The Ten Biggest Denver Music Stories in 2019

Rapper Kalyn Heffernan was a political force in 2019.
Rapper Kalyn Heffernan was a political force in 2019. Kyle Harris
Denver's music scene had a busy 2019, with new venues opening, old venues relaunching, political fights aplenty and struggles galore. Between its major achievements and epic disasters, nobody can accuse this music scene of being sleepy. Here are the ten most important stories in Denver music this year:

Mission Accomplished

When AEG Presents Rocky Mountains announced in 2018 that it would open a 60,000-square-foot ballroom along Brighton Boulevard and claimed it would be the best venue in the state — no, the world — eyes rolled. With that sort of hubris, surely the company would face-plant. Not so.

The Mission Ballroom was designed to incorporate the best of the city’s other venues, from Red Rocks to the Gothic Theatre. With tiered stadium-style seating, a massive floor and a moving stage that expands and contracts to ensure a full house whether a show sells out or not, the venue is a dreamy destination for artists.

Mission, which opened in August, has excellent sight lines from nearly every vantage point, hip bars, countless murals by a who's who of Denver street artists, and stunning acoustics. Hosting musicians from Bob Dylan and Tame Impala to Snow Tha Product, it's quickly become the crown jewel of indoor venues in this market. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even claimed that the Mission is better than Red Rocks.

Rhinoceropolis Reopens

After a fire killed 36 people at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland in 2016, Denver cracked down on DIY spaces, giving artists the boot and shuttering the doors of unsanctioned venues. One of the first to be closed that December was Rhinoceropolis, a live-work warehouse space that hosted underground experimental music, radical art and pretty much everything in between and beyond.

After years of brutal volunteer construction work that cost tens of thousands of dollars — some that came from the city’s Safe Occupancy fund, some that came from Meow Wolf, and still a lot that came from everyday DIY supporters and venue operators' savings — Rhinoceropolis was given permission to reopen in January.

It’s no longer a live-work space. Instead, Rhinoceropolis operates as an aboveground venue, with a stunning array of shows. Women and trans experimental music festival Titwrench returned in December after a brief hiatus and chose to make its comeback at Rhinoceropolis, and international artists have started returning to the space. Even better, the venue is now wheelchair-accessible.
click to enlarge Outside AEG's Mission Ballroom. - MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
Outside AEG's Mission Ballroom.
Michael Emery Hecker

Do Not Pass Go

Music fans raged all year long at sky-high ticket prices, bloated fees, scalpers and bots. Ticket prices for AEG-sponsored shows fluctuated based on demand, and Live Nation stopped declaring its ticket prices altogether.

Late in the year, the feds began to scrutinize the ticketing industry, including Colorado billionaire and AEG owner Philip Anschutz's ticketing company, AXS, and Live Nation’s Ticketmaster; the latter became the subject of a federal investigation. In the meantime, the City of Denver weighed in on whether to enter a $5 million multi-year contract with AXS as every city venue’s sole ticket seller. When the Denver Post's John Wenzel raised questions about why the city would enter into a multi-year contract with a company that's the subject of a federal probe, Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer described his story as clickbait, and the city council promptly and unanimously signed off on the deal.

In other news, AEG received blowback in August after tickets for Tame Impala at the Mission Ballroom sold out within minutes and soon after appeared on the reseller market; the company was blasted for being in cahoots with scalpers. Most of those criticisms were alleviated when AEG rejected a number of suspicious sales and put the tickets back on the market.

Nazis in the Scene

In late 2018, Streets of London, now just called Streets, announced it would throw out Nazis, Proud Boys and other people espousing hateful ideologies. That set the tone for 2019, a year in which Antifa called out and occasionally shut down various shows hosting bands with Nazi connections.

Concerts thrown by indie promoter Metal DP included bands that liked to wear Nazi iconography. Throughout the year, antifa managed to shut down concerts at the hi-dive and Antero Hall at Eck’s Saloon, but one Metal DP festival went on at the Roxy Theatre in November, causing a massive squabble between antifascist activists and the owner and staff at the Roxy, a longtime independent venue supporting multicultural shows.

But some bands took explicitly antifascist stances. In November, Cheap Perfume finally released its debut LP that included the song “It’s Okay (to Punch Nazis),” and in December, goofy thrash metal band Hail Satan debuted its campy cooking show about eating white supremacists on the American Horror Channel.

Rebooting Beta

Beta Nightclub shut down in January after 33-year-old Jacob Morton died of an overdose outside the club in December 2018. But that didn't mark the end of Beta's troubles. The owners tried selling the club earlier this year. When that didn’t work, they rebooted it as Beta 2.0. The plan was to open the club in summer, with an outdoor swimming pool. But the grand-opening date kept getting pushed back as the space was brought up to code.

Beta 2.0 finally opened in October, with a Pardon Our Dust party that was as dusty as promised. After a few shows — and reports of flying bottles and brawls at an after-party in November — many workers have fled, new owners have joined the old team, and the club has started showcasing more hip-hop, an exciting move for the urban music scene, but infuriating for the EDM and bass-music crowd that feels like it’s lost a home.

Struggling Indies

While Live Nation and AEG Presents gobble up more venues — promoters for both companies own or book indie spots like Lost Lake, Globe Hall, Larimer Lounge, Cervantes’, the SoCo Nightclubs, the Fox and Boulder theaters and many more — the true independents, those that don’t have ties to the dominant promoters, are struggling more than ever.

Yet there is hope. The Buffalo Rose reopened in January with a new look; the historic Yates Theater announced it would be opening in the years to come after it passed a grueling neighborhood vetting process in October; the Gypsy House reopened over the summer, this time on South Broadway; Mutiny Information Cafe solidified its reputation as a home for all-ages underground shows; and Deadhead entrepreneur Jay Bianchi opened his latest, Owsley's Crazy Diamond, in May.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris