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The Death of the Indie Clubs in Denver

Denver was a cow-town fly-over city. Then a crap ton of bands got signed, and then some more, and then we all fought each other and got all stupid and hatey. In the meantime, all the big venue management folks just kept on making money. Then, one fateful day, the Gothic Theatre — the stalwart-local-band-dreamy-safe-haven-and-cornerstone-of-big-pants-defiance-forged-on-linchpins-of-hope-and-cheap-beer — was suddenly “under contract to AEG” (Anschutz Entertainment Group; basically the Google of facilities management). (All images: ©Stu Kennedy)

“I love you, but I am no longer in love with you, Sparky,” would be the analogy.

In real-life terms, that means a decimated count of live local shows, a greatly-increased cost for locals to book there, and, as one member of a local band of the gig-appropriate size said, “It’s a pain in the ass now.” Which I guess is a symptom of the cow leaving the town.

First, I’m going to give a completely blatant and unadulterated plug to the Oriental Theatre for their unwavering and completely unknowing drive to be a reality show between “Oddities” and “Austin City Limits,” with a teaspoon of “The Decline of Western Civilization” tossed in. Their October schedule includes the incredibly influential gothic rock band Christian Death, a big ol’ fall harvest of independent movies, some Drum and Dance, the Cowtown Jazz Festival, a book launch party, and a bunch of local Denver bands, closing out the month with Manhattan Transfer and Tigran Hamasyan. Plus they have the best PBR-themed decorations behind the bar.

Soda Jerk is technically independent, but they have grown into a monster with several venues under their ownership (Marquis Theatre, Black Sheep, Summit Music Hall and Moon Room) and the ability to book shows basically anywhere else, including the new EXDO Event Center, which (this is the idea, anyways) can go head-to-head with The Fillmore and 1STBANK Center. They also brought the massive two-day music festival Riot Fest to Colorado this summer, which took place in, of all places, the hustling mud pit of Byers. (If you have a Speak and Spell, try to land it on the cow for the proper sound effect.) Probably the very last day you could call Soda Jerk an independent was the day before they lured Live Nation’s VP of Booking, Peter Ore, over to their executive roster. This is basically the equivalent of the other team’s quarterback joining your side mid-game. Yes, I just used a sports metaphor; there’s a first time for everything. All this being said, Soda Jerk is still fairly friendly to the bands in the local scene.

The Larimer Lounge has always been weird and awesome, but now it’s as if they found a nice little niche where they can grab more low- to mid-level nationals as well as still providing a place for the home-grown acts. It’s also not nearly as scary as it used to be.

Swallow Hill Music is in the folksy acoustic realm and is just rock solid in the ebb and flow of the big business ticket-grab ocean — which is probably due to Swallow Hill being one of the largest non-profits in the U.S., serving more than 100,000 people through its concert, school and outreach programming. Swallow Hill is in its 33rd year, and I’m pretty sure nobody in that organization actually cares what the heck is going on with the Denver venue wars because in 33 more years they know they will still be there.

Here’s a venue I’m throwing under the bus for cautionary-tale reasons. In 1991 I saw my buddy play at a place called Gold Rush or something. Then it closed. Then someone bought it and it opened under a different name. Then . . . repeat the last two sentences until you’re sputtering and confused. For the latest folly it was given the name “Grizzly Rock” and, for whatever it’s worth, the owners lasted 13 months. There are some locations that will never work, no matter how hard you try or how hard your realtor sells you on it. I’m convinced you couldn’t even open “Randy’s Dollar Beer!” on that site and succeed. The city should make it a prairie dog refuge and petting zoo.

Obviously the number of places that have live music in Denver is Yellow-Pages worthy, but there are very few that have that undeniable magic, whether you are onstage or off. It’s one thing to play a gig at someplace like the Gothic, that does have that indescribable magic from almost 100 years of history, and performing in a place that will be a prairie dog petting zoo in 13 months. Really, as with anything in this country, it’s the consumers who drive the directions of legitimate businesses. So hopefully the musical fan base in Denver will keep supporting local music and art and then ramp it up ten notches so, when Miley Cyrus is on some post-14th-rehab tour in her early thirties, a local show doesn’t get bumped because more people would like to see cardboard wrecking ball (and her nice props) on stage than a strong local lineup.

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