mere months after Universal Concerts took over the Fey Concerts empire following the semi-retirement of scene king Barry Fey, longtime Fey associate Chuck Morris and Bill Graham Presents, a venerable West Coast firm, joined forces to create Bill Graham Presents/ Chuck Morris Presents, an outfit that seemed fully capable of challenging Universal for Colorado supremacy. Morris attempted to downplay battle rhetoric back then, claiming in these pages that his new enterprise would be a "boutique" company that would handle only about ten to twenty shows per annum--but that's not the way things have turned out. BGP/CMP did around fifty shows last year, including high-profile dates with the likes of Blues Traveler and Bonnie Raitt, and inked an exclusive pact last November to book the World Arena in Colorado Springs (Feedback, November 5, 1998). And now, after months of speculation, Morris and his associates are putting the finishing touches on a deal to purchase the Mammoth Events Center, a space at 1510 Clarkson that first opened its doors back in the late 1800s.
Although Morris declines to discuss the dollars and cents BGP/CMP is paying current Mammoth owners Manuel and Maggie Fernandez for the property, which has a capacity of just under 4,000, he doesn't deny that the total is in the seven-figure range. But getting Mammoth up to snuff is clearly going to be an even more expensive proposition. Simply put, the Events Center is cursed with some of the poorest acoustics of any music venue in these United States--and worse, the sonic difficulties change from night to night, artist to artist and location to location within the building itself. An example was an August 1998 turn by the Verve. From my spot on the floor, the concert actually exceeded minimum acoustic standards, making it probably the only gig I've seen at Mammoth over the past several years that did. But one of my colleagues standing elsewhere at the performance reported that the sound seemed as crummy as ever to him--and no doubt it was. The situation was reversed a few weeks later, when Bauhaus swung through Mammoth as part of its Resurrection Tour. A companion and I moved several times over the course of the show but never found a place where the music was anything other than horribly muddy. However, a co-worker who sat in the balcony opposite the stage told me that the band sounded okay to him.
To his credit, Morris doesn't downplay Mammoth's annoying idiosyncrasies. "It definitely needs some spit and polish," he says. "There's a lot of great acoustical engineers who will be involved in this project, and they're going to do certain things that I think will help. For one thing, we're moving the stage to the far end of the building, and we'll also be using some acoustical tiles and putting in a permanent sound and light system." He adds, "There are a lot of problems, but we're going to correct them. It'll cost a good chunk of change--there's no question about that--but I would not go into something like this if I wasn't prepared to do what needs to be done. We're going to dramatically alter a lot of things about the room, especially the sound."
By the same token, Morris is thrilled by Mammoth's dimensions--bigger than a theater but smaller than an arena. "This is the right room for the 21st-century music business for a lot of reasons," he insists. "There aren't a lot of arena acts that have come up and stayed as arena acts lately. Instead, there are a lot of groups on the rise and a lot of classic acts that have maybe faded a little bit but are still doing more business than lots of kiddie acts out there. On top of that, there are some theater acts, like Lyle Lovett, who would be perfect for this room. It's where the business has been going, and we're going there with it."
(Don't be surprised if Universal Concerts makes a similar maneuver in the near future. According to several reliable sources, the company is on the cusp of announcing an agreement to oversee event booking at a pair of facilities at the University of Denver: the hockey rink that's nearing completion and an on-campus ballroom. At press time, Mark Norman, head of Universal's Denver division, was unavailable to comment on these rumors.)
Other Mammoth modifications could be forthcoming: This week, Morris will be in San Francisco, Bill Graham Presents' home base, to discuss the feasibility of renaming the Events Center in honor of the Fillmore, a Graham-owned venue associated with the birth of psychedelia. Music-community buzz suggests that BGP/CMP has already decided to "close the room"--meaning that other promoters will not be allowed to use it--but Morris insists that no decision on this topic has yet been made. (He dismisses speculation to the contrary as "paranoia.") As for the boutique question, he dodges it with the sort of skill that Bill Clinton would envy. "We don't have a 16,000-seat amphitheater, and we're still picking and choosing the shows that we do," he says. "We don't book every band that comes to Denver. But we will be doing a bunch more shows--probably 60 to 75 at Mammoth in the next calendar year, including the Latino events that have been so successful for them, and a lot of things at other venues, too.
"We just wanted to have a home base here," he goes on. "And we feel that we've found one."
One person who's no longer directly involved with the BGP/CMP juggernaut is veteran promoter Bill Bass. He served as a consultant for the Morris operation last year, but no longer: Earlier this week, he scribbled his name at the bottom of a long-term consultancy contract with Universal. "I'm not an employee," he emphasizes. "I'll still be doing shows as Bill Bass Concerts at the Boulder Theater, the Glenn Miller Ballroom and the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins; I'll do at least thirty shows at the Aggie this year. And I've probably got about ten shows that will qualify as shed shows, because a lot of the bands I work with, like Barenaked Ladies, have made it to the next level. But most of the things will be co-promotes with Universal. It just seemed to make the most sense. After all, we've been forever in bed with Reggae on the Rocks and a couple of projects like that."
Other factors came into play as well. Unwittingly paraphrasing Clinton defender Dale Bumpers, Bass notes, "Whenever anybody tells you it didn't have anything to do with money, it had to do with money. But at the same time, I insist on being on a winning team, and Universal is still the biggest winner in Denver. Every movie I go to see says 'Universal' at the end, and every TV show I watch says 'Universal' at the end, too. So now I can call my mom and tell her I work for Universal, and for the first time in my life, she knows what I'm fucking talking about."
Media notes: MusicLink has a pair of prime-time specials coming up on KBDI-TV/Channel 12. At 9:30 p,m. on Friday, February 12, a half-hour program focused on Loudon Wainwright III will air; one week later, on February 19, a ninety-minute look at the life and music of Kenny Wayne Shepherd makes its debut. On the radio front, KRRF-AM/1280, which recently switched its moniker from "Ralph" to "1280-X" (for "Extreme Talk Radio"), is giving some airtime to local musicians beginning at 6 p.m. First up is "Denver's Own," a showcase for area bands that will include interviews with members of the Colorado music community. That's followed by "Colorado Punk Radio," which pairs longtime emcee Trip with a fellow DJ from another station who's going by the name Mr. Yuck.
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The first person who figures out Mr. Yuck's actual identity will win absolutely nothing. On Friday, February 12, Cris Williamson ventures to the Mercury Cafe; Gerry C. & the Zydeco Playboys headline at the Boulder Theater; and Ta Mere rises at 'Round Midnight. On Saturday, February 13, Clever wises up at Soapy Smith's. On Sunday, February 14, Rebecca Folsom shines at the Mountain Sun Brewery. On Tuesday, February 16, James McMurtry tells tales at the Fox Theatre. And on Wednesday, February 17, Tequila Mockingbird and Rocket Ajax take to the skies at the Soiled Dove. Hope they've coordinated their flight plans.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.