Desert Reef Hot Springs Offers Cool Colorado Concerts | Westword

Road Trip: We Brake for Music at Desert Reef Hot Springs

Everyone in the pool! DeVotchKa and Blonde Redhead are both booked for concerts.
Desert Reef Hot Springs.
Desert Reef Hot Springs. Ben Knight
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Sometimes the coolest, most memorable concerts are held in the most unlikely places.

"I think [the] best show of my entire life [was] Violent Femmes in a basketball gym in Evanston, Illinois," says Chris McLaughlin, owner of Desert Reef Hot Springs outside Florence.

As the owner of a recreation business that doubles as an unconventional venue, McLaughlin says those are exactly the kinds of experiences his team wants to offer. "We're trying to re-create those special moments we had watching our favorite bands in tiny venues, combined with the uniqueness of floating in a pool in a desert hideout," he says.

Since taking over "The Reef" in 2021, McLaughlin has been busy using its unearthly landscape to do just that, hosting a growing list of notable musicians, including Denver's Allison Lorenzen, Midwife and Lonely Choir as well as rising country star Esther Rose; there have also been sound baths, vinyl-listening parties and horror-film screenings. And now, McLaughlin has a couple of serious doozies lined up. Denver's DeVotchKa will return to Desert Reef on Saturday, July 20; the Grammy-nominated group will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its album How It Ends by playing it in its entirety. Then, alternative legends/chameleons Blonde Redhead will be performing on Saturday, October 5. The internationally acclaimed indie rockers have been steadily putting out dense, intriguing albums for thirty years and have been championed by such iconoclastic fans as Eric Wareheim and Maynard James Keenan; they're also McLaughlin's all-time favorite band.
click to enlarge The stage at Desert Reef Hot Springs.
The stage at Desert Reef Hot Springs.
Ben Knight
The concerts are a dream-within-a-dream for the Reef's Fremont County oasis, which is a pretty special spot any day of the week. It's a secluded retreat, nestled within a large tract of private land in the shadow of the northern Wet Mountains; McLaughlin has semi-jokingly compared the views from the Reef's assortment of pools to photographs of the surface of Mars. Formerly private and known as the Desert Reef Beach Club, under his ownership it has become a soulful outpost that Westword touted as one of the best hot springs in Colorado last year.

Despite the increasingly big music names making the trek down there, it's remained a quiet gem, and the owner aims to keep it that way. "Sans event times, our true aim is for guests to power down, turn their brains off and become the best versions of themselves," McLaughlin says. "Desert Reef hopefully feels like relaxing time travel back to a time of no cell phones, quiet recuperation and soul nourishment."

The events are fun, but they also represent a "rare break from our lulling norm," he adds.

Upcoming shows at Desert Reef:

An Evening With DeVotchKa
Saturday, July 20, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $120; van camping option +$55

DeVotchKa, whose name comes from the Russian word for "girl," has been one of the biggest names in Colorado music since its fourth album's eponymous single "How It Ends" blew up twenty years ago. The multi-instrumental four-piece's genre is hard to pin down — labels such as "dark cabaret," "gothic country" and "indie folk" are sometimes used — but it compellingly spans the gap between lonely and beautiful, mournful and foot-stomping. Frontman and vocalist Nick Urata has simply called the sound "romantic."

Anchored by Urata's soaring vocals and sporting an ear-catching mix of cultural influences (Romani, indie rock, klezmer) and instruments (theremin, violin, sousaphone), the band has cultivated a devoted following over the decades, bringing together local rockers and indie-loving millennials with more famous fans such as Arcade Fire's Win Butler. Career highlights include the Grammy-nominated soundtrack for 2006's Little Miss Sunshine, much of which was adapted from How It Ends.

This will be DeVotchKa's second time playing at Desert Reef after a successful debut last summer. The band shares McLaughlin's taste for unconventional shows and wants to provide such special happenings for its fans. "They really know their fan base. That's kind of been the motivation of theirs," McLaughlin notes. With the full-length performance of How It Ends, the event accordingly represents a unique opportunity to see one of Denver's most popular bands revisiting the album that put it on the larger musical map.
click to enlarge
Blonde Redhead is playing at Desert Reef Hot Springs on October 5.
Courtesy of Chris McLaughlin
Blonde Redhead with Allison Lorenzen
Saturday, October 5, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $120 (van camping option sold out)

Since forming in New York City in the early ’90s, Blonde Redhead has melted through the noise-rock, shoegaze and dream-pop genres over the years, shedding early Sonic Youth comparisons to become influential indie elders in their own right. The trio is composed of Kazu Makino (vocals, keyboards, rhythym guitar) and twins Simone (drums, keyboards) and Amedeo Pace (lead guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals). Makino is Japanese, while the Pace brothers hail from Milan by way of Montreal. All three met and matriculated in the heady, grungy, NYC rock underground before catching the attention of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon at a performance of her side project Free Kitten. The band takes its name from a cut by the short-lived no-wave band DNA.

All of that is to say that Blonde Redhead has a dizzying blend of influences and a unique approach to pop music, equal parts crunchy and crooning. It's something of a band's band: Collaborators have included members of Unwound, Fugazi and Japan, and its work has attracted remixes by Gayngs, Pantha du Prince, Deerhoof and Nosaj Thing.

The band has also been a big influence on McLaughlin's vision for the music at Desert Reef. "When we were booking DeVotchKa, we were talking about the shows that had an impact on us," he recalls. "We were talking about times we've seen [Blonde Redhead], and I mentioned seeing them in a punk-rock bowling alley in 1999 and how special of an experience that was. That started the idea of: How do we re-create that feeling here, which is already a surreal environment?"

The answer, it turned out, was pretty simple: Get the band itself to come play. Luckily, the hot springs happen to be smack-dab between two of Blonde Redhead's 2024 fall tour dates: an October 4 appearance in Denver at Levitt Pavilion, and an October 7 show in Phoenix. Fans in the western U.S. now have a couple of options to catch them this year — but only one with mineral water pools to soak in while enjoying the magical views of southern Colorado (accompanied by the acclaimed prairie-wave of the self-proclaimed "Goth Enya," Allison Lorenzen).

More Experiences at Desert Reef

McLaughlin isn't short of ideas brewing for the future. Live music-adjacent events such as sound baths and collaborations with Denver vinyl-listening bar ESP have become ongoing staples of Desert Reef's calendar. The ESP parties are typically a mix of vinyl, sauna, food and cocktails, which McLaughlin says will soon be expanding to include art installations. In late October, "we're working on some fun plans for Diwali [the Hindu festival of lights] with some beautiful vendors," he says. For music, he has a lengthy wish list, one that's getting longer all the time.

"So far we've been in touch with Yo La Tengo, CocoRosie, Broken Social Scene, War Paint, Sun Volt, Ezra Furman, Magnetic Fields, Ty Segall, Damien Jurado and a lot more," he says. Violent Femmes are "high on the list, along with Brian Jonestown Massacre, Gregory Alan Isakov, Nathaniel Rateliff, Caribou and whoever else is looking to create a special experience for their fans."

Clearly, the sky's the limit. It is, after all, much larger without a big city in the way.

"The experiences we've created so far have gone really well," McLaughlin concludes. "We're looking to build on this concept year over year to create meaningful experiences that strip seeing music down to its core elements."

Desert Reef Hot Springs is located at 1194 County Road 100, Florence. Get more concert information and tickets at
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