The Underground Music Showcase, which launched in 2001 and returns to Broadway this weekend, had humble origins.
“Mary Robertson, who worked at the Gothic Theatre at the time, told me this story about this patron who came up to her really confrontationally and said, ‘Why hasn't there been a good Colorado band since Big Head Todd & the Monsters?’" recalls John Moore, a journalist, playwright and organizer who has done as much for Denver’s arts scene as anybody in town. "Her answer was, 'There’ve been dozens. You just haven’t heard about them.’ When the idea came up about a showcase of local bands, it was to change that.”
While Westword, which had already been covering the local scene for over two decades, launched the Westword Music Showcase in 1995, the Denver Post, Moore's employer at the time, had no such event highlighting local music. Moore and Ricardo Baca, a Post colleague on the music beat, set out to change that with a showcase of the Post's own.
The goal was to recruit a handful of the best unknown Denver bands to play for one night; the following day, they would each be featured in the paper.
“If you're a person interested at all in the local music scene, here's an opportunity for you to get a good sample," says Moore. "The pride factor in it was that if we just put an all-local lineup together, that people will come out and see them, and that we didn't need a Death Cab for Cutie or some sort of national band as a headliner in order for people to come out and see local bands.”
The slogan of the festival, “The UMS Is Love,” has guided the event over the years.
Baca, who later became editor of the Post's now-defunct Cannabist, then left the publication and founded Grasslands, a cannabis company marketing firm, five years ago, prides himself and those who came after him on turning the single-night affair into one of Denver’s largest music festivals. Styling UMS after SXSW, Baca recruited national talent and expanded the number of venues involved. He handed off the festival-director position to collaborator Kendall Smith, and in 2018, the Denver Post sold UMS to events promoter Two Parts.
“Starting the UMS with John will always be one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” says Baca. “Music festivals should be about discovery, and I really feel that what we built was a vehicle for discovery. And what Kendall took on from me really moved it forward and amplified it, and what Two Parts has done with the festival generally has been really smart and thoughtful."
While Baca has largely moved on from keeping up with emerging musicians in Denver, he’s thrilled to show up and discover new talent that he’s never heard before.
“I’m a fan,” he says. “I can’t wait to get to South Broadway on Friday.”
The Underground Music Showcase, canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, spent last summer boosting local artists through livestreams, championing local musicians while still trying to make its mark. When the UMS announced that it would be returning in person the last weekend of August 2021, there was a sense that the pandemic was coming to an end. After all, vaccines were widely available and COVID cases were down.
Then Delta hit, and the festival had to make some last-minute calculations, including mandating proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event. The announcement of these guidelines was made minutes before AEG Presents announced that it would be requiring full vaccination at all venues starting October 1. The live-music industry, desperate to avoid another round of shutdowns, had adopted stricter safety policies than either Governor Jared Polis or Mayor Michael Hancock have so far.
And so the show will go on.
This year’s UMS headliners include Pinegrove, Remi Wolf, Allah-Las, Shannon & the Clams, Neil Frances, DāM-FunK, Yoke Lore, Sofía Valdés, Kamauu, Mike, Thee Sacred Souls and Ekkstacy.
The festival's highlight has always been the impressive mix of local talent, which this year includes bands such as A-Mac & the Height, Bud Bronson and the Good Timers, CRL CRRLL, DespAIR Jordan, Float Like a Buffalo, the Grand Alliance, iZCALLi, Lolita, Ramakhandra, Schama Noel, Slow Caves, the Still Tide, Toussaint Lorenz, Venus Cruz & Super Distant Boyfriend, Wildermiss and YaSi.
Local businesses are getting in on the action, too. UMS weekends are almost always steamy ones, and Hope Tank, a South Broadway gift shop that aims to give back to the community and amplify noble causes around town, will be selling festival care packages. In the mix: portable AC units you can wrap around your neck that will keep you cool no matter how hot things get, face and body wipes, fans, small purses and various glowing tchotchkes, to make sure you have the time of your life.
And Baca and Moore will be returning for the fun, even throwing a happy-hour Founders Party, where the public is invited for drinks and shmoozing at Grasslands, 100 Santa Fe Drive. While the event — and booze — is free, guests are asked to bring wads of cash to donate to the Colorado Freedom of Information Council, a nonpartisan group that fights for transparency in state and local governments and helps journalists and the public secure access to public records.
The event is aimed to connect all of the new energy at UMS with its DIY roots.
“Twenty years later, the 21st UMS is coming up. I just look at it with awe and humility and wonder,” says Moore. “If anything, I think we just set up a little domino and knocked it over. And it grew from there, mostly because of Ricardo Baca's vision. He turned it into having the potential that it realizes today.”
Things may get a little weepy at the Founders Party, Baca and Moore caution.
"Ricardo and I have been known to get very sloppy at the end of the night and very sentimental, teary-eyed, like, 'We did this,'" says Moore. "We're mushy people."
Find the full UMS schedule by visiting the UMS online. The Founders Party runs from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, August 28, at Grasslands, 100 Santa Fe Drive. For more information, go the Founders Party Facebook page.