Best Place to Learn to Play the Ukulele 2019 | Swallow Hill Music | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Swallow Hill Music

The folks at Swallow Hill Music, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, cannot get enough of the ukulele. For the past decade, they've hosted Denver Ukefest, a three-day festival showcasing all things uke, including workshops, master classes and performances from some of the country's top players. While the annual shindig is a top-notch gathering of uke players, Swallow Hill's music program celebrates the instrument year-round, with classes and workshops that teach everything from basic chords to improvisation. On the third and fifth Saturdays of every month, Swallow Hill also hosts Denver Uke Community, a gathering open to all levels of players.

Wildwood Guitars in downtown Louisville is relatively small, particularly compared to a big-box retailer like Guitar Center. While there's a decent selection of guitars, amps and effects in the main shop, a good portion of the store's stock is in its warehouse next door. The shop boasts the world's largest inventory of Fender Custom Shop handcrafted guitars, including ones made specifically for the store, like the Dealer Select Wildwood "10." Peruse the website to see the dozens of new, used and vintage guitars Wildwood carries before going into the store to try them out.

The last time Tom Waits played Denver was twenty years ago, and the last time he toured was more than a decade ago. The chances of the man actually performing here again seem pretty slim. But fans can see the Waits tribute band Lost Dog Ensemble on a regular basis around Denver. Lost Dog frontman Dave Dinsmore gets pretty damned close to the gravel and grit of Waits's signature vocals while channeling the legend's mannerisms, and the rest of the band does justice to Waits's vast catalogue, particularly songs from Rain Dogs, Mule Variations and Bone Machine.

As a musician, sound engineer and talent buyer, Randall Frazier has always been about taking local venues to the next level. Over the past few years the booker ha s elevated the profile of Ophelia's Electric Soapbox, filling the venue's calendar with hip-hop, jazz, rock and some of the most experimental sounds you'll find at any bar in LoDo. But Frazier is also part of the reason that concerts at Ophelia's sound so good: He not only set up the sound system before the venue opened, but he currently runs the soundboard alongside fellow engineer Elisa Canali.

By now, the Brothers of Brass — a group of musicians from across the country who've found a home in Denver — have been making beautiful noise for several years, becoming a staple of the Mile High City experience. Led by the booming tuba of Khalil Simon, this traveling horn and percussion party weaves together the music of everyone from Beethoven to Aaliyah to Gary Glitter. Get caught up in their wandering soirée in the heart of LoDo as a Rockies game lets out, dance along to their mesmerizing music on the steps of the Denver Performing Arts Complex or see them live at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom. The Brothers' signature Southern sound has permeated central Denver and found a way to charm crowds on stages and in the streets.

Melz Staccz wants to be known as the top female rapper in Colorado, and she's actually one of the best rappers in the state — which is a real accomplishment for a recent transplant from Chicago who's only been making music for a few years. While she's based in Colorado Springs and has built a following there, she's started making waves up and down the Front Range, including in Denver. With an eye toward collaboration and a mix of turnt-up dance hits and introspective songs, Staccz is winning fans across the hip-hop spectrum.

Standing out in this area's crowded rock scene is a tough thing to do. But in just a couple of years, Oxeye Daisy has won over a glut of fans and is poised to be Denver's next breakout act, if the young rockers were to ever hit the road. Led by Lela Roy, whose wild vocal range is put to use on the band's self-titled 2018 debut, Oxeye Daisy writes and plays fun, danceable pop that covers the emotional spectrum. The band, which has been performing at small venues throughout town, recently dropped a stunning cover of the Cranberries "Dreams" with fellow rockers Tyto Alba. We can't wait to see what's next.

Rapper Ray Reed has had about as much success as a Denver musician can have without breaking out of the Mile High market: He's headlined the Bluebird, dropped albums, played the big local festivals and developed an outstanding image, sound and fan base. So after hitting the ceiling, he decided to combine his clout with that of other artists, including Gmally, Keem Veggies, Mojo Goon, Eband$ and Tha Ape. The result: Finesse Gang, nine artists who work to promote each others' shows, perform together and generally build up the local rap scene. They even run a fashion line. Denver might have great musicians, but Reed's building a music movement.

With bands like Allout Helter and Cheap Perfume fighting bigots of all stripes through their lyrics, it would be easy to think Colorado's anti-fascist music scene is synonymous with punk. But this year, a new voice joined the ranks decrying hatred and violence. Lolita Castañeda's debut single, "Toda Mi Gente," is an optimistic, bilingual pop banger that addresses pressing social issues such as police violence, gun safety and the rise of the racist right. While the song tackles hard topics, it's also joyful. Castañeda, who got her start as a vocalist with the hip-hop group 2MX2, has taken her time releasing solo material, and the wait has been worth it.

Best Musician for Prisons, Politics and Protégés

Kalyn Heffernan

Anthony Camera

Kalyn Heffernan is tireless. She's performed inside prisons, on Native American reservations and in community centers, rapping about gentrification, police brutality and disability rights. As if that weren't enough, the MC is now running in a heated mayoral race and forcing politicians to talk about many of the issues she's spent years writing songs about. She's foul-mouthed, tough as nails and, most of all, a champion of up-and-coming musicians, including those she mentors at the music education nonprofit Youth on Record. Heffernan and her band, Wheelchair Sports Camp, represent the best of Denver's music scene: They're creative, optimistic, boldly original, and they engage with their community.

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