By 1990, Duke Rumely had spent a lot of time at rock concerts. Along the way he’d also developed a nasty drug addiction, something he has since worked hard to overcome. Getting clean allowed Duke to finally say no to many of the temptations that seem to go hand in hand with rock, but he just couldn’t give up the music.
Heading into a Grateful Dead show that year, Duke says he saw something that changed the way he thought about concerts: The Wharf Rats.
“At six months sober, I went to go see the Grateful Dead,” says Duke. “I'd seen them fifteen times before, but this time I saw that they had a sober support group called the Wharf Rats.”
The Wharf Rats is a group of sober-living music fans who formed around a mutual love of the Dead and a life free from the grip of addiction. Although its members are often part of twelve-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, the group is not affiliated with any such organization. For people like Duke, the Wharf Rats represent the idea that music is for everyone, even those who abstain from drugs and alcohol.
“It helped make sobriety cool,” says Duke. “I could be a normal, sober guy 28 days a month, then go see the Grateful Dead three days in a row and be able to kind of hang out with the cool kids.”
Thirty years later, the idea of going to shows and enjoying music without getting high is still something Duke says needs to be supported.
“Fast-forward thirty years later, my daughter is texting me from Red Rocks that her friends had all taken ecstasy, and she didn't feel safe, and she wanted to take an Uber home,” says Duke. “I just know that kids are dying at an alarming rate...of drug overdose, and we live in a very pro-drug culture of Colorado, and I was petrified that I was going to get a call that she had taken cocaine with fentanyl in it and overdosed. It is ridiculous that we have no other culture besides the party culture at music festivals, concerts and sporting events when 68,000 people died of drug overdose last year and 70,000 died in 2017.”
Out of that experience, Duke and his daughter, Jordan Rumely, birthed Sober AF Entertainment, a nonprofit providing sober spaces at music festivals, concerts and sporting events — anywhere that young people and mood-altering substances collide.
“It's kind of a crazy idea,” says Duke. “Nobody's out there doing it. There's no money in abstinence, per se. Every music festival is sponsored by Bud Light; you go to Coors Field. There's just a lot ingrained.”
Jordan, a senior at Colorado State University, says she doesn’t struggle with addiction, but having grown up with a father who is in recovery, she has a unique perspective on drug and alcohol culture. She says partying, and the alcohol and drugs that come with it, is expected of college-age kids.
“I am kind of in the age range where kids are experimenting with drugs and kind of finding their limit with alcohol,” says Jordan. “I think it's kind of difficult sometimes with the social pressures of being an 18-to-21-year-old. I think a lot of the time we think we have to. There's such a social pressure to drink or pre-game.”
That behavior, she says, inevitably leads to other behaviors that can take the fun out of going to shows or games.
“A lot of times someone would not be okay in those situations and drink too much,” says Jordan, “or at a concert start freaking out because they're on some crazy drug. It kind of ruins that event or experience, and it kind of just kept happening and got frustrating, and I didn't want to participate in that all the time.”
Sober AF, Jordan says, is as much about inclusion as it is about safety. People who don’t want to party don’t always feel welcome.
“I'm 21,” says Jordan. “I go out to the bars. I'm not in recovery. It's not really about that for me; it's just about having a place where me and my friends can just hang out and go to a fun football game or go to a fun concert and there's not people smoking pot around you, there's not people throwing up in a bush next to you. It's just kind of having a place where you know everyone is in that sober mind. It just kind of gives you a peace of mind. I know my friends are here and we're safe in this space, and we're not going to have to deal with all the repercussions of having people drinking a lot around you or using any type of drugs around you.”
Being the sober one all the time, she adds, can also be exhausting.
“I have a big group of friends, so it's just hard making sure everyone else is okay,” says Jordan. “I think that's why I really like the idea of a sober section: not because you have to, but because you maybe want to be in a safe place where there are no drunk people ruining your time.”
Drug- and alcohol-free events like Sober AF’s tailgate parties offer an out, she says, to people who don’t want to party but also don’t want to be treated like "the sober one."
“It's interesting,” Jordan says. “It's almost so ingrained in their mind that it's hard to think of like, 'Oh yeah, I can do that without drinking beforehand.' I was bringing one of my friends to a Rockies game, and they were like, 'Oh, yeah, we don't have to pre-game for the tailgate.' Even though they knew it was a sober tailgate, it took them a second to remember, 'Oh, yeah, we don't have to do that.'”
Oddly enough, Sober AF is designed in part to mimic activities endemic to partying. The group’s sober tailgate parties give people who aren’t drinking something to do while everyone else imbibes.
“Sobriety is awkward,” says Duke. “There’s ten minutes of awkwardness that you need to push through, and once you get past that, it's not such a big deal. That's what we've learned. We need to have cornhole or whiffle ball going on, or we need to have a TV that's got the sports games on. How to get through to the other side of that is definitely talking about it, figuring out a plan B besides drugs and alcohol.”
The fast-approaching holiday season will be a big time for Sober AF, still in its first year of operation. The organization is hosting a sober tailgate party for an Avs game inside the Pepsi Center, with food, non-alcoholic drinks, and a bonus of discounted seats for $23. After the game, between the Avalanche and the Winnipeg Jets, the Sober AF crew will head to the Decadence New Year's party at the Colorado Convention Center, where it will host a sober support table until 3 a.m.
While most of the 52 events Sober AF has hosted have been sporting events, Duke says the organization is designed to work for any gathering. It’s something he’d like to see grow, and the nonprofit’s website has tools to help.
“We've added software so that anyone, anywhere can host their own sober tailgate,” he says. “We’ll be a national sober meetup so people can go to our website, put in the venue where they want to throw a sober tailgate at or before, and we help to promote it.”
Despite his own struggles with addiction, Duke makes it clear that he isn’t out to kick sand on anyone’s party plans. He’s less interested in pushing abstinence with Sober AF than with simply providing options for those who choose it.
“We're really more just to support anyone who's afraid they're going to feel like the only ones there not on drugs or alcohol,” he says. “We're more 'Come find a sober wingman and charge up your battery' than anything else. 'You're not the only one. There's a bunch of us here who are sober.’ Sometimes that's all you need.”
Jordan says that whether a person is in recovery or even if they drink socially, a Sober AF event can be a much-needed calm within the storm.
“You've got free food, you've got a place to hang out, people to talk to, and no one's going to be throwing up on your shoes.”
For more information on Sober AF events and the festivals, concerts, colleges and sporting events that host them, visit soberafe.com.
Correction, December 11, 2019: A quote in an earlier version of this story included an incorrect statistic regarding the number of youth who died from drug overdoses each year. We have removed that statistic.
Update, December 18, 2019: We have updated this story with an additional quote from Duke Rumely.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.