Opinion: As So Many Roads Closes Again, Do Denver Deadheads Deserve Better? | Westword

As So Many Roads Closes — Again — Do Denver Deadheads Deserve Better?

With the loss of Sancho's Broken Arrow and more trouble for its sister bar, one person is looking for partners to create a new place for fans of the Grateful Dead to gather.
So Many Roads has been ordered to close for a second time due to liquor license violations.
So Many Roads has been ordered to close for a second time due to liquor license violations. So Many Roads Museum & Brewery
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The uninitiated would probably be surprised to learn that appreciating grief is perhaps the most important part of the Deadhead experience. The Grateful Dead and their associated acts over the years, after all, are held up as something of a caricature of the worst of the excesses you can only achieve when drugs, music and the free spirits of the flower children mix in lively parking lots to ebullient, noodling guitar tones. Who’s grieving at one of these shows?

But everything about Grateful Dead music, and its scene, is suffused with death. There’s the name, of course, taken from ancient folktales about heroes who earn the favor of the spirits whose corpses they laid to rest. Or the songbook: Late lyricists Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, the Colorado boarding school roommate of rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, regularly blurred the line between the sacred and profane, with references to drunks, gamblers, soldiers and bootleggers facing spiritual reckonings as they, too, slowly fade away.

And death remains one of the band’s central players. Four of the Grateful Dead’s keyboardists died tragically and suddenly — and the “Days Between” Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1, and the August 9 anniversary of his death are annually commemorated by Deadheads still mourning the band’s lead guitarist 28 years after he shuffled off this mortal coil. That’s not to mention all the skeletons, roses and skulls that are core to the Dead’s legendary iconography. Every Deadhead dances with death, at least momentarily, every time any of the thousands of surviving Grateful Dead cover acts play a show just about anywhere.

Grief is what I felt upon word that So Many Roads Brewery, a now-infamous Deadhead venue, would be closing, again, on October 1 after yet another Denver liquor law violation — this time for serving alcohol to a minor. Grief is what I felt when the same venue shuttered for thirty days last year for similar bad behavior.
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Various violations led to the closure of Sancho's Broken Arrow in 2022.
Molly Martin
I also felt grief after its sister bar, Sancho’s Broken Arrow, closed permanently last year because of drug dealing behind the bar — though I stopped visiting what was once a favorite haunt in the wake of serious sexual assault allegations against Jay Bianchi, its then-owner, who is now the very bartender at issue in the most recent complaint against So Many Roads.

As sticky, sordid and liquor-soaked as these places can be, for Deadheads, losing them is akin to losing a church — a place to commune with friends and strangers united in devotion to Dead culture. The closure of any regular bar hurts as bad as the loss of a loved one, of course, but Dead-themed venues provide a home for the otherwise wayward fellow travelers of the broader jam-band scene. Folks who might not fit in anywhere else always belonged at places like So Many Roads.

To wit: There was always a bar stool waiting for me at Sancho’s many years ago when I was a buttoned-up staffer in the governor’s office looking for a place to drink beyond the prying eyes of Denver’s chattering class (who didn’t care for me all that much). Nobody at the bar ever asked why I was wearing a suit and tie; I earned my place by throwing plenty of money into the jukebox for all to enjoy.

I miss those nights, and I grieve alongside the thousands of Heads and other misfits haphazardly tossed to the four winds as So Many Roads shutters for at least the next ninety days — and, perhaps, forever. Anger slithers through the sadness, though, and I’m reminded of a line Weir threw onto the last verse of an emotional show-closing rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” at a RatDog concert on August 9, 1995 — the day Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack at 53: “Just seems like such a damn waste.”
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Some of the Dead memorabilia that once hung inside Sancho's Broken Arrow.
Molly Martin
Unlike the death of a friend, loved one or beloved guitar player, what’s happening to So Many Roads is not inevitable. It is, point blank, the result of repeated unforced errors, sloppiness and a finger-in-the-air flouting of Colorado’s generous liquor laws. It is such a damn waste.

In the bar business, we sell good times and communion, sure. But we do that by way of highly addictive substances that are linked to violence, car crashes and, often, ruinous health problems and early graves. For that, we’re expected to follow a handful of simple, straightforward rules: ID your customers. Cut off those who get overcooked. Get people safe rides home. Don’t let fights happen. And, by all means necessary, do not let anybody sell drugs at your bar — least of all your bartenders. Thousands of bars and hundreds of thousands of bar employees manage to abide by Colorado’s liquor code service after service, night after night.

That So Many Roads has failed to clear this incredibly low bar — mere months after a very gracious settlement with the City of Denver for the exact same patterns of misbehavior — demonstrates a wanton disregard for the thousands of patrons who crowd into the place, week after week. It constitutes a betrayal of the core ethos of the Dead scene. You don’t make these mistakes, time and time again, unless you care more about money than community.

I recognize firsthand how difficult it can be to run a small business in a highly regulated industry. Literally five minutes before I sat down to write this, my bar’s ice machine sputtered out because of a fried electromechanical relay. Hours ago, my bar manager told me that one of our star bartenders is threatening to quit because we had to talk to her about some of her behavior behind the pine. Next week, I’m slated to talk to my local licensing authority about folks we’ve had to 86 — just minutes after I write a big check to renew our liquor license. All the while, our 120-year-old building is probably collapsing into an underground river, albeit slowly. Anybody in this business will tell you, with a groan, “It’s always something.”

You might be tempted to forgive So Many Roads and its operators for their many transgressions, given the bacchanalia you’d expect out of a scene tied to a band Garcia once said was “one of the last run-off-and-join-the-circus things.”

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Many good times were had at Sancho's Broken Arrow.
Molly Martin
I’m here to tell you that as much as freewheelin’, free-lovin’ fun-timin’ might be part of the appeal of these bands, bars and venues, it is patently not what makes them built to last. In their 1965-1995 run, the Grateful Dead played more than 2,300 shows. Bob Weir, who may be the most recorded guitarist in history, has toured very nearly every year since Garcia died — with Dead and Company’s recent “final tour” selling 845,000 tickets over 28 shows. That takes a herculean amount of discipline and dedication to the craft.

Discipline is the motivating principle behind the denizens of Shakedown Street, the many talented hawkers and hucksters formally unaffiliated with the band who bring the circus to town before each show, selling their own interpretations of the Dead’s vast repertoire and iconography by way of T-shirts, posters and stickers — often to fund nothing more than their way to the next concert. Discipline is why a dear friend was able to leave a job at Tesla, start a business selling Dead apparel, and buy a home for his wife and two daughters. Discipline is why the Berkeley neighborhood’s Grateful Gnome Sandwich Shoppe & Brewery and Dougherty’s Neighborhood Pub on South Broadway, both Dead-themed, can keep their doors open.

The folks behind So Many Roads, Sancho’s, Be On Key Psychedelic Ripple, Quixote’s True Blue and the other defunct and seemingly doomed venues linked to their ownership and management over the years deserve credit for creating magical spaces, singularly suspended in place and time, that felt like Jerry’s guitar licks sound. That’s why it pains me to write, for the sake of all of us who count on these places, that I hope So Many Roads won’t be able to reopen after its ninety-day suspension. Its operators haven’t earned the privilege. Still, Deadheads deserve a world-class Grateful Dead-inspired venue in Denver, a stronghold for the scene if ever there was one.
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Skyler McKinley hopes So Many Roads doesn't reopen because Denver deserves better.
Kyle Harris
Nearly three decades after we all first started grieving Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead community remains resilient and may even be more vibrant than ever. That’s because this community is second to none at channeling our grief into something new. As we grieve So Many Roads, remember that we should demand a disciplined replacement.

I’m up for the challenge, and I’m looking for partners. Don’t be a stranger if you’re struck by the same muse. I’m reminded again of that same RatDog show the day Jerry died, as Weir belted out verses of “Throwing Stones” through tears. “The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own.”
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