Concert Reviews

Could Levitt Pavilion's Grand Opening Have Been Grander?

Halden Wofford and the Hi*Beams.
Halden Wofford and the Hi*Beams. Brandon Marshall
Confession: My kid and I fled the downpour on Thursday, July 20 — opening night of Denver's newest outdoor venue, Levitt Pavilion — long before the headliner, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, played. We were under-prepared: no umbrellas, no raincoats, not even a cotton hoodie — just T-shirts and jeans.

We left in the middle of Halden Wofford & the Hi*Beams, which played though a lightning storm so dramatic that hundreds, soaked to the bone, dashed past security officers who were scrambling to keep craft-beer cans from exiting the Pavilion.

"Can I get a little less rain in the monitor?" Wofford joked. He's a funny performer with a scrawnier-than-Waylon-and-even-more-outlaw-country look. Through a sly grin, he croaks out oddball songs with old-timey melodies. It's easy to imagine him in his off hours making moonshine in the backwoods, though I doubt he does.

As diehards darted under trees (thirty people under a tree in an otherwise wide-open park is a recipe for a massive lightning-strike tragedy, so, people, please don't do that again), the band played on — until it finally stopped, for a bit, just before the storm cleared. Apparently, Wofford resumed. At least, that's what Westword's copy editor, who was there and is braver than I am, told me on Friday. And our pictures from ace photog Brandon Marshall prove that Slim Cessna played a great show.

click to enlarge Slim Cessna's Auto Club. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Slim Cessna's Auto Club.
Brandon Marshall
But, sadly, my kid and I were no longer there when the show went on. We had already run up Ruby Hill, praying to the sky gods that we weren't fried by lightning as we jumped over rushing water. My four-year-old kept reminding me, "This is serious.... This isn't good.... Can we never come here again when it rains?"

When I asked him if he wanted to come back when it wasn't flooding, the answer was a definitive "yes." And I agree.

The venue boasts a gorgeous view of the city yawning out toward the plains. The speakers sounded good: loud enough to entertain, but not so loud they would destroy the hearing of people like us, who had stuffed toilet paper, punk style, into our ear holes, damn the pediatrician and decent parenting.

My kid and I wished the concert would have started sooner — or that we had arrived later. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance — though notably missing a few pols I wished had been there. Mayor Michael Hancock was out of town (as he so often is). Governor John Hickenlooper, this square state's most public music lover, should have been on stage, too.

click to enlarge Liz Levitt, president of Levitt Foundation, cuts the ribbon at Levitt Pavilion. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Liz Levitt, president of Levitt Foundation, cuts the ribbon at Levitt Pavilion.
Brandon Marshall
But a lot of people were there to scissor the ribbon. Goofy-smart Councilman Jolon Clark of "Lucky District 7" thanked all his "honorable" peers on council who had staked out their seats on the lawn and didn't go to the stage, blessing us with their silence. Standing in for Hancock, Deputy Mayor Happy Haynes rambled about how Denver residents love parks and nature and art. And Kent Rice of Arts & Venues celebrated the city's latest public-art installation at the venue. The artwork wasn't quite ready, but will be soon. Rice says it's good. Apparently, it will connect light and sound in some interactive way that I have to see and hear to believe.

One of the Levitt family members, Liz, took to the stage. She called Clark "Colin".... or maybe "Colon," poor guy. Chris Zacher, the scruffy executive director of the Pavilion, thanked a string of other funders.

"When's the music going to start?" asked my kid. "When's the music going to start?" I wondered. "When's the music going to start?" asked some grump behind me.

Even before the dignitaries stopped pontificating and the first band took to the stage, it was easy to see the venue's potential. People spread out, picnicking. Rockabilly types mingled with hipsters and vanilla families. A few cooler-than-thou teens lurked about. Children raced each other, toddlers bumbled, babies nursed. It was the stuff of good memories. Those kids, turned into middle-aged people thirty years down the line and digging for something in their childhoods to be nostalgic about, might remember their times at Levitt Pavilion fondly.

Finally, the music began. First act: Andy Thomas' Dust Heart, a black-clad folky band led by the nervous-looking but confident-acting singer Andy Thomas, who writes vulnerable songs that are an offshoot of that goth Americana tradition that Denveris known for — in Denver, at least. He is all that's good about singer-songwriters, and I'm happy he isn't imprisoned in some coffee shop in Iowa, though he easily could be.

click to enlarge Andy Thomas' Dust Heart. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Andy Thomas' Dust Heart.
Brandon Marshall
Before I go any further, it's disclosure time. I like Andy. A lot. He's one of Westword's music writers, and he's solid. It's not always easy seeing people you like play music. It's possible that you will hate what they do, and this scenario had the potential to be way worse. He played the first notes ever played on the stage of a new venue, and I was going to have to say something about his performance. Publicly.

What if he sucked (not that I have any reason to believe he would)? But what if he did? I'd have to write something critical. Thankfully, he was great.

Andy had sent me a copy of his new album, No Poets, a few weeks ago — not to review, but just to hear, he said. I played a track and liked it, but put it on the back burner so I could give it a real listen when I had some time. That's something I rarely have, so I still haven't heard the whole thing. In the meantime, No Poets has garnered praise. Here's what No Depression, the alt-country magazine, had to say: "God damn if Andy Thomas' No Poets isn't one of the most exuberant celebrations of life this year."

Congrats, Andy. And congrats on your performance at Levitt. It was stunning, emotionally raw and driving. At some point I forgot I was listening to a guy I know, and looking back, that makes me proud.

There isn't a lot to complain about when it comes to Levitt Pavilion's opening night, other than the weather. But there were some issues with the show that I hate to note, because Zacher and his team worked damned hard for five years to pull this thing off, and this is a time for celebration.

The opening-night lineup would have been better if more styles of music had been on display. And it would have been smart for the venue to include bands with more women and people of color. It's not like there's a shortage of those acts; many of them slay as hard as Andy or Halden or Slim. Levitt should have included some Latin music at its opening night — particularly since the venue is surrounded by a Latino community, not exactly the target demographic for mostly-white-fronted alt-country, honky-tonk and Americana acts.

click to enlarge BRANDON MARSHALL
Brandon Marshall
Levitt has the chance to be a venue that gives a platform to musicians beyond just the white, straight men who dominate most stages in town, and the season lineup suggests that it will hit that mark at times. But it should have been doing so at its grand opening.

Mixing things up might have corrected another problem: There weren't enough people at the Levitt show. Maybe they knew about the rain or were just too tired to come out because they were working too hard to afford their jacked-up rent. Whatever it was, the green grass should have been covered by blankets and chairs and dancing people all the way up Ruby Hill, beyond the fence.

click to enlarge BRANDON MARSHALL
Brandon Marshall
No doubt, as word spreads about how Levitt Pavilion is one of the best family-friendly places in town to check out free live music (fifty concerts a year, eventually) and the venue's much more diverse slate of shows unfurls, the lawn will fill up. And it will be beautiful.

So read the venue's schedule. Head over to Ruby Hill Park's Levitt Pavilion for a concert — or ten. This project is testament to the power of the city working with arts lovers, foundations and a nonprofit to build something magnificent. Now it's time we show up for it and make it even more so.

And whatever you do, learn a couple lessons from me before you go: Bring some rain gear and some real ear protection — and, for the love of God, don't take shelter under a tree if there's lightning.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris