1. The first time she heard Sara Bareilles's breakout hit "Love Song," a young swimmer named Hannah Bradford immediately won her race, setting a personal record in the process. That was in 2007, when the song was ubiquitous, particularly among suburban families driving to swim meets. So the girl who slipped off the starting block and is now afraid of water probably also heard "Love Song" immediately before the race.
But Hannah has listened to Sara Bareilles before every swim meet since then, and now she is her favorite artist. Hannah Bradford and her mom, Lisa, showed up early to the Sara Bareilles show at the Denver Botanic Gardens: Chatfield. They brought extra-sharp cheddar and red-pepper hummus and pepperoni and gluten-free crackers and chocolate chip cookies because Hannah is allergic. They got a piece of grass right up in the front row.
2. The Denver Botanic Gardens: Chatfield is neither a regular concert venue nor a regular botanic garden. It's 600 acres of prairie across South Wadsworth Boulevard from Chatfield Reservoir. It is, admittedly, immaculate prairie, with a diverse and well-cared-for selection of native flowers and grasses, a brand-new visitors' center, a barn that hosts weddings and, in the fall, a corn maze of some renown. Mostly, the Chatfield branch of the Botanic Gardens earns its keep with special events and rentals, but you can wander around any time you want for an admission fee of $5 per car. It would be a nice place to have a picnic. The volunteers there probably didn't sign up for chaperoning concerts, since the Chatfield location has an agreement with its landlord and neighbors to host a maximum of five shows per year. This year it will have three -- more than it ever has before -- all part of the Botanic Gardens Summer Concert Series presented by Swallow Hill Music. In addition to the three Chatfield concerts, the series features eight shows at the Botanic Gardens' main location on York Street.
The night before Sara Bareilles was the Barenaked Ladies at Chatfield. Two longtime Botanic Gardens volunteers have, by chance, worked most of the concerts over the years. They praised this year's events, noting that the belligerence of the crowd and open consumption of marijuana were nothing, nothing compared to what they were like at the David Byrne and St. Vincent show last year. Sara Bareilles fans and Barenaked Ladies fans, I was surprised to learn, are equally docile and uninterested in pot.
3. You can bring quite a bit into the Chatfield Botanic Gardens for concerts. Binoculars and picnic baskets and non-alcoholic beverages in sealed containers are acceptable. So is any type of food. Your service animal is welcome; your bullhorn is not. Also not allowed: chairs over 26 inches high.
A member of the Argus security team was given a yardstick and what would seem to be the unhappy task of walking around, cracking down on tall chairs. But there is at least one champion for justice and clear sight lines left in the world, and the woman who drew this assignment took to it enthusiastically.
"Oh, that green one!" she exclaimed, spotting a chair near the front in clear violation of the 26 inch rule. "I'm gonna get it."
She and her stick left no room for gray areas. The green chair and its owners relocated to the back, where they wouldn't be blocking anyone's view.
4. Two couples from Parker, Beth and Brian Rorick and Al and Carrie Whitehouse, got to the Chatfield Botanic Gardens an hour and a half after Hannah Bradford and her mother. They were looking less to see a formative hero in person than they were looking for a good excuse to use a recently purchased, very high-quality wooden picnic table, designed for the use of people sitting around it on blankets.
They tested the limits of Chatfield's blasé food policy, bringing, among other things, a basket of fried chicken from King Soopers. Their only regret? That they couldn't bring a nice wine to pair with their feast. They thought about stealing a bottle from the shockingly well appointed VIP lounge, but settled for buying aluminum bottles of Coors Light -- "a local microbrew," noted Al, grinning.
A brief concern spread through the party when the security guard with the yardstick wandered by. Was their table too tall? "I can lower it," said Al, pointing at the adjustment holes in the table's legs. A fine piece of picnic furniture, indeed.
5. Sara Bareilles herself introduced opener Emily King, lauding her songwriting abilities. After the set, King stood by the merch tents, talking to the organizers of the concert and mingling with fans. One such fan, wearing an "I
"I did!" replied King.
6. When you decide to get married at the (again, beautiful) Chatfield Botanic Gardens, a line in your contract with the venue notifies you that it may host up to five concerts per year, and that if your wedding falls in the summer season, you may be sharing the grounds with over 5,000 concert-goers as well as the concert itself.
There was a wedding the night Sara Bareilles played the Botanic Gardens; there was also a wedding the night before, during Barenaked Ladies. The wedding venue is separated from the concert amphitheater by a stand of trees, a creek and a small hill -- a couple hundred yards at most.
Frankie, a Gardens employee, stood guard at the road leading from the concert parking lot to the wedding barn with its bistro lights. He was there the night before, too. I stood with him at the edge of the road, well out of sight of the proceedings of either event but still within clear earshot of both. One of the bride's sisters was delivering a tearful toast. Sara Bareilles and her seven-piece band were sending Adult Contemporary chart killers across the prairie. I asked Frankie (not his actual name, in case this could somehow get him in trouble) how many times a member of the wedding party had commented on the crystal-clear concert going on right behind them. He said none. He said, in fact, that he'd casually asked the people at the Barenaked Ladies wedding if they'd been affected and that "98 percent" reported that they weren't.
That's a lie. An incredibly well-meaning lie, but definitely a lie. Sara Bareilles cracked a joke or tossed off the word "shit" or something. As the crowd over the hill roared, the bride's sister told the groom he'd better never, ever dream of hurting his new wife.
"I got married right over the road, by the reservoir," Frankie said to me. He told me about his ceremony: He and his wife and the officiant ascended in a hot-air balloon while the guests sat watching. It sounded beautiful. "It rained all afternoon," said Frankie," and no one left. We've been married fourteen years, and every day still feels like an adventure."
7. Here's a dude running a spotlight while -- I promise -- listening to Sara Bareilles for the first and last time in his life. He was in good spirits, as you can see.
8. I, local music nerd, laid down on a blanket and watched a satellite steadily crawl across the sky while Sara Bareilles played the wistful piano ballad "Manhattan." Chatfield Botanic Gardens is a jewel of a venue. Red Rocks is great for well-documented reasons. But it is also, by its nature, hard and taxing. It is sharp edges and precipices. It faces the city and the plains beyond. Chatfield, by contrast, is a gentle hill covered in thick green grass, surrounded by towering deciduous trees and facing the foothills.
There isn't really a comparison between the two. Red Rocks is nearly twice as large and hosts more than ten times as many concerts. But if you are checking off remarkable Colorado concert experiences, Denver Botanic Gardens: Chatfield belongs on your list.
Sara Bareilles has plenty of picnic music. She is an affable host, so thoroughly an underdog Disney character come to life that she might as well have emitted singing woodland creatures as she played. She is also a genius at writing pop music. Most of it is broadly autobiographical, and any time she addresses you in a song, she does so encouragingly. This tour is called the Little Black Dress tour, after a song from the new album, and she wears a black dress, sparkly and cut above the knees but otherwise conservative. Just like you knew she would. She does swear a lot at concerts, but only compared to Snow White. Katy Perry, who was once accused of stealing one of Bareilles's songs, says more profane things in an average fifteen minutes on stage than Bareilles does in an hour and a half. When Bareilles swears, it seems like a sort of nervous spontaneous outburst, which it probably was until right about the time her marketing team started printing sweatshirts that read, "I
She closed with "Brave," and there was an actual shooting star over the mountains. During the encore, she gathered three other vocalists with her around a single mic and they sang a cappella. The wedding, by now in the hands of the DJ, sent '90s party-rap bass lines meekly over the hill.
9. Because it is not a concert venue, Chatfield Botanic Gardens has some logistical issues, such as the pathway to one of two roughly evenly sized parking lots, which involves the creek. A small metal bridge goes across it, capable of accommodating one Colorado-sized person at a time. So when the show ended and 2,000 people went south toward their cars, they formed a leviathan line eight people wide and a hundred yards long. An impatient vanguard began fording the shallow water, but security intervened. The rest of us were stuck with the tiny bridge. Two women tried to cut in and were booed vigorously. They hunched their shoulders and made their way to the back. 10. As the concert ended, there was an accident on 470 eastbound -- the main exit route from the show -- so bad they had to shut down the highway. A Littleton police officer stood in the grass well below the exit, nonchalantly choosing the occasional car and letting them know they were in a turn lane that led to a logjam of indefinite duration. So lackadaisical was his approach that I worry his co-workers out on the highway watched the ambulance speed away and then just milled absently near the wreckage, lights blazing, flares lit.
We took surface streets around the mess, but for all I know there are several hundred Sara Bareilles fans still sitting in their cars on the highway, singing b-sides from Careful Confessions to boost morale and subsisting on small portions of soft cheeses.
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