Artopia through the eyes and ears of a veteran

Talk about sensory overload. Touring the five venues of Artopia over the course of three hours felt overwhelming at times. Skipping from band to band and exhibit to exhibit in the clubs along Broadway was a frenetic way to take in the best of Denver's visual and musical acts. The sheer number of artists hawking their wares and musicians performing every style of music from electronica to folk made the night mind-boggling at times. Still, despite the sheer creative density of the night, the annual showcase brought out some of the town's top creative talent, even if the setting was more than a bit surreal.

The lower level of Vinyl was already abuzz with art vendors and early festival-goers when I descended just before 8 p.m., one of the early arrivals at Artopia's largest venue. The space became much more crowded as the night progressed, but at that time, it was a quiet escape from the three other Vinyl levels, where DJs were already spinning and the volume was already high.

I arrived for the end of Chella Negro's set, a performance buoyed by the singer's heartfelt tones and straightforward acoustic guitar work. The stark and simple folk tunes were propelled by the pedal steel guitar accompaniment, as well as forceful rhythm work of a drummer with a pared-down kit. As more and more people began to crowd into the basement, the set increasingly began to feel like a background setting. The applause was consistent and polite, but it seemed as though the crowd was splitting their attention between artwork, alcohol and music.

After Chella Negro and her band finished, I was treated to one of the most surreal scenes of the evening. As Danielle Ate the Sandwich started to set up on the small, improvised stage, the performance art ensemble Control Group Productions began an unannounced and guerilla performance.

A single dancer framed by a mobile spotlight began making acrobatic moves in the corner as the band started its sound check. What began as seemingly random movements and contortions ramped up rapidly in intensity, with a male performer taking up paired motions and the pair scuttling it way across the floor in front of the stage. A third performer eventually joined the duo, literally crouching on top of the two as they crawled up in a composite ball in front of the stage. The routine made for an odd start to Danielle Ate the Sandwich's set.

Backed by violinist Chris Jusell and bassist Dennis Bigelow, Danielle Anderson delivered her trademark blend of folk and pop. The softer strains of tunes like "Where the Good Ones Go" and "American Dream," as well as a cover of Joanna Newsom's "The Book of Right-On" were also an odd fit in the increasingly noisy atmosphere of the Vinyl basement. The ambience drew plenty of jokes from Anderson herself, who offered fake club anthems between tunes. Spelling out a thrumming beat on her ukulele, she belted out improvised lyrics about wild antics on the dance floor.

With those jokes as appropriate preparation, I made my way to the Vinyl rooftop at around 9 p.m. for the end of DJ Low Key's set. The procession of soul samples and contours pulled from Adele tunes enhanced the ambient scene on the rooftop. Cigar smokers mingled with casual drinkers. Festivalgoers still working on getting a buzz crowded around bonfires clutching glass bottles and plastic cups. I sat long enough to catch my breath before heading to the next venue.

As an ice sculptor worked on a massive sculpture to the sounds of a DJ on City Hall's street level, I made my way to the amphitheater, a roomy space featuring surreal images of carnival figures on wooden canvases. Tohbias Juniel with the Radio* had already launched into their energetic set, a performance that fused old-school hip-hop and soulful live contours, by the time I arrived. The two rappers benefited from a vibrant and dynamic live band, an ensemble that melds wah-wah guitar and computer-born samples in a way that feels both organic and funky.

The duo wasn't shy about paying homage to its old-school influences. The impact of the Beastie Boys was impossible to escape as the pair got deeper into its set. Indeed, even the vocal tones of Mad Maximilian and iEEEj seemed to draw increasingly from the stylings on albums like Paul's Boutique. That tribute resonated with the crowd. As the band launched into beatboxing routines and funky guitar lines, the dance floor became more and more crowded. After twenty minutes, I took the increasing traffic as a cue to hit a venue with an atmosphere that was a bit more staid.

The night took a decidedly calmer feel when Spires started its set on the elegant and stately stage at Bar Standard. It was my first time in the venue, a bar with acoustics that benefit from a long, streamlined architectural design. The crowd for Spires's set seemed much more attentive and invested than the throngs at Vinyl and City Hall. Their fixed attention spans were all the more apt for Spires's understated sound, a dynamic rooted deeply in dreamy chords and space-rock structures. The four-piece offers a subtly compelling brand of alt-rock, a sound that finds its high points in guitar flights from Justin Sharp and expressive drum work from Marlon Chance.

With energetic renditions of tunes like "Predatory" as a backdrop, I took advantage of Bar Standard's comfy furniture and calmer ambience to re-energize. After hours spent in the chaotic spaces of Vinyl and City Hall, not to mention navigating the throngs on Broadway, Spires offered an ideal soundtrack for rediscovering my bearings.

Maybe it was the toll of hours spent on my feet, but I had a hard time finding any enthusiasm as the Kissing Party wrapped its set in the Vinyl basement, the final performance of the night on the small stage. As Kissing Party made its way through songs that are reliant on feedback-drenched guitar, I wasn't moved enough to stay through the rest of the set, and headed upstairs. The short trip that ended up restoring my zeal. The Otone Brass Band was in the middle of a rousing set in the middle of the dance floor.

Equipped with full marching-band gear -- a massive tuba, an arrestingly bright snare drum, backup from other brass -- the ensemble played its set amid the dancers and revelers on the Vinyl floor. While electronic and dance music dominated the space until then, the crowd showed no prejudice against the sudden shift in genre. Indeed, the milling dancers took on the feel of a zealous pep squad, cheering along the Otone Brass Band as it delivered jaunty melody lines and infectious drumbeats.

At that moment, the dark confines of Vinyl seemed to melt away, and I suddenly had the unexpected sensation of being on a football field after a dramatic victory. The fifteen minutes of music passed rapidly, too rapidly. Just as the band started to launch into its most impassioned stretches, the set was over, and the pounding cadences of electronica fill the silence.

It was a surreal and heady end to the night. The celebratory fervor of the Otone Brass Band stood as a fitting recap for Artopia's musical offerings. While the setting of a Broadway dance club wasn't the ideal fit for the band, they made it their own, just as many of the other Denver bands did at Artopia's five venues.

* Ed Note: An earlier version of this incorrectly identified Tohbias Juniel as Maximilian and iEEEj.

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