Music Festivals

The Final Titwrench Music Festival Comes to City Park

The Milk Blossoms will play the final edition of Titwrench.
The Milk Blossoms will play the final edition of Titwrench. KT Langley Photography
Back in 2008, cultural maven Sarah Slater and many friends were fed up with Denver’s hetero-male-dominated music scene. They wanted to create a festival that would give women, trans and queer artists a chance to take risks on stage, learn and share skills, and create a safe, non-commercial, all-ages space for multiple genres of music, with an emphasis on the most experimental acts they could find.

They didn’t have aspirations to create something generally respectable, much less conform to polite society. They wanted to do things in their own radical way, so they named their festival Titwrench.

The early organizers — Aja Archuleta, Alex Edgeworth, Alex Locker, Apryl Wheeler, Bree Davies, Daralee Fallin, Piper Rose, Robin Edwards and Val Franz — brought the festival to fruition, and over the years volunteers came and went. Slater has been a constant presence — but far from the only one.

“I was never alone,” she says. “Never!”

More than a decade later, the name Titwrench continues to send shivers down some people’s spines. The festival is no less scandalous than it was when the first one took place in ’09 — maybe more so, in a world that is increasingly squeamish. The “tit” still gets bleeped out on radio spots advertising what is being billed as the last Titwrench music festival. And as Kate Warner, one of this year’s organizers, notes, the name isn’t ringing quite as true as it once did for all people. The word “tit” implies cis women, Warner says, and the way many view gender these days — a view that has become more fluid and nuanced — has evolved rapidly.

Yet thirteen years after Titwrench was founded, much of Denver’s music industry and DIY scene is still dominated by cis, hetero white men who are largely doing their work for profit. All of this year’s festival organizers acknowledge that the demographics and ethics of those who run the event need to change, too; they want a new crew of organizers with a fresh vision to take the Titwrench email list and infrastructure and create something fresh.

If that happens, the new organizers will have big shoes to fill.

The festival, which has long had an anti-capitalist sensibility, has been a highlight on Denver’s underground music calendar for many years, taking place at venues such as the Mercury Cafe, Glob, Dryer Plug Studios and Rhinoceropolis, and even throwing versions in Stockholm, Sweden. Artists including Wheelchair Sports Camp, Molly Growler, Victoria Lundy, Julie Davis of Bluebook, the Corner Girls, RAREBYRD$, Night of Joy and Milch de la Máquina have played over the years. Along the way, Titwrench has built strong ties with the experimental Albuquerque music community and inspired the sister festival Gatas y Vatas, creating a pipeline for artists traveling between the two cities.
click to enlarge Albuquerque-based performance art troupe Milch de la Máquina performing at the 2017 Titwrench festival at Glob. - AARON THACKERAY
Albuquerque-based performance art troupe Milch de la Máquina performing at the 2017 Titwrench festival at Glob.
Aaron Thackeray
The final Titwrench festival was originally scheduled to take place last year at DIME Denver’s 800 Kalamath music facility. But that music school folded in 2020, and Titwrench lost its space. Now, in 2021, the organizers have brokered a deal with the City and County of Denver to hold the final edition on Sunday, October 3, at the City Park Pavilion.

Unlike past years, in which the festival stretched over multiple days with dozens of artists, this year’s event will be a pared-down, one-day affair, running from 4 to 10:30 p.m. It will include sets from Santa Fe-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Nacha Mendez, experimental pop act The Milk Blossoms, Afrofuturist blues artist Machete Mouth, and My Name Is Harriett, as well as a social-movement activation and performance from Sol VidaWorldwide. There will be plenty of workshops, too.

“I'm really excited about the lineup,” says Slater. “But it's definitely bittersweet.... We pour so much time and energy and heart into this, and I do really enjoy the process of organizing festivals, as crazy as it can be. It's really creative, and I like to be able to collaborate. I think everybody that's involved really enjoys the collaborative process and figuring out how to get new people involved based on their strengths.”

After the festival, the Titwrench Collective may continue to host one-off shows in its Surfacing series, as well as workshops and other educational programming in the years to come. For the first time in the collective’s history, it has secured fiscal sponsorship under a nonprofit and grant funding from Denver Arts & Venues’ Music Advancement Fund and the Resist Foundation out of Boston. The infrastructure is there to grow, though Slater is ready to move on.

“But I'm also excited to see what happens next,” she says.

This year’s festival co-organizers include Slater and such longtime participants as Girls Rock Denver co-founder Katie Rothery; sound engineer and musician Warner, of Mirror Fears and Church Fire; and musician Michaela Perez. Ask each of them if this really is the last Titwrench festival, and all will offer some version of “Yeah...but…”

Rothery, who got her start with the festival around 2010, began by setting up the space, operating the door and selling merch. She was moved by the organization’s radical mindset and put her skills with spreadsheets and budgets to use for the group.

“I immediately fell in love with the community that was building Titwrench,” she says. “When you organize Titwrench, it’s a very fluid thing. It's very collaborative. It's very, ‘Let's just throw out all the ideas and see how we can get the ideas to happen.’ And because of who it is that we're inviting to that table to talk about the ideas, it can get really weird.”

That’s the magic of it.

Warner, who first played the festival as Mirror Fears around 2012, started running sound for the event in the following years, learning through trial by fire. Since mastering the board at Titwrench, Warner has become a respected sound engineer.

“The best tenets and qualities of DIY culture are exhibited in Titwrench,” Warner says. “It's also responsible as a festival and it promotes the sort of accountability that I think we all wish would exist in DIY culture. And I think it holds up as kind of an example of how you can do things responsibly and openly and inclusively for other DIY institutions or other festivals.”

More than a decade ago, Perez was introduced to the festival through Fernando Joaquin Guzman, the drummer in her band Gloam. He was playing in multiple bands scheduled for the festival, and when she went, she found her people. At the festival, she risked doing something she had never done before: performed her own songs by herself.

“It’s the only place I've ever played solo, like my own music that I've written, because it just felt like it would actually be received and it was a place that was safe to share things," Perez says. "And it was just among people who I felt would understand and in an atmosphere that wasn't centered around alcohol and drugs, but was really freedom- and expression-oriented.”

Looking back, one of Perez’s favorite memories is from the year Titwrench took place at Dryer Plug. The lineup was dragging way behind schedule, and it was three in the morning. People were still packed in the space.

“That’s dedication,” Perez says.

The duo RAREBYRD$ wrapped the show, and one of the members ripped off her shirt, Perez recalls: “She's just singing about colonialism and really painful things, and it's, like, just beautiful. People are still there. I think that was pretty unique.”

Perez says she’s excited for the final festival, but she’s also mourning the end of an era. If the city had not become so unbearably expensive and challenging for DIY spaces to operate in over the years, she adds, there’s a good chance Titwrench would have continued.

“I think it's a sad story,” she says. “We're getting older. Life is changing and shifting. But it's also a mix of that and a mix of the changing city. And so it's sad. It was crazy. It was a really emotional and crazy experience these last ten years, thirteen years, the changes that Denver went through.”

The final Titwrench festival starts at 4 p.m. Sunday, October 3, at City Park Pavilion. The festival is free, though donations are requested. To register, visit Titwrench online.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris