The members of Steele and Colfax are indebted to one of Denver's most unique stretches of road. Indeed, it only takes looking at the title of the quartet to get a sense of their local roots. The place where the band played their first rehearsals is right there in the name. The band started fusing vintage soul, Motown and Southern rock right off Colfax Avenue, one of the longest continuous streets in the world. The group came together in a distinctive part of town where, in the words of guitarist Tyler Callihan, "you've got the bottom rungs and new, fancy high-rises as well." It's only fitting then, that the band should celebrate its one-year anniversary playing the Root 40 Music Fest, an event that celebrates the history and legacy of the 21-block stretch of East Colfax Avenue between Grant and Josephine streets.
Now in its third year, the Root 40 fest is a seven-day celebration of the musical culture that's stemmed from one of Denver's most chaotic and charming streets. This year's festival is slated to run from April 21 to 27 at theaters, bars, shops and other venues along the historic thoroughfare. Billed as "seven days of music and the business of making music," the event brings together live performances, networking events and lectures about the business side of the music industry.
That's been the basic structure since the festival kicked off three years ago. Community and governmental organizations representing the stretch of upper Colfax wanted to emphasize the area's musical legacy. That legacy is impressive, to say the least. After all, it includes historic venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Ogden Theatre, as well as dozens of bars and restaurants that regularly host live music. Organizations like the Colfax Business Improvement District and the Upper Colfax Community Foundation worked directly with business owners and residents to launch the Root 40 Fest. The University of Colorado College of Arts and Media, 9News and KBCO return as partners this year.
The basic spirit of the event has remained consistent over the past three years. The event benefits music programs at East High School, DenUM, CU College of Arts & Media and 9 Cares Colorado Shares
That's not to say the festival organizers haven't learned some important lessons as they prep for this year's event. This year, they've tweaked the structure of the week-long event to make it easier for bands, businesses and audiences. Most notably, the 2014 festival will feature fewer bands and less days devoted uniquely to live performances. That's a shift from prior years, when the schedule for the event featured a dense daily roster of bands playing at venues up and down Colfax. That approach resulted in a bit of overkill, as some bands played on weekdays for scant audiences.
"Last year, it was booked for the entire week - Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night," said Root 40 event manager Melanie King. This year's festival will instead feature live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in specific sections of the upper Colfax strip. "I think it's going to be more successful ... Thursday, Friday, Saturday is when people want to get out and enjoy themselves."
That shift has allowed organizers to neatly split the seven days between music industry events and live music. Monday through Wednesday will see a long menu of lectures and networking event, kicking off with the Root 40 Launch Party at 7 p.m. on April 21 at the Sie Film Center, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. The event will feature a presentation on the "Art of the Traveling Festival" by Kevin Lyman, founder of the Vans Warped Tour; Colorado Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chris Daniels will moderate. Networking and music business events will follow on Tuesday and Wednesday at the King Center Recital Hall on the Auraria Campus.
The music lineup on Thursday, Friday and Saturday is broken up by geography and specific venues called "base camps." From the opening night performances at Tooey's, the crowd can take in live shows along different sections of the strip on different nights. The shows will include giveaways, drink specials and free donuts from Voodoo (which will be available in limited quantity at the EXPO on the 27 at 11 a.m.). It's all part of a section-by-section lineup that's set to include shows at venues ranging from the Ogden and Fillmore to the outdoor stage set to take up the parking lot at Argonaut Liquors on Saturday. It will be easy to tell something's going on -- this year's festival is set to feature elaborate lighting rigs along Colfax.
The wealth of venues gives the Root 40 Fest a unique role in Colorado's large selection of music festivals. During the three days of live music, crowds can take in international acts like CHVRCHES as well as up-and-coming local groups like Steele and Colfax and Bear Antler. That mix of hometown heroes and heavy hitters from the national scene is what music along Colfax has always been about. Bob Dylan gigged at the Satire Lounge before he found fame. Judy Collins graduated from East High School. The Smothers Brothers were one of many national acts to travel to venues along the strip in the '60s.
This mix of instruction, live music and networking pays tribute to that history.
"It's just a magical place," said Evan Semon from Bear Antler, who will join seven label mates from Denver-based SMASH Music Management during the festival. The band titled its first EP "Longest Street in America" after the place they recorded their first five songs. "We're on Colfax at the time, at the Ogden, the Bluebird and the Fillmore."
Just like Steele and Colfax, Bear Antler has taken many creative cues from this street that represents such a mishmash of music and culture. The goal of the Root 40 Music Fest is to make sure that inspiration continues long into the future.
For a full list of bands and venues, visit root40.com
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