Music News

Don Strasburg Can't Stop Smiling About the Mission Ballroom

Michael Emery Hecker

Don Strasburg is grinning.

It's a hot afternoon in late July, and the lobby of the Mission Ballroom is bustling with journalists and publicists, construction workers, artists and Strasburg's fellow co-presidents at AEG Presents Rocky Mountains. Strasburg is about to lead a tour of the venue, which his company is building in North Wynkoop, a neighborhood in development in the RiNo Art District, off Brighton Boulevard at 4242 Wynkoop Street.

The Mission, slated to open August 7 with a Lumineers show, is AEG’s latest move in a concert promotion contest with rival multinational Live Nation, which looks a little like a kicked puppy in the Denver market right now. AEG is winning, dominating booking at the Bluebird, Ogden and Gothic theaters, 1STBANK Center and Fiddler’s Green, and on most nights at the city-owned Red Rocks Amphitheatre; AEG’s talent buyers also run a string of independent clubs, from Strasburg’s Boulder and Fox theaters to Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, Larimer Lounge, Globe Hall and Lost Lake.

And now AEG has the Mission, its first Fillmore Auditorium-sized venue, with room for 2,200 to 3,950 music fans, endless trendy amenities and solid design.

On July 31, AEG will christen the space with a party full of Denver bigwigs. But right now, everybody's crunching to finish the work. In the midst of it all, Strasburg — who has been promoting concerts since he booked Phish at Colorado College in 1991 and has been nationally recognized multiple times by Pollstar as Talent Buyer of the Year — looks grounded.

This is the second time I’ve toured the space with him. The first time, the roof wasn’t on and there was sawdust everywhere. Now the royalty of Denver muralists — from RUMTUM and Thomas “Detour” Evans to Anthony Garcia Senior of Birdseed Collective — have had their way with the walls, and the paint's still drying.

click to enlarge Don Strasburg at the Mission Ballroom on July 30, 2019. - MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
Don Strasburg at the Mission Ballroom on July 30, 2019.
Michael Emery Hecker
Most of the art is cheery and safe, with lots of bright colors, a mix of geometric abstraction, pop art and retro-chic. It serves at least two functions: as decoration and as a high-priced blessing from Denver's DIY artists, who have been raging about the corporate development of the RiNo Art District — especially that way that beloved warehouse spaces Rhinoceropolis and Glob were shuttered by the city in 2016 while other buildings rose and artists were pushed out.

Strasburg’s been growing a beard. Not some groomed, Civil War hipster monstrosity. Not even his usual thick but polite-enough-for-a-board-meeting beard. He’s full-on Grizzly Adams, boasting the kind of facial hair that either says “I’m a man up to something great, and I’m too busy to shave” or “I’ve lost my marbles, chief, and shit’s about to get weird.”

It's clearly the former: Strasburg is quick with his tongue and knows what he’s doing. There’s no need to pepper him with questions. Walk around and let him talk. He’ll say what’s on his mind — and sometimes, he’ll even let it go on the record.

The tour, which is being broadcast live on Facebook, begins. His goal: Wrap in ten minutes. Otherwise, people get bored.

The bones of the Mission are unchanged from several months ago: lots of bathrooms, lots of bars, tiered Red Rocks-style seating, a massive floor space for dancing, some VIP seating on the sides of the stage for the moneyed set and a little more standing room at a slightly better vantage point just beneath the VIPs, so the bluebloods don't suck the energy out of the room chortling about stock options — as Strasburg tells it.

There’s a massive disco ball hanging from the ceiling that he promises will spit out all manner of wild, bright lights. He thinks many bands will put it to use and wants to show it off, but the workers say it's out of operation for now.

The stage, still under construction, is elevated and on rollers, and will be able to be moved forward and backward depending on the size of the crowd. With an empty house, the view looks promising from any line of sight. And mercifully, there will be places for everyday concert-goers to sit without losing their view.

click to enlarge MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
Michael Emery Hecker
New-smelling speakers are sitting on the floor, about to be stacked and harnessed. Blue curtains are hung. Lights are up. The bass traps are ready to trap bass. Opening night is a week away.

Surely, somebody's worried, because things are far from finished.

But Strasburg's mind is on the music. Jumping around the bleachers, he's rattling off the lineup, much of which he booked — from the Lumineers to Gregory Alan Isakov, Trey Anastasio, Kamasi Washington, Herbie Hancock and George Clinton, who will play his last Colorado show in the space.

No doubt, Strasburg loves musicians. His staff says he attends every show he books — more than 200 a year.

But loving musicians isn't always easy. His grin melts away as he talks about Jeff Austin, a founder of the Yonder Mountain String Band who died unexpectedly a few weeks ago. The Mission will host a fundraiser on November 4, titled What the Night Brings, for Austin’s struggling children and wife.

That night, a daunting lineup of bluegrass and roots artists will grace the stage: Bill Nershi, Billy Strings, Brendan Bayliss, Greensky Bluegrass, Hot Rize, the Infamous Stringdusters, Keith Moseley, Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon (acoustic), members of the Jeff Austin Band, Kyle Tuttle, Jean-Luc Davis, Julian Davis, Mimi Naja, Noam Pikelny, Railroad Earth, the Travelin’ McCourys, Yonder Mountain String Band and more.

As powerful as Strasburg is, as he stands in AEG's latest monument to music, he looks helpless as he talks about how a musician he respected lost his life way too young, leaving his kids without a dad. Strasburg knows the economic hardships musicians face, the lack of health insurance, life insurance and savings. He helped set up a GoFundMe account for the family, and the November concert is just his latest effort to show his support.

Strasburg gathers himself together and walks down a set of stairs to show off a print that he found in Europe that reads: "WHAT UNITES HUMAN BEINGS EARS EYES TOES HEARTS HOPES LOVES...IS HUGE. AND WONDERFUL. WHAT DIVIDES HUMAN BEINGS IS SMALL AND MEAN."

That, he says, is what the Mission's all about.

Almost as soon as the tour starts, it's over. Strasburg squeezes me in a bear hug, we shake hands, the camera cuts off, and I’m relieved.

I don’t want back into the space until a band’s playing, I'm in a dancing crowd, and I can see the venue in action — with real ticket buyers, real musicians and real employees.

“How did I do?” Strasburg asks, as he heads into his next interview, this one with a reporter from Billboard.

“You did good,” I tell him, but I don’t need to. He knows.

And still, Strasburg’s grinning.