The memory of my first Lion’s Lair experience has grown fuzzy with time. Like one of those crappy, colorized classics that Ted Turner nearly ruined in the '80s, the details won’t quite settle down, the flesh tones are way off and even the sound seems somehow distorted.
I think it was 1995. Some friends of mine from college had a band called Sick Little Monkey – how '90s! – that played loud, aggressive, hooky rock that brought together Soul Side’s DC hardcore, the Stooges’ dirty boogie and Sonic Youth’s artful noisiness. Though they were based in Austin, they rolled through Denver on their first real tour and managed to score a gig at the Lair. At that point, as a northern Colorado farm boy, that part of Colfax was only legend to me, and a scary legend at that. Nevertheless, my loyalty dragged me, as well as my Boulder-dwelling girlfriend, to the legendary dive.
Upon arrival, the first thing that struck me was the venue’s absurd façade. Then, as now, the exterior of the Lion’s Lair resembled some perverse traveling carnival attraction. Part of me expected a barker to emerge from the bar, claiming that the cover charge would give me access to bearded ladies, Chinese contortionists and Siamese twins. Though that wasn’t far from the truth. Once inside, I was immediately struck by an entirely different kind of sideshow. My highly fallible memory tells me that some of the career drinkers in the bar had needles dangling out of their arms as they slumped over their tumblers of generic whiskey.
As Sick Little Monkey loaded their modest gear into the bar, I scanned the room for anything resembling a stage. My eyes finally settled on a booth in the corner, which appeared to have a piece of particle board lain across it to create a makeshift performance space. The band set up their amps on the particle board as my girlfriend and I took barstools next to a semi-conscious woman who was in her fifties or eighties – hard to tell. When the group finally began playing, the volume was so high and the mix so poor that all subtlety was lost and it was difficult to discern any actual notes. It was painful. My girlfriend had to step outside to ward off a migraine. On her way out, she had to push aside a homeless man who had passed out against the front door.
At least, that’s how I remember it.
The Lion’s Lair and I have passed through numerous incarnations in the thirteen years since that experience. Today’s Lair boasts a lovely – if modest – stage, an actual sound system, and a sound man who seems to understand how to get the most out of the room’s questionable equipment and even more questionable acoustics.
Most importantly, however, today’s Lion’s Lair has a consistently interesting, entertaining and adventurous calendar. A recent visit to the venue's MySpace page revealed a schedule that boasts the Americana folk of Gregory Alan Isakov, the grinning singer-songwriter fare of Dan Craig, the sonic assault of GOP@Riot, and the complex audio tapestries of Runway Estates, as well as touring acts like Mary Gauthier and the legendary Jonathan Richman. It’s positively exhilarating to see so much fresh, diverse and authentic energy injected back into the Lair, without aid of hypodermics.
At the heart of this revitalization is booker/promoter/manager Sarah Levin, who has been responsible for filling that calendar since August of last year. Levin’s mission to support live music in the Denver area can be traced back to a Cowboy Junkies gig at the Fox Theater. Frustrated by her inability to get into the 21-plus show, the eighteen-year-old Levin decided to get an internship at the theater. From there, the passionate CU undergrad moved to the box office, then to the box office at the Boulder Theater, where she became involved in publicity. Thereafter, she did time in ad sales at Westword and scored an internship at the Fillmore. Along the way, the gregarious and downright friendly Levin made a lot of friends and gained a lot of mentorship from some of our scene’s most experienced promoters and talent buyers.
A successful regular event at the Walnut Room called Under the Hood ultimately established Levin and her Letter R Productions as a credible promotions force, especially among the singer-songwriter community. Julie Davis of Bluebook – later Bela Karoli – and Isakov approached Levin for management assistance. By the time the infectiously enthusiastic music lover finished her MBA, she had become the obvious choice to help Doug Kaufman reinvigorate the languishing Lion’s Lair.
Levin approaches her booking duties at the Lair like an eccentric painter or writer approaches her art. “It’s like a blank page,” she enthuses. “The Ms. Pac Man machine is one of my favorite things.”
Video games aside, the multi-talented businesswoman and fan is passionate about the Lion’s Lair’s legendary status and luminous future in the Denver music scene. While Levin’s tastes run to singer-songwriters and other quiet acts, she’s also very concerned with preserving the Lair’s legacy as a venue for punk and metal.
“The seedy element is part of the appeal,” she admits, but she also loves what the intimacy of the venue can do to boost confidence and increase exposure for emerging artists.
“Apparently, our capacity is 120,” she says, “but if you get forty people, it feels crowded. If you get eighty, it feels like it’s sold out.”
Her boundless ambition and unfettered enthusiasm for live music gives Levin the necessary fuel to manage local artists, promote numerous local shows and book the Lair, but she’s truly distinguished by her understanding of the music business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Our lovely town has no shortage of ardent supporters and participants, but few of the key players in our scene seem to understand the ways in which what’s happening here fits into the larger context of a multi-billion-dollar business.
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“The music industry is so interesting right now,” she exclaims, suppressing an eager giggle. “There’s no set formula. I’m blown away by it.”
Levin’s wide-eyed excitement, combined with a well-informed outlook on the business as a whole, makes her a key player in our scene’s current vitality, well suited to resuscitate the Lion’s Lair and to help it create a new identity. Her ability to balance a love for the music with a shrewd business sense makes her a valuable ally to the hundreds of talented and zealous musicians in the Denver music scene.
People like Sarah Levin, John Baxter, Gretchen Crowe, Ben Desoto, Jim Norris, James Irvine, Scott Campbell and many, many others enthusiastically scout talent, support bands and make sure that the music gets heard. Without them, the task of finding an audience would be far more difficult for this town’s countless brilliant artists. And we’d all be deprived of the countless, half-remembered live music experiences that colorize our lives far better than Ted Turner ever did.
-- Eryc Eyl