For the second year in a row, Roger Menell is scrambling to reschedule the fourteen shows that Swallow Hill Music had initially booked for the Denver Botanic Gardens in summer 2020, a continuation of the popular series that has brought thousands of fans to the York Street facility over the past decade to enjoy big-name acts while sipping wine and enjoying the great outdoors. The postponed lineup includes Randy Newman, Mary Chapin Carpenter, DeVotchKa, the Dead South and others — all of whom are now tentatively planning to come to town in 2022.
Swallow Hill and the Gardens are playing it safe by postponing the 2021 shows — even as mass vaccinations continue and state officials have told promoters that outdoor concerts might be allowed to return at 80 percent capacity by July, pending any unexpected COVID surprises. But while venues like Red Rocks and Levitt Pavilion are planning on some sort of performances in the months to come, Hudson Gardens has already scrapped its summer season, replacing its usual lineup of aging rock stars with productions from Central City Opera.
The state’s hopes for larger-capacity events aren’t certain enough for Swallow Hill and the Gardens to go forward with the 2021 series, because anything short of 100 percent sold-out evenings — which have historically been easy to pull off — wouldn’t bring in enough money to justify the costs of producing such expensive events: renting sound equipment and the one-of-a-kind stage that fits the amphitheater where the concerts happen, as well as paying artists to fly out.
“The postponement discussions are well under way,” says Menell. “And it surprised no one on the talent side. That’s part of what I’m doing, is hopefully redirecting all fourteen of those shows to 2022. It’s a killer lineup. It felt good for last summer and this summer. There’s no sell-by date. The music is still going to be as timely and vital as it would have been two years prior.”
Menell, who has been in the music business for thirty years and worked as Swallow Hill’s concert director for the past seven, left the folk-music nonprofit at the end of 2020 in order to study landscape design, another passion.
“To be clear, I am no longer an employee,” he says of his relationship to Swallow Hill, which saw massive cuts to its live-music programming and staffing in 2020. The Gardens' summer series is a major source of funding for Swallow Hill, and without that revenue, the nonprofit found itself struggling to survive, staying afloat through online classes, donations and some emergency loans and grants.
“My world disappeared,” recalls Menell, who was booking around 250 shows a year before the pandemic. “That was okay. We mutually determined that at the end of the year I would no longer be on staff, but we worked out a contract that allows me to follow through with the DBG activity — all these bookings that were made for 2020.”
The Denver Botanic Gardens, one of the largest cultural institutions in Colorado, fared much better than Swallow Hill after the first stay-at-home order was announced last March.
“A year ago was pretty dark,” says Gardens head Brian Vogt, remembering the start of the shutdowns. “We had been closed over a week a year ago without any idea of what was going to happen. That was so creepy.”
So Vogt started penning letters to public-health officials, arguing that the facility's horticulturists were essential workers. The State of Colorado agreed, and because most of its offerings are outside, the nonprofit was even able to secure a variance from COVID restrictions that allowed it to reopen with limited capacity and social distancing guidelines on May 22, months before many other cultural groups resumed public activities.
“We accomplished a lot,” says Vogt while admitting that it's been far from a normal year. “We rallied and didn’t lay off a single person. We didn’t cut salaries and benefits, and kept everyone whole. That took a herculean effort.”
The organization shifted its educational programming and plant sales online, and even launched a few Evenings al Fresco concerts, during which acoustic musicians from the Colorado Symphony and other groups spread out over the grounds and played at a distance from visitors. Swallow Hill booked two shows for that series. While these performances couldn’t have been more different from the large-scale concerts of summers past, they were some of the few live-music offerings in the state.
"We are constantly pivoting," says Vogt. "That’s the word of 2020: pivot, pivot, pivot! Everything we have to do has to be twisted and turned."
For 2021, Swallow Hill and the Gardens are continuing to pivot. Evenings al Fresco is getting a reboot, with twenty dates booked. For each one, five musical acts — mostly acoustic solos and duos spanning genres — will be stationed throughout the Gardens. These shows are "magical," Vogt says.
Menell is now in the process of booking a hundred acts, with a focus on local and some touring artists who might already be on the road. Shows will take place on most Monday and Wednesday evenings, from June through August; gates will open at 4:30 p.m., and music will run from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets will go on sale Thursday, May 20, at the Denver Botanic Gardens website.
Some of the confirmed Evenings al Fresco artists are Patrick Dethlefs, Sugar Moon, Los Mocochetes, Matt Skellenger, Andrew Sturtz and Courtlyn Carpenter, Antonio Lopez, Bret Billings and Greg Schochet, Chandler Holt and Eric Wiggs, and Barry Osborne and Olivia Shaw.
“It’s a very different thing,” says Menell. “It’s not a concert. It’s providing live music as part of the journey through the gardens. It’s an experience-enhancer. It’s a sweet gig. It’s a lovely experience for the attendee. It’s a great gig for the player. It’s got built-in distancing and safety in regard to the artists’ distance from the passerby. People get that it’s not a gather-tightly kind of scenario. It’s got a flow to it, which is encouraged by the fact that it’s putting musicians in five different environments in the gardens.”
The DBG is also in talks with Opera Colorado regarding some outdoor programming, and is looking forward to a modified version of the Lavender Festival at the Chatfield Farms location, an event that celebrates all things lavender, from the fragrance of the blossoming fields to ice cream and soaps from local vendors.
Menell might be leaving the industry, but he's upbeat about the future of concerts in Colorado. He’s found inspiration in venues like the Boulder Theater and the Oriental Theater, which have figured out how to make live shows happen safely indoors, and he’s proud of the Evenings al Fresco innovation.
Still, he yearns for a time when people can come together in close proximity and share in the pleasures of live music without worrying about social distancing and masks. His hope, based on data from public-health officials, is that live music will return to its pre-pandemic state by fall, marking a welcome departure from the flood of livestreams and limited-capacity in-person shows of the COVID era.
“It’s not the way the concert experience was meant to be,” he says. “I’m excited about getting back to the concert experience where we’re sharing space.”
For more information and tickets, starting May 20, go to the Denver Botanic Gardens' website.