When musician Wesley Watkins returned to Denver late last year after being on the road with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, he was troubled by a lack of support for women in the music scene.
"I got back to Denver, and it felt gross; the scene felt gross. We don't take care of minorities. We don't take care of women," Watkins says.
He wanted to find a fix, so he organized an all-women music festival, raising the inevitable question: What's a man doing organizing an all-women music festival?
Bringing people together is "my superpower as a human being," says Watkins, a force in Denver's music scene, who is currently playing trumpet on Wheelchair Sports Camp's Wall to Wall Tour.
Before picking up that gig on the road, Watkins started organizing WMN and the Queen City of the Plains, a showcase happening this weekend, March 17 and 18, at Syntax Physic Opera. As the name implies, the two nights of music will spotlight women musicians in Denver's creative community.
Friday night will include performances by Bluebook, Florea, Jess Parsons and Ivory Circle; Saturday's lineup includes Kitty Crimes, Venus Cruz, Ghost Tapes and Sinkra. Many of the acts included are connected to bands Watkins has played in over the years. Cassidy Bacon, of his newest act, neo-funk outfit the Other Black, will play the event with her band Sinkra.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Jess Parsons will play both solo and with revered upright-bass powerhouse Julie Davis in Bluebook on Friday night. Watkins brought Parsons, a longtime friend and collaborator, aboard to co-organize after he realized he'd be on the road during the event itself.
Parsons says working with Watkins and creating a space for women to be front and center was a no-brainer.
"It was kind of a sigh of relief that someone else had noticed," Parsons says of her fellow musicians' desire to showcase women players.
Parsons and her onetime partner Steve Varney had been the driving force behind the band Glowing House, but once the couple had a baby and Varney joined singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov on tour, playing guitar, Parsons opted for full-on motherhood mode — a choice she does not regret. It's second nature to her, she says, but so is music, and motherhood somehow shifted others' perceptions of her as a musician.
"I spent six years making music in this town and felt like I had made some really significant progress," she says. After taking a break from the scene to focus on her family, she struggled to re-enter the music world.
"I spent the last year trying to pursue music again, and Wes and I had had some conversations specifically about that. When he came to me with this idea of celebrating women — especially someone like Julie Davis, who is in a very similar situation to mine — I don't know — it just felt really nice to be...recognized? I'm not sure that's the right word," Parsons says.
Davis also has been balancing motherhood and music. In the last few years, she and her partner, Joseph Pope III, started a family. Pope plays bass for the Night Sweats; Davis has also collaborated with Rateliff and toured as a member of the Night Sweats. When the band began touring extensively, Davis stayed home. But she never stopped playing.
"I wanted to showcase super-powerful women in music, and Julie [Davis] should be recognized as one of the most popular musicians in town," says Watkins. "She's an iconic artist." As he tells it, other big names like Megan Fong — whose group Florea will perform Friday evening — and Venus Cruz demand more acknowledgement from the scene, and aren't getting it.
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Watkins notes his status as a musician in Denver has changed since he played with the Night Sweats; it's easier for him to book shows and negotiate deals with venues. He wants to use his power to bring talented women, people of color and other often-marginalized musicians to the stage.
"I feel like I can use the little bit of influence and clout I have to change perception," Watkins says. "There's a good-ol'-boys club mentality here, but to me, without us, without new art, Denver isn't going to grow beyond this."