Denver's music scene has been busy in 2018: Musicians keep releasing stellar material and throwing amazing shows, promoters are building new venues and remodeling old ones, and the city has seen the birth and rebirth of major festivals. In the meantime, Red Rocks has witnessed spats, skunks and lawsuits, the DIY scene has continued to recover from the city's closure of arts spaces, and buskers have come under attack. And we've been there to cover it all. Here are the ten biggest music stories of 2018:
The fisticuffs between entertainment promoters that plays out nationwide has been especially dramatic in Colorado, where AEG Rocky Mountain Presents announced the opening of the Mission Ballroom, a state-of-the-art music venue in RiNo to add to a stable of venues that includes the Ogden Theatre, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre and the 1STBANK Center; Live Nation, in turn, took over booking the Summit and Marquis theaters from Soda Jerk Presents, remodeled those venues and the Fillmore Auditorium, and bought the independent promoter Emporium Presents, which books national acts at the nonprofit amphitheater Levitt Pavilion in Ruby Hill Park. Thanks to the tireless competition between these massive companies, Denver has seen some incredible acts, including Childish Gambino, Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney, come through town. The downside: Independent promoters are finding it harder and harder to attract talent to their venues when AEG and Live Nation take up so much space in the market.
Is DIY Dying?
Sometimes no news is big news. That’s the case with Rhinoceropolis and Glob, two DIY arts and music spaces shut down by the city shortly after the 2016 Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people in Oakland. Every few weeks, we were told the spaces would soon reopen. Every few weeks, we were disappointed to find out that they had not — and still haven’t, two years after the fire department kicked out artists living there and after tens of thousands of dollars have been poured into remodeling the spaces to bring them up to code. Many of the venues' former residents have moved from Denver to more affordable cities. One, the visionary musician and artist Colin Ward, died by suicide, a death many in the local DIY scene blame on city officials who kicked him out of his home, sending his life into a spiral.
Old Bands, New Bands
Some of Denver’s most established acts released new albums this year. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats put out Tearing at the Seams, Gregory Alan Isakov dropped Evening Machines and DeVotchKa put out This Night Falls Forever, suggesting that Denver's seasoned artists are maintaining their popularity while staying fresh. Newer groups, like Oxeye Daisy and The Velveteers, made their own waves, and the music industry began to shine light on Wildermiss, which is on the brink of joining breakout acts like The Lumineers, Tennis and Rateliff on big stages nationwide.
The Westword Music Award-winning band Brothers of Brass have built their career in Denver busking outside big events, from concerts to Broadway musicals. Along the way, they've garnered gaggles of fans who drop money into their bucket. But they've also gained a few enemies among fellow buskers and downtown residents, because as good as the Brothers are, they’re deafening. They have spent months in negotiations with the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Denver City Attorney’s Office and hotels and businesses, addressing noise complaints lobbed at them. While they continue to perform outside the Denver Performing Arts Complex and other venues, their struggle has made headlines and highlights conflicts over gentrification and freedom of speech.
UMS Has Underground Music Success
In early 2018, news broke that the event organizers at Two Parts had purchased the Underground Music Showcase from the Denver Post Community Foundation. Looking at the largest multi-day festival spotlighting local talent as well as a strong lineup of national bands, we wondered whether the new team would pull off the event in the company's first year in charge. The crew at Two Parts didn’t just pull it off; they infused it with new life, turning it into an immersive experience, replete with high-end food, drink, art installations and all manner of cultural fare. Tobias Krause, onetime coordinator for the Westword Music Showcase, led the programming efforts and rebooted what was once a down-and-dirty South Broadway festival into a landmark event that honors local musical traditions while embracing the best of what new Denver has to offer.
After years of sniffing out a site and finally picking the Overland Golf Course, the entertainment promoter Superfly announced it would launch Grandoozy, a music festival that would bring world-class talent to Denver, creating a massive festival experience more akin to Bonnaroo or Outside Lands than the smaller fare our city has seen. Neighbors in the bedroom community surrounding the golf course debated the idea, and the fight caused quite a rift. But Superfly pulled off the festival, which was headlined by Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar and Florence + the Machine and filled with performances by Logic, Snow Tha Product, Mavis Staples and locals like Tennis, Gasoline Lollipops and SunSquabi. The event was a smash, despite a few hiccups thanks to the no-car policy and an opening-night cluster of Uber and Lyft drivers. Superfly hasn't announced whether it will bring Grandoozy back in 2019.
Good Music, Good Deeds
Denver’s music scene spent the better part of 2018 showing up for nonprofits, activist groups and other philanthropic causes. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats used their Marigold Project to support veterans' and homeless advocates and organizations working to end gun violence. Tennis served as an ambassador for War Child, which supports kids impacted by international conflicts. Punk bands threw their annual Punks Against Trump concert, and still others threw Territorio Liberado, an immigrant-rights benefit show. The Fray headlined Sing It to Me Santa, a music education benefit for Take Note Colorado, and Big Gigantic gave a massive donation to Conscious Alliance’s work on hunger relief.
Drama on the Rocks
From New Year’s 2018 on, Red Rocks was plagued with drama. What was billed by Feyline as the first-ever New Year’s Eve on the Rocks concert headlined by Post Malone, Migos and Young Thug was moved to a University of Denver hockey arena and was riddled with problems, including poor ticket sales. The concert’s investors lobbed promoter Tyler Fey and his team with lawsuits that are still winding their way through the courts. Later in the year, a guy was assaulted at Winter on the Rocks, which led to a lawsuit against the security company that safeguards the venue, Argus. Then another person was sucker-punched at a Joe Russo’s Almost Dead concert. On top of all that, there was a literal shit storm, when hours before a Widespread Panic concert a gust of wind hit a parking lot and sent a portable toilet flying into a fan’s car, spreading a flurry of human waste. If that wasn't stinky enough, concert-goers reported an increase in skunks crawling around what remains — despite it all — the world's greatest music venue.
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Jay Bianchi Did Punches
The legendary hippie and Grateful Dead-themed bar owner Jay Bianchi was called out by Denver’s music community for punching one of his doormen and threatening to hit musicians who had played his venue, Be on Key Psychedelic Ripple. Bianchi came clean to Westword, saying, “We did punches. But I hit like a girl. I did punches to them, but it was not the strongest punches, and it looked worse than it was.” Aidan Pagnani, one of the musicians threatened with violence, summed up his thoughts on the incident: "I would fear very heavily for my physical well-being if I ever went near that place. I am never playing there again. I don’t need to. I don’t want to. I’m all set."
Streets of London Bans Nazis
The Colfax punk bar Streets of London has long had a reputation for being a hangout for hatemongers. In the past year, John Elliott has bought the club, remodeled the space and instituted a no-Nazi policy. Streets of London posted to its Facebook page: “Streets, as a bar and as a venue, welcomes EVERYBODY...everybody who isn't about hate, racism or bigotry, that is. We fucking hate racists, bigots, misogynists or apologists for that kind of shit. Period.”