“Shit bar. Shit people.”
Little did a person know that a one-star Yelp review would one day be emblazoned on T-shirts for the hi-dive, a rock club on South Broadway. In some respects, it isn’t that ironic. The hi-dive is a grimy neighborhood bar and 260-person independent venue that sells Extra Gold beer and boasts a restroom that looks like a horror-movie murder scene.
But it’s always been much, much more than that. It’s been a clubhouse for countless musicians, customers, bartenders, concert-goers and sound engineers. It has even been a venue for a wedding and a funeral.
On November 19, 2003, Matthew LaBarge and Allison Housley jumped at the chance to purchase the 7 South Broadway bar where Quixote's was then located and bring it back to its old 7 South roots. A mere nine days later, the hippie stickers were ripped off and the spot reopened as the hi-dive.
“Our goal was to get the local bands at the time. It was a pretty cool time in Denver with all the local musicians,” says LaBarge. “There were a lot of bands and people that were kind of playing with other people’s bands. It was a good communal spirit back in the early 2000s, and we thought it’d be great to just have a place that’d be like a home, essentially, for a lot of these people.
“That was the goal. But we also did DJ parties, and we had this great Wednesday night early on called Off the Wall that Jason Heller and a guy named Alice did," LaBarge adds. "That was a lot of fun.”
The club didn’t take long to catch on. LaBarge, a musician himself, seemed to have tapped into something special in the neighborhood, and seemed to have understood how to appeal to other musicians in town.
“Our very first night, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing on their Fever to Tell record at the Gothic Theatre, and we got them to come down and spin records," LaBarge recalls. "Nick Zinner and Karen O came in around midnight, and it was totally packed. We were like, 'Wow, this could actually work out.'”
The lease included the space next door, which eventually became the bar and restaurant Sputnik.
“Back then there was obviously smoking, too, so I’d walk from club to club smoking cigarettes,” says LaBarge.
In the early 2000s, there wasn’t much between the hi-dive and the Skylark Lounge along the South Broadway strip. There weren’t bars and businesses lining the street, and even though the Baker neighborhood was filled with creatives, few venues catered to the local scene. But the hi-dive changed that.
“I think it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time," says LaBarge. "Broadway was a daytime location for people who were thrifting and cool little boutique stores, but there wasn’t a whole lot of nightlife. But I knew it had potential. We just kind of got lucky that it was available and that Broadway was to boom in the next... well, it’s still booming. But we got in there early to see that happen."
The team operating the hi-dive wasn't exactly made up of seasoned venue owners.
“We had absolutely no idea what we were doing,” says Housley with a laugh. “We started off with local bands, and it continues with local bands, too. Ben DeSoto came on as the booker and started to get more national acts, but it always was and still is a great room for local acts.”
Ben DeSoto, a musician, moved from Portland to Denver and brought his connections to the music scene with him. Within the first three months of the hi-dive being open, he joined the team in his first professional role as talent buyer and began filling the calendar with local acts.
“It became, ‘Oh, well, if you’re going to play, you have to play at the hi-dive.’ That just all happened organically, but I think Ben DeSoto had a lot to do with that,” says LaBarge. “He was our booking agent, and he was in several of the local bands as well as just knew everybody and was just great at putting bills together. It wasn’t like if we had an indie-rock band then it’d be all indie-rock bands. He was good at switching that up and cross-pollinating genres.”
DeSoto, who now works as a talent buyer for the Bohemian Foundation in Fort Collins, says the group that opened the space was driven to succeed.
“We wanted to make it work," he says. "We wanted something that would sustain for a long time, which was proven, which is nice,” says DeSoto. “We wanted to be a support for the local scene and a stage that was needed at the time, and I think we succeeded that way. It was collaborative for us. It was definitely Matt and Allison’s vision for what hi-dive and Sputnik were going to be, and I fit into that, luckily.”
On New Year’s Eve 2003, Sputnik opened next door.
“I started in 2003, about two or three months after they opened,” says sound engineer Xandy Whitesel. “I helped my buddy build the bar at Sputnik, and they needed a sound engineer for opening night on New Year's Eve, so I did it. I was there for the next twelve years.”
Whitesel, now the touring sound engineer for Bon Iver, had the privilege of learning how to work a sound booth while artists of different genres were booked on the same bill — a challenge that made him the sound person he is today.
“That’s part of the awesomeness of that room," Whitesel says. "From an engineer’s point of view, you’re not always doing the same thing every night. It’s definitely a fun challenge to go from metal acts to acoustic acts. But it's great; it’s part of the greatness of working down there."
In real time, it was evident to many involved with the hi-dive and Sputnik that they were special places. Both sides were filled with good people, run by good staff, played by good musicians — and for better or worse, the spaces belonged to a tight-knit community. They also had some real quirks to them.
“I used to practice in the basement of the [hi-dive]; it worked as a rehearsal space," says artist Esmé Patterson. "Back when I was in a band called Paper Bird, I was — not secretly, but quietly — working on my own solo music in the meantime, and my drummer was Ben DeSoto.
“He suggested we practice in the basement, in this kind of terrible hole under the stairs," she recalls. "It was damp and stinky and a wonderful space where I could play as loud and as strangely as I wanted.”
Countless national acts and artists passed through the hi-dive during the early years — Angel Olsen, Dirty Projectors, Arcade Fire, MGMT — and locals including Patterson, Nathaniel Rateliff, Joe Sampson, Heller, Khemmis and Bright Channel built careers there.
“There was just this — and again, still is — an incredible community of musicians supporting each other,” says Housley. “I like to think it was home for people who were regulars at the hi-dive and at Sputnik, and they were supportive of other musicians in this incredible friend-community, and still are fifteen years later, which is hard to believe.”
Musicians Joshua Terry and Matty Clark were also around the hi-dive quite often. Terry, who played in Zebroids and A. Tom Collins, was hired within the first year, and eventually became bar manager for the club. Clark, who also played in Zebroids, Sleeperhorse and Trees, followed about four years later. Though they didn’t know they’d eventually purchase the bar, they knew the culture well and wanted to be as involved as possible.
“It was a place where you could go play with three other local bands and have a show with just local bands,” says Clark. “You couldn’t really do that with other places around town that had a good sound system, had a cool bar and cool vibes.
“You could play a show at the ’dive on a Thursday night and then come into Sputnik on a Friday morning to get a corndog and see people that were there, people in the bands you played with, and share notes about how it went," he adds.
“I think the neighborhood at the time and the venue were important parts of each other,” says Terry. “There were so many musicians that lived within a couple blocks from here.”
The musician-owned- and -operated bar earned a reputation for being a destination venue for artists of various stripes — the weirder, the better. Some acts that were huge elsewhere also landed on the hi-dive stage.
“David Kilgour played there, and in Los Angeles that same year, David Kilgour played a show to 3,000 people,” says Denver music journalist and historian Tom Murphy, who has written extensively about music for Westword and runs the music blog Queen City Sounds and Art. “He played a solo show at the hi-dive, and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me! What is wrong with Denver?'
“Occasionally a Russian act, very rarely, will come through, and one of the biggest bands in the whole world is a rock band from Russia, Mumiy Troll," Murphy says. "They’re the only band that played in Greenland ever in the history of anything, but also, they would play concerts in China to 80,000 people or something crazy like that. They're like the U2 of Russia — that level of fame and popularity. But they were nobody in America.
“I interviewed the singer from that band, and he was like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this because we want to break into the American market in whatever ways we can.’" Murphy recalls. "They didn’t have any illusions that they’d be rock stars in America, but they played the hi-dive. I went there, and it was like, holy shit, everyone who’s Russian in Denver came to the show! I’m exaggerating, but it was packed with people that were singing and dancing, and nearly all of them were Russian. You can see stuff like that at the hi-dive, stuff that’s secretly amazing or stuff that’s on the way up.”
Within a few short years, a new wave of musicians and concert-goers had come to know the hi-dive as the place they loved to play the most, the place they hoped to play eventually, or even hoped to work at.
“The hi-dive was the first venue I saw a show at in Denver, and that was when I was a freshman at the University of Colorado in 2005,” says Brian Beer of Bud Bronson & the Good Timers. “It had the feeling at that point of a place that I wanted to eventually become a part of."
By 2012, Housley and LaBarge decided it was time to sell. They were keeping Sputnik, but the club needed to change hands.
On November 1, 2012, Terry, Clark and investor and Track Shack owner Curtis Wallach purchased the hi-dive, successfully keeping the club in the family and keeping it independent.
“It was just kind of time to pass it on to the younger generation. We had wanted to keep Sputnik and keep that symbiotic relationship between the two," says Housley. "We just know those guys, and we were excited to pass it along to someone who would care, someone we love a lot, and it just felt like it would be such a good fit. And it has been.”
Says LaBarge, “We were closed if we didn’t have a show, and I knew that these guys would breathe new life into it.”
Terry, who had worked with Clark at venues around town, hoped to operate the hi-dive as a musician-driven space. Fifteen years after the hi-dive opened, the initial dream of creating a community for musicians, customers and creatives lives on.
Six years after changing ownership, three years after Wallach took over booking from DeSoto, and two years after Whitesel passed the sound booth to musician and sound engineer Kim Baxter, the hi-dive remains a safe and inclusive place for many, and a venue filled with countless memories and inside jokes.
“The hi-dive has almost become more of an idea that’s bigger than the room or me and Josh,” says Clark. “Especially in Denver, among people in the music scene, we’re your hub. If you’re doing something creative — we don’t care what it is — we’ll take care of you. Let’s just have a good time.”
For a full list of upcoming concerts at the venue, go to the hi-dive website.