Music News

Peace and Love, Nineties Style

Chuck Morris is frantic--as usual. The veteran promoter and manager perpetually travels in fourth gear, his movements abrupt, his eyes intense, his words coming in short, speedy bursts that recall his New York origins even though he's spent most of his adult life in John Denver country. But on this late April day, he's got an excuse. In February, his company, Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents, purchased the Mammoth Events Center, among the worst live-music sites in this or any other town. And he's got until May 19 to turn it into something that deserves to be called the Fillmore Auditorium--named for a San Francisco landmark that's as renowned a hall as any in rock-music history. Morris tries to sound encouraging about his odds for success: "Even though we'll be hammering up until the morning of the first show, we're going to make it," he says, "and it's going to be great." But as he shuttles across the cavernous space located at the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Clarkson Street, a construction worker's boombox is blasting the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

In this case, Mick Jagger may be wrong. Since wading into the Denver area in early 1998, BGP/CMP has gone from being a minor player to a major combatant in a music-industry death match with Los Angeles-based Universal Concerts--and the reason, quite simply, is money. BGP/CMP is owned by SFX Entertainment, a New York outfit that has hoovered up a slew of the country's long-established promotion firms over the past two years, spending around $1 billion in the process. By these standards, the Mammoth was a bargain: It cost an estimated $2.1 million to buy, and $1.6 million has gone into its renovation. But according to David Mayeri, BGP/CMP's senior vice president of facility management, SFX's assets made the project possible. "BGP had a limited amount of cash," he says, "so to develop a club like this in Denver is definitely related to the depth of finances of SFX. It wouldn't have happened without them."

If staffers at BGP/CMP feel odd about using memories of the original Fillmore--a psychedelic icon associated with the Grateful Dead and other relics of the idealistic, moolah-doesn't-matter Sixties--as tools in an all-out promotion war, they're not saying. The name may be the same, but the times are very different, and so, too, are the economic conditions that have spurred an explosion of new Denver venues. The Pepsi Center, which replaces McNichols Arena later this year, the Ritchie Center, a sprawling complex on the University of Denver campus that's set to debut in September, and the Gothic Theatre, an edifice on South Broadway in Englewood that's reopening late next month thanks to the efforts of newcomer Steve Schalk, have nothing to do with hippie-era peace and love. And neither are these venues rising in response to a shortage of places for performers to do their thing. There aren't enough good bands to keep the current venues busy.

So what's going on? Most observers see the Fillmore's arrival as a direct assault by SFX on Universal, the only national promotion company that can hold a candle to SFX. Universal, meanwhile, is countering with an exclusive agreement to book the Ritchie Center--a decision that's likely to hurt the Paramount Theatre and the Music Hall at Lodo, which Universal is now using. The Fillmore-Ritchie Center duel is also expected to bruise the 1,200-seat Ogden Theatre and the 450-seat Bluebird Theater, owned by nobody in particular presents (NIPP), an independent promotion outfit that Universal has been battering for ten years. But in this contest, Universal is not playing from a position of strength: The corporation is up for sale, and from all appearances, the most likely buyer is SFX.

For the typical fan, these power plays add up to a mixed bag. On the positive side of the ledger, concertgoers will have the opportunity to see shows in some auspicious new environments. It's too early to know for certain about sound quality, but the Fillmore looks far better than anyone has a right to expect, and no expense has been spared to make the Ritchie Center and the Gothic into equally superior structures. But with prices for the best seats in the house climbing faster than a cock rocker's voice at the end of an encore, many music lovers of limited means may find themselves restricted to the back rows--or their living rooms.

Still, the game is not without its winners. When longtime Colorado kingpin Barry Fey went into semi-retirement after selling his singular creation, Fey Concerts, to Universal in 1997, Morris, a Fey friend and associate, was widely assumed to be a lock for the top spot at Universal's Denver office. But after months of negotiation, Morris was snubbed, and Mark Norman, who had overseen a significant portion of Universal's business in Canada, assumed the throne. At the time, Morris didn't offer any comments about this slight, but neither did he go out of his way to hide his anger and disappointment. Today, however, this bridesmaid is on the cusp of having all of his dreams come true--and as an added bonus, he's in ascendancy at the same time that the ground beneath Universal is starting to shake. Morris tries not to gloat: "I didn't like the way they handled my situation, but I don't want to knock anybody, either," he says. But, he adds, "not getting that job turned out to be the biggest blessing-in-disguise of my life."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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