Best Free Entertainment 2013 | Mercury Cafe | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

For more than thirty years, Marilyn Megenity's Mercury Cafe has given this city a movable feast of good works, good food and good entertainment — much of it free. For the last two decades, the Merc has been doing it from the edge of downtown, in an area that was once sketchy and is now heading toward respectability. And you'll find both sketchy and respectable types at the Merc, where first-date diners sit next to Occupy meetings and poetry slams collide with tango lessons and live shows in the underground community space. From morning 'til night, you'll find everything from dance to yoga, jazz to cello, with no charge for many programs. And the food, if not free, is locally sourced and made with care. Just eavesdropping on the conversation one table over could qualify as the best free entertainment in town — but at the Merc, there's always some rising talent on display, too. And if you don't like any of that, you can always grab a free book from one of the Mercury's shelves.

One Wednesday afternoon, hours before he was to perform a sold-out gig at Red Rocks, Jack White casually tweeted the secret location of a free show that had been rumored but seemed too good to be true. But it was true: The performance, which took place at Isdajo Automotive on West Colfax, drew a throng of excited fans who crowded into the small parking lot to watch the former White Stripes frontman play a few songs. White was gone almost as quickly as he came, but the memories from that monumental day live on.

Eric Gruneisen

Skip "The Funktologist" Reeves, who hosts KZKO's Funk Above the Rest show, knows the funk inside and out. If the dude had his way, Denver would be one city under a groove. So it made sense when Reeves set up shop at Jazz@Jack's five or so years ago and started his own funk night there. It's still one of the few places in town where you're guaranteed to hear the best in funk and soul on a weekly basis.

Scott Lentz

GroundSwell would be a great gallery regardless of its location: Gallery curators Rebecca Peebles and Danette Montoya earned a Westword MasterMind award this year for opening an intimate viewing room that doubles as an arts incubator and a haven where artists can show more daring or experimental work. Since they opened GroundSwell, Peebles and Montoya have hosted everything from Andrew Novick's pie-in-the-face show Food Face to a recent group show by both emerging and more established local artists. But there's also a certain urban charm in the fact that they've joined forces with one of our city's growing retail industries, albeit one still a little on the edge. The mingled businesses rock the Colfax vibe, a state of being that inspires cereal bars and taquerias, poetry readings and street-corner prophets...and a wonderful community of budding artists.

Two separate themes connected the artists in The Other Primary Colors, a group show at Space Gallery. First, as indicated by the title, all of them used neutral shades. And second, they all created pieces in the context of contemporary abstraction, with everything owing a debt to either minimalism or pattern painting. Guest curator for this show was Marks Aardsma (who dropped her first name, Jo, for the outing), who invited a wonderful roster of fellow travelers to join her in the realm of conceptual abstraction. That list included Tonia Bonnell, Nancy Koenigsberg, Carlene Frances, Corey Postiglione, David Sawyer and Space owner Michael Burnett. Elegant and impressive, the show lent an unexpected contemplative quality to the sometimes raucous gallery.

Michael Brohman, who teaches sculpture at the University of Colorado Denver, is known for being outrageous. For his solo Place, mounted in fall 2012, the longtime Pirate co-op member presented some never-before-seen works that he'd done during a residency at the Jentel Foundation in Banner, Wyoming. The works, mostly made of found materials, represent contemporary takes on Western themes, like the screen door with the missing cross brace that brilliantly expresses its title, "Horizon." Brohman's often been on the cutting edge, so even if Western-style contemporary art is one of the latest crazes, it's important to remember that he's been at it for more than five years.

Keith Garcia

Tracks is more than just a gay bar — it's a veritable multiplex of GLBTQ-centered activities. The decades-old nightclub has it all, from Denver's largest ladies' night (First Fridays) to RuPaul's Drag Race watching parties to DJs from across the globe rocking its multiple dance floors. The adjoining EXDO Event Center space allows Tracks to offer the best live drag shows in Denver — when it's not serving as the premier party destination for corporate events, nonprofit fundraisers, weddings and more. At both venues, the door and bar staff are friendly and efficient, and the sound system keeps every party going, no matter the size of the crowd. From spring-break underwear parties to Pride weekend blowouts, Denver's vibrant GLBTQ community is in the spotlight at Tracks.

Giving movies that might otherwise never be seen a chance on the big screen, the Sie FilmCenter's ongoing Cinema Q series and annual film festival focuses on the wide-open world of GLBTQ cinema. I Want Your Love, which screened last year, might have been too pornographic for any other festival, but at Cinema Q, it got the attention it deserved. Programming director Keith Garcia continues to seek out topical and often controversial narratives, booking films by gay writers, directors and producers, documentaries about pivotal GLBTQ figures, and romantic comedies with complex plots, removing any notion that these are simply "gay" movies.

Don't think we're crowing just because Noah Van Sciver's work appears in these pages: The cartoonist would have made a name for himself in the comix world with or without our help — he's that good. Known to the rest of the world as the creator of the Blammo comic book and an accomplished old-school comic artist with a dense, heavily cross-hatched style, an ironic sense of humor and a slight taste for the macabre, Van Sciver has had work published in several compilations, in Mad and The Best American Comics 2011. But he reached his pinnacle — so far — with 2012's The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, an impeccably drawn graphic novel published by Fantagraphics. Mining a little-known period in the life of Abraham Lincoln, when he was treated for a deep bout of depression resulting in a nervous breakdown, the book, which revisits the now-antiquated treatment options of the nineteenth century, is dark, but a glimmer of Lincoln's future can also be detected in the denouement.

This past winter, four young upstarts transformed Edge Gallery into a very edgy place. First was Estee Fox, represented by videos, disturbing performances and some great figurative works on paper. Then David Sole turned one space into an artificial back yard that included a gouged and graffiti-covered wall. Next up was Harry Kleeman, with some super-successful hybrids of paintings and sculptures that hung on the walls. Finally, there was Daniel Nilsson, who was all over the map with oddball attractions like silvered Coke bottles, a fur-covered ladder and some very elegant sculptures that relied on fluorescent lights. It's apparent that the next generation of Denver's art world has already arrived.

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