How Music Came Back to Boulder's Folsom Field

Local rock scenes are thriving in Denver and Fort Collins. Earlier this month, the eighth-annual Ft. Collins Music eXperiment festival featured exciting Colorado bands in venues all over town, and Denver, which will soon host UMS and the Westword Music Showcase, has exciting local rock bands playing across the city pretty much every night.

Yet in Boulder, the big music news this summer is the two giant Dead & Company shows that will mark the return of concerts to Folsom Field.

Due to neighborhood complaints about noise and alcohol-related nonsense, it’s been 15 years since the last show (Dave Matthews Band) at the 50,000-capacity University of Colorado football stadium. It’s been even longer—21 years—since the Grateful Dead disbanded in the wake of not only Jerry Garcia’s passing but the San Francisco jamband's notorious stadium-centric “Tour From Hell” described in Jesse Jarnow’s just-released history of psychedelic culture, Heads.

As Jarnow writes, at the tail end of the Dead’s 30-year run, it was “getting harder for the Grateful Dead to find cities that are enthusiastic about hosting [it]," due to thousands of camping fans, rampant drug busts and gate-crashing.

It says a lot about how Deadheads have mellowed—no doubt greatly due to age—in the years since Garcia’s death that Dead & Company, featuring John Mayer and three of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, is being banked on by Boulder promoter Don Strasburg (of AEG and Z2) and the University of Colorado to bring large-scale rock concerts back to Folsom Field.

Strasburg spoke with Westword by phone last week about Dead & Company’s July 2 and 3 dates at Folsom, which hosted massively successful Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac concerts in the 1970s but largely banned rock shows after a 1986 performance by Van Halen drew local ire.

Westword: How did the Dead and Company concerts come about?

Don Strasburg: Although it’s been a long time since Dave Matthews played at Folsom Field, we’ve all kept in touch with the powers that be at the University of Colorado Boulder about the opportunities of potentially doing another show at Folsom. One of the concerns was the inability to have any level of alcohol sales at the venue, and the school approached us about a year ago and said, “We’re looking at relaxing those policies for the right sort of entertainment. Let’s open discussions in regards to doing shows at Folsom.” It started opening up all of our thoughts about what might be a good fit there. Long story short, the Dead opportunity presented itself, and everybody was willing and open-minded toward pursuing the opportunity. We all thought that having the Grateful Dead community in Boulder was a perfect fit and it would be a great opportunity to bring Folsom back online. Lance Carl and the team over at C.U. Boulder were super positive and a pleasure to work with. With a lot of hard work we were able to work it out so that we could bring the Dead to Boulder. Tickets are on sale and they’re doing great, and away we go.

It’s been 16 years since there was a concert at Folsom Field. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back all those years ago?

Everybody was very happy with the Dave Matthews Band experience there. It’s just that there’s an evolution of concerts and attendance and all these sorts of things, and there weren’t a lot of acts that could do that kind of business, because it’s a big venue. And then as the alcohol policies got really strict in Boulder…you’re 35 or 40 years old and you’re not allowed to have a sip of beer? It kind of made us look to other places.

Do you think the Grateful Dead is the right fit because it’s less of an alcohol audience and more of a pot crowd?

I think that the school recognized that this is a wide demographic. This isn’t a college football game. While it’s on a college campus, it’s not during main session. If they want to have entertainment, people expect that they can have an adult beverage if they’re of age. And you can go anywhere else and there’s no issue to having an adult beverage. We’re able to police it well. I understand that when you’re putting on a performance attracting the student body maybe there’s an issue to selling alcohol at these events. But it’s a little different, I would think, when you have a band that’s been around for fifty years.

On one level, though, it’s interesting that the Dead is “the right sort of entertainment” as a kind of second first impression at Folsom Field. The Grateful Dead is synonymous with psychedelic drugs, and in the latter days of the Dead there was a kind of mayhem that notoriously surrounded the band’s large-scale shows. Has the Dead scene mellowed and matured that much?

God, it was 20-plus years ago. I mean, 20 years is a long time. And there was something in the air 20 years ago with the Grateful Dead that certainly fed that whole situation. And this is not the original Grateful Dead. I mean, it’s amazing, but Jerry Garcia is no longer with us. So you’re appealing to a much wider demographic. The youngest person that might’ve been at that last Grateful Dead show in 1995 would be 35 or 36 years old today. The other thing is that when the Grateful Dead did the 50th-anniversary shows at Soldier Field (last year) and when we did all the different permutations of the Dead, and when we had [Dead and Company] at the 1stBank Center last fall, the crowds have been incredibly easy to deal with. Totally peaceful. And that’s always been a hallmark of the Dead is that it’s a peaceful audience, you know? There’s no fighting; there’s no issues on that front. What happened in 1995 was that the demand outsourced the amount of tickets. And now, we’re doing great, but it’s not the same.

Why is this music still so interesting to people? And why does it still have such resonance with people in Boulder?

The way I look at this is, the music of the Grateful Dead is genius on every level. It’s brilliant and it’s timeless, okay? You can listen to the entire catalog and there’s something truly organic about it. When you listen to a song like “Scarlet Begonias” or “Fire on the Mountain,” these songs move. And then you have songs like “Sugaree” that are incredible, timeless ballads. Because there’s a more organic element to the music and the community, a town like Boulder—which certainly is more about nature and the environment and natural beauty—and a venue that’s big like Folsom but not a corporate room, to me and to the Dead team, it felt like a natural fit. And back to the music: I personally believe that the catalog of the Grateful Dead will be with us for generations and generations, and hundreds of years from now these songs will be part of the human lexicon. And an opportunity to see the people who created this music perform is really a blessing we all have.

Some might say, “How does John Mayer fit into all that?”

Well, one of the things I first think about is, personally, the hallmark of the Grateful Dead community is the level of acceptance. When a brilliant musician who is one of the top guitar players at the tip-top of his craft finds his way to this music and can potentially bring a whole new group of people and introduce to this music and bring this incredible quality of musicianship, of expertise, to the music…bring it on. He has a voice like an angel. He can play guitar like a motherfucker. He brings a level of respect to this music and brings it to a group of people who may not have recognized the beauty and the brilliance of it. I’m psyched. I’m honored that I can be part of this, to have more people bring this into their lives. I’m thrilled that John found his way to this music.

If anything, I think it’s cool that John Mayer is new to this music. Some of the other lead guitarists in this role with the Dead have maybe been too reverential to say, “This is a great song but the tempo is really dragging.”

A lot of the core community questioned John joining the band. The funny thing I found was that the real purist Grateful Dead fans who look back to certain eras, like the mid-'70s, as the pinnacle of the band, when the Grateful Dead was not as deep into, maybe, problematic behavior…they’re the ones who, when they first heard John, went “Wow! This is as close to that pure Grateful Dead sound that I’ve been looking for [as I’ve heard].” And yeah, you’re probably right that John brought less fear with him. Yet at the same time he feels a tremendous responsibility. He’s become part of this community and seen how important it is.

One last question I wanted to ask you is: While it’s a great time to be a music fan in Boulder if you want to see great national bands all the time, what has to happen for us to get a little music venue here so that a local rock scene can emerge? Where is the small venue where a rock band in Boulder can grow from attracting 200 people to headlining the Fox Theatre?

First of all, the Fox Theatre books local bands as opening acts all the time. The Lazy Dog [Sports Bar & Grill] is booking shows all the time. I bet if I Google “Live music in Boulder Colorado,” there are four or five places hosting music. The Mountain Sun Pub does music. There are places all over Boulder that have live music.

Sure, there are some restaurants that host local music a few nights a week, but I hear from a lot of people, “Where is the local rock venue?” They say Fort Collins and Denver have numerous small venues that are focused just on music, whether it’s Hodi’s [Half-Note] in Fort Collins or the Larimer Lounge and the hi-dive in Denver. Where is the venue in Boulder where a local rock band can start out small and grow an audience?

I don’t know if the demand is in Boulder. Somebody has to want to open it. That’s a business thing, you know? 

Read a condensed version of this interview in this week's print edition.
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry