Concert Reviews

Who's Having Fun? Festival: Sincerity is the new irony

Who's Having Fun Fest
1346 Lipan Street | 4.17.10

See more photos on the slideshow page.

I'll eat my words right up front: The Who's Having Fun? Festival was an unqualified success, completely free of drugs, alcohol, house-trashing, train-wreck technical difficulties and cops. Somehow, Casimir Bemski pulled off an all-day festival at his house, where more than a dozen serious up-and-comers from the Denver and Fort Collins scenes played in a tiny concrete basement packed with smiling faces and clear minds.

There was some skepticism around the office that the Who's Having Fun? Festival would be as free of drugs and alcohol as the poster suggested. Bemski's house, as it turns out, was cleaner than a kindergarten classroom on Saturday. He went so far as to ask smokers to do so on the other side of his fenced-in front yard -- no chemical alterations of any kind allowed on the property (though attendees Kinsey Hamilton of Houses and Mike Marchant of Widowers, Houses, etc., did cross the threshold with cups of coffee...).

The straight-edge ban on drinks and drugs was about more than keeping a low profile. It was part of a bigger image, a larger vibe that Bemski created. The schedule was written in colored marker on a poster in his living room, and for each band there was a glittery sticker -- unicorns and baby chickens in a hot-air balloon, that sort of thing.

During hip-hopper Otem Rellick's set, some kids were passing around Red Vines, like you might pass a joint at a more conventional show. There were baked goods, cats running around everywhere, badminton on the front lawn. And everything was done in earnest, the whole festival like some utopian socialist recess.

The thing went from noon to 10 p.m., and I was able to attend the middle half -- from three to seven. In that time, there was a slightly shifting crowd of anywhere between twenty and forty people, which was maybe slightly fewer than you might hope for something like this. On the other hand, that is a manageable crowd, and it was the perfect number for the stage set up in the basement.

This basement is perfect for hosting a DIY festival. It's a concrete room maybe ten feet wide and twice that long, good at keeping the noise down out on the street. All the bands during the middle chunk played there except Dream Wagon, who played an acoustic set out on the front porch.

Made up of Lindsay Thorson, Allison Sheldon and Emily Hall, and sporting new headdresses made by a friend and festival attendee, Dream Wagon held a captive audience -- no mean feat outdoors on sunny day with no amplifiers in sight. So the vocals weren't totally intelligible in those circumstances, but there was enough there to convey how perfectly the band fit the mood of the event -- of their lyrics the word "friend" sticks out most prominently. Not incidentally, the music is beautiful and the shows are rare, so don't hesitate to immediately go the next time you see Dream Wagon on a bill.

The best of the indoor sets while I was there came courtesy of Night Of Joy, whose members I will refer to as dudes from here on in by request. The band is about to tour with Hideous Men, who played later on at the festival on Saturday. Night Of Joy was built for basement shows -- the music is made more perfect by imperfections and noise and pegging lo-fi sound systems.

Ostensible front-dude Valerie Franz plays high and distorted on her guitar and sings like a cross between Ian Curis and Ian MacKaye. The melody tends to be carried by Bree Davies on the bass, who kicked off the set by rapping Drake's verse from "BedRock" with Franz playing hype-man. Now that they seem to have found the right drummer in Germaine Baca, Night Of Joy is comfortably one of my ten favorite bands in Denver. The crowd in the basement seemed to be on the same page, more rapt than at any other point during the afternoon.

The Who's Having Fun? Festival was an awesome Saturday, and Bemski deserves an enormous amount of credit for organizing it. These things are much more complicated and challenging than he made it seem. And he managed to keep the fun good and clean. Even more remarkable, he made sobriety seem like the better option; no belligerence, no line at the bathroom, no ambulances or cops, no huge bar tab receipt to wake up to.

It's not that you can't drink a reasonable (or even slightly more than reasonable) amount and enjoy yourself, but there's always someone who doesn't know when to stop. Not at 1346 Lipan Street, where I hope to return soon.