John Hickenlooper's Surreal Inauguration Concert Wasn't About Politics

John Hickenlooper: Governor, businessman, banjo picker.
John Hickenlooper: Governor, businessman, banjo picker.
Scott Lentz. Full slideshow here.

Thirty-eight governors around the country celebrated their inauguration this year. Most of them held events marking the occasion, ranging from elaborate galas to tours of the state's barbecue restaurants (Arkansas). Here in Colorado, John Hickenlooper marked his reelection with a formal ceremony at the State Capitol followed by a dinner at the Fillmore Auditorium and a concert a few blocks down Colfax at the Ogden Theatre.

There were a handful of other concerts among the nation's gubernatorial inaugurations, but it's a safe bet that only in Colorado did the state's highest elected official get on stage with a banjo to lay down a few tentative licks with a legendary jam band while grinning ear to ear.

See also: Denver Has More Live Music Venues Than Austin. Does It Matter?

Of course, Coloradans have come to expect that kind of behavior from Hickenlooper, who also marked the beginning of his first term with a concert. He's a fixture at venues ranging from the divey Lion's Lair to the legendary Red Rocks. And as much attention as he gets for the moments he spends on stage, passionately introducing an artist or just joining in, it's actually much more fun to watch him when he rejoins the crowd. When it comes to live music, he's a mediocre player and a very charismatic master of ceremonies, but it is in his role as a fan that he truly excels. During the Colorado Up inaugural show, he was easy to spot, towering over those around him right in front of the stage, listening intently, as far away as it was possible to be from the swarm of besuited political movers and shakers in the balcony.

Several of the Night Sweats in action.
Several of the Night Sweats in action.
Scott Lentz

The lineup for Hickenlooper's first inaugural concert featured DeVotchKa and OneRepublic. This year's -- once again featuring only Coloradans -- was much larger and more diverse, including the Fray's crooning frontman Isaac Slade as well as OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder as special guests, along with surprising world-beaters the Lumineers and one of modern folk music's most respected singers, Nathaniel Rateliff, who performed with his irresistible new-ish soul-and-funk outfit the Night Sweats. Those four were joined by enduring jam-circuit favorite the String Cheese Incident and Boulder's blues-rock heroes Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

That is a mind-boggling lineup, both for its improbable diversity of genre and audience and for its commercial success: Those artists have combined to sell well more than ten million copies of their albums. A compelling argument for Colorado's place as a music-industry powerhouse could be made using nothing more than the group assembled in the Ogden's spacious green room last Tuesday night.

All three inaugural events were hosted by a nonprofit organization called Colorado Up, which accepted donations from over sixty businesses this year. It hasn't disclosed how much those donations total, but it's at least $790,000 -- an amount comparable to that collected by similar organizations in other states. The money was used to organize the inaugural events, and any remaining proceeds (including ticket sales for the $100 dinner and $75 concert) were donated to the cultural nonprofit Biennial of the Americas and the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative program, which works to help students with post-secondary education.  

Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic was among the surprise guests at the Colorado Up concert.
Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic was among the surprise guests at the Colorado Up concert.
Scott Lentz

Among this year's donors to Colorado Up were thirteen "gold"-level sponsors (a threshold marked by contributions over $25,000), including a couple of health-care companies, four oil-and-gas companies and Vail Resorts. There are 44 companies that gave over $10,000 and another eleven that gave at least $2,500. Colorado Up spokesman Ben Davis says the organization attracts donors primarily for non-political reasons. "They're trying to be good corporate citizens," he says. Still, he notes that for many of the companies, "there's no question that supporting the current governor is on the agenda."

The Lumineers
The Lumineers
Scott Lentz

Either way, though, Davis argues that credit for the star power of the show at the Ogden belongs not with his organization or its piggy bank but with Hickenlooper himself. "I think the funding was not even remotely the reason for the concert," he says. "The governor has built strong relationships with the artists that support Colorado around the world, and that relationship goes both directions."

How exactly Hickenlooper's role as a Colorado music fan relates to his role as governor is tricky. He has made it a point in previous interviews to emphasize that he doesn't want to impose his own hobbies on policies that affect a diverse state of more than five million people. So his support of the music scene here is mostly confined to the byproducts of his own enthusiasm: plenty of people (and businesses) will follow a governor's lead in one way or another.

It was clear last week at the Ogden that Hickenlooper wasn't thinking about work. He'd already given his speeches, and he was ready to simply enjoy the show.

Governor Hickenlooper in the pit.
Governor Hickenlooper in the pit.
Scott Lentz

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Ogden Theatre

935 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80218

303-832-1874

www.ogdentheatre.com


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