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:
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Roxy vs. Roxy
In June, we were flabbergasted to learn that Syntax Physic Opera had been sold to a California-based entrepreneur who would bring her Encinitas restaurant and venue to the beloved indie hub. Most surprising of all: She planned to keep her space’s name, Roxy, even though Denver already had a Roxy.
But beyond their names and stalwart commitment to independent music, the two spaces couldn’t be more different. The old Roxy has been a rough-and-tumble home for Juggalo bands, indie rappers and heavy music; the new Roxy brings in quieter fare and has maintained good ties with Denver’s singer-songwriter and indie-rock scenes.
Rolling for Mayor and Beyond
Kalyn Heffernan, a longtime Denver rapper, frontperson for Wheelchair Sports Camp, and disability-rights advocate, announced to Westword in 2018 that she was "rolling" for mayor. Though her campaign started as an April Fool's joke, it eventually took off. Heffernan became a defining force in the mayoral race, pushing Mayor Michael Hancock and his competitors to address disability, economic injustice, gentrification and racial strife.
In May, she mobilized Denver’s arts and music scene to take on the political establishment, which culminated in a musical rally in support of Initiative 300, an attempt to repeal Denver’s urban camping ban. The massive jam session — attended by Denver luminaries like Wes Watkins and members of Rubedo and Rare Byrd$ — targeted the Denver Performing Arts Complex for the city’s anti-busker policies and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts for donating $50,000 to the No on 300 campaign.
While she lost the race and 300 was defeated mightily, Heffernan's impact on local politics will long be felt, and her position in the city’s cast of social-justice advocates has been fixed. Music, as she demonstrated, should no longer sit on the sidelines, but rather roll up and confront the powers-that-be.
For the past few years, Denver’s music scene has wrangled with more suicides, overdoses and early deaths than any community deserves. When Punk News writer and DIY maven Brittany Strummer took her life in April, the community was shaken by the loss.
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Strummer was a regular at the Seventh Circle Music Collective and had built a massive national network of friends in the scene, including Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, who played a show at the Marquis Theatre with her band Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers days after Strummer’s death.
This is what Grace had to say to Westword about her old friend: “I remember her being so enthusiastic about everything she was doing and trying to be a part of it and trying to find her place in the scene. She was someone who — having known her for a length of time — you watched find a place in the scene, and she became an indispensable part of the scene. And that's really rare.”
Festivals Leave, Pop-Ups Pop Up
If 2018 was marked by the arrival of Grandoozy and a sense that festival culture was taking off in Denver, 2019 was defined by the departure of big festivals. International event producer Superfly announced in January that it would be putting Grandoozy, its three-day music festival at the Overland Golf Course, “on hiatus.” Later that month, Velorama, the struggling music event that was part of the Colorado Classic, was scrapped as that annual race transformed into a women-only event. And in February, the People’s Fair, which offered some music, was put on hold.
Instead of festivals, 2019 saw plenty of pop-ups. In November, there was Phonetopia, a branding initiative by the Verizon offshoot Visible. The free music series was set in a warehouse that looked like the inside of a smartphone; crowds were wowed by performances from the likes of Maggie Rogers, Kacey Musgraves and Anderson .Paak. Neon Baby, a disco-themed pop-up downtown, also arrived, in May. That project, an offshoot of Yeah, Baby, doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.