Denver Local Music Guide
With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. In our second installment on Denver, we look at the city’s multifaceted music scene today. Read our history of Denver music here.
“Denver is like the Galapagos Islands.”
Eli Mishkin said that about the Denver music scene circa 2005. At the time his band, The Hot IQs, was one of the most popular bands in the Denver underground. Mishkin was referring to the sheer diversity of music proliferating in city at that time, a quality that is even more representative of the Denver scene in 2014.
By the mid-2000s most of the music forms that exist in Denver today had come into being. Several new clubs and D.I.Y. venues had popped up around the city, including the 100-capacity Hi-Dive, the slightly larger Larimer Lounge and the now-defunct Climax Lounge. Radio 1190, the University of Colorado’s independent music station, expanded its airwaves to the Denver Metro area, which was followed by the establishment of Colorado Public Radio’s music station Open Air in 2011. A growth in startups and green jobs, along with the progressive relaxation of cannabis laws, added to the already steady flow of lifestyle refugees that have transplanted to Colorado’s front range for decades.
With this new infrastructure in place, the city was prepped for the full flowering that characterizes the Denver music scene today. For the potential visitor to Denver, or for anyone curious about the music coming from the blossoming cultural centre, here a preliminary guide to some primary threads and trends occurring in the city.
Bands like 16 Horsepower, The Denver Gentlemen, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and Hot Rize helped to establish Denver’s reputation for quality roots-based music in the national and international arena.
But the Gothic Americana strain represented by the first three bands named was something of a hermetic movement, with few real imitators. The larger Americana movement in Denver and Colorado grew out of that more national trend dating back to Alan Lomax’s efforts in the middle 20th century to bring an folk and roots-based music into popular culture. In that sense Gothic Americana came out of that same spirit of connecting with a time gone by when music didn’t require electricity or industry.
Current bands and artists that are mining similar territory would include Paper Bird, Patrick Dethlefs, The Haunted Windchimes and the revitalized Hot Rize. With roots in bluegrass, folk and country, these artists are reinterpreting that sound, which Hot Rize’s Nick Forster referred to as making “human-sized music,” in a recent issue of Denver’s Westword magazine.
Though less deeply entrenched in the Americana sound Nathaniel Rateliff is certainly cut from this cloth, and has had some of the greatest success with earning a grassroots national following. More upcoming acts demonstrate the variety of sounds that can be produced with this common root. You Me & Apollo make charming indie pop. Ark Life could be mistaken as a second coming of The Band. The Yawpers party hard with beer-soaked rock and roll. Joseph Childress plays music perfectly descriptive of the remote Rocky Mountain wilderness he grew up around.
The national band that most recently put Denver on the map is The Lumineers. Originally from Brooklyn, the band found an attentive audience and community through playing open mic shows at The Meadowlark Bar. A handful of years later, the band’s heartfelt and simple yet sophisticated songwriting lead to its selling out a weekend at Red Rocks Amphitheater in 2013.
While it’s far from the only sound to be found – perhaps not even a dominant force in the greater scene – Americana in Denver remains vital a presence that speaks much to the culture of the city and state as a whole. In a city binarily influenced by new and old, urban and rural, where creative relationships can be free and informal, the appeal of this music and its communal aspect will continue to be important into the foreseeable future.
You can catch live Americana at more venues than would be worth listing but popular hubs include Swallow Hill, The Laughing Goat, Syntax Physic Opera, Hi-Dive, Mutiny Information Café, Meadowlark Bar, The Skylark and Lion’s Lair.
EDM & Jam Bands
The world of modern Electronic Dance Music, now usually referred to as EDM, and the jam band scene has observed an interesting fusion in Colorado.
Traditional jam bands – from the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers to Phish and Dave Matthews Band – have long had a massive following in Colorado. When Colorado’s String Cheese Incident, initially rooted in the jam world, started introducing a more electronic element, band members Michael Travis and Jason Hann concurrently formed the more dubstep oriented, EOTO. A phenomenon was established; the collaborative and jam-based nature of both music styles were immediately compatible for anyone who could see it. Travis and Hann clearly did.
The most popular EDM band from Colorado at the moment is Pretty Lights, a project that certainly paid its dues in the underground before catching on with the growth of EDM locally and nationally. Boulder-based Big Gigantic has seen a similar level of success.
Recently, underground parties hosted by various groups have been cropping up where one can catch deep house acts and other electronic dance groups of an experimental variety. Such acts include Thug Entrancer, Lone Dancer, Brotherhood of Machines, Dream Hike and Ryan Scannura. Several years ago these parties would have been called raves, but these shows are much smaller, more intimate and professional – despite the gut-pulsing bass.
EDM shows typically go down at 1up Colfax, Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom, and The Other Side, with a big enough following behind major acts to fill up large venues like The Fillmore Auditorium, Ogden Theater, Red Rocks and 1stBank Center. Since the ’90s the Bianchi brothers have been opening venues where the jam band culture was welcome and encouraged. With clubs like Quixote’s True Blue, Sancho’s Broken Arrow and Cervantes’, among the brothers’ efforts, a foothold has long been established for jam bands and other acts suiting that certain party culture this music embraces.
As in many pockets of America, metal has found fertile soil in Denver for decades.
At the moment, the doom, thrash, death metal and grindcore varieties seems to be the most prevalent. Several bands also don’t fit strictly into a subgenre. Some of the most interesting and prominent acts in this realm would include Primitive Man, Call of the Void, Doperunner, Vale of Pnath, The Company of Serpents, Gomorrah, and perhaps the most well-known, Cephalic Carnage.
Recently a community of bars and breweries have sprung up to cater to the metal subculture, and not at all in a cartoonish way, including TRVE and Black Sky Brewery. You can typically catch a good local metal show at Carioca Café (nicknamed Bar Bar by locals due to the lone neon sign that says “Bar”), 7th Circle Music Collective, Three Kings Tavern, Bushwhackers, Hi-Dive, Rhinoceropolis and The Marquis Theater.
Punk can happen anywhere in the world where kids can pick up a guitar and learn three chords, and these days punk has had something of a resurgence in Denver.
On any given night you can go to 7th Circle Music Collective, 3 Kings Tavern, Carioca Café or Mutiny Information Café, and there’s a good chance you’ll see some variety of punk on stage. Some of the most active and interesting punk bands in Denver today are The Potato Pirates, MF Ruckus, and Truckasaurus, Straight Outta Luck, Allout Helter, Jack’s Smirking Revenge, and Blind Man Deaf Boy.
The ska scene has also seen a comeback with a lot of crossover and intermixing with Denver punk. Band like The A-OKs and the legendary Five Iron Frenzy are keeping that music relevant in the modern Denver music scene.
Experimental & Avant-Garde
Denver has enjoyed a robust experimental and avant-garde music scene since the 1970s. Today’s experimental scene is fairly cohesive in the sense that most people making that music are aware of each other and often attend each others’ shows. With venues like Rhinoceropolis, Mutiny Information Café, Deerpile, Glob and Hamsterdam regularly hosting experimental music – and to a lesser extent the Hi-Dive, Larimer Lounge, The Meadowlark and Carioca Café – this relatively small sub-scene remains healthy, if under-appreciated.
At the moment the experimental marching band Itchy-O is the most well-known act outside of very underground circles, much in thanks to its bombastic, unforgettable live shows. The project released its debut full-length, Burn the Navigator, on Alternative Tentacles this year.
Ambient, industrial, noise, musique concrète, free jazz, drone, dark psychedelia, power electronics, breakcore, avant-garde rock and other experimental music genres can be found among Denver the avant-garde. Some of the most active bands that fit under this umbrella include The Inactivists, Keldari Station, Echo Beds, Church Fire, Bollywood Life, Pythian Whispers, Iuengliss, Page 27, Orbit Service, Carrot Eater, Animal/Object, David Mead, Mystic Bummer, and Captain Howdy.
Rock and R&B
This subheading includes psychedelia, garage rock, indie rock, hard rock and anything that doesn’t fit in the above categories.
At just about any venue in the city you can find some form of rock being played, and fortunately for Denver, it’s not often of the generic variety.
Esme Patterson (of the Americana-mentioned Paper Bird) has seen recent success with her indie-minded solo work. Bands like Ancient Elk, The Knew, Ned Garthe Explosion, Tjutjuna, Kissing Party, Colfax Speed Queen, Pale Sun, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, Sunboy, Rubedo, Shady Elders, Inner Oceans, and A Band In Pictures represent various facets of this diverse scene – and the full roster is downright overwhelming. Whether that’s dream pop, post-punk, hard rock, psychedelic rock, garage rock, indie pop, R&B or whatever clumsy genre terms might apply, it can be found playing in any club that hosts live music in Denver.
Until you know where to look, hip-hop is not as easy to find in Denver as other styles.
Once you discover the places where acts like Turner Jackson, Time, Wheelchair Sportscamp, H*Wood X The Elevation, DJ Cavem Moetavation, Two Three, 2MEX, and the Foodchain collective are performing, you can be sure to find quality local hip-hop. Often the venues overlap with venues that host other styles of music but there have been places where one can go and witness the music live in its element.
Prior to moving to Denver in 2009, Sole established himself as a legend of experimental hip-hop, as well as being co-founder of Anticon Records. He’s politically active with causes (notably Occupy Wall Street), has given a TED Talk, and makes regular appearances as a commentator on national television programs.The jazz-inflected hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp has been written up extensively in the Village Voice and other national publications.
The most nationally prominent hip-hop band based in Denver is The Flobots whose 2007 hit single “Handlebars” brought the act to prominence and shined a bit more light on Denver music.
There are other styles of music well-represented in Denver but the strains listed above seem to be the strongest and most vibrant.
Now more than ever Denver seems poised to make a name for itself as major hub for quality music.
As of yet, the bands that have achieved recognition beyond their home have not brought that attention back to Denver. A handful of modest record labels, including Tiny Amp, Planted Tapes, Moon Magnet, Holy Underground, Greater Than Collective and Sailor Records, are keeping the possibility of Denver projects getting a solid release out into the world, but none currently have the financial influence or connections to push a deserving act into the national and international arena.
What does seem apparent about the future of Denver music is that talent and creativity are on an upswing, and certain broad genres of music will continue to develop and flourish. As the national spotlight ever-increases its shed on Colorado, in and outside of music, with increasing numbers of commercially successful bands coming out of Denver, it can be said with confidence that this strong class of artists, straddled across broad musical spectrums, will garner greater recognition in the coming years.
Seventh Circle Music Collective (Blast-O-Mat)
Dryer Plug Studios
Carioca Café (“Bar Bar”)
3 Kings Tavern
The Oriental Theater
Syntax Physic Opera
The 1up Colfax
Mutiny Information Café
The Bluebird Theater
The Gothic Theatre
Moe’s Original Barbecue
Underground Music Showcase
Westword Music Showcase
Denver Noise Fest
Denver Psych Fest
Snowboard On the Block
Tiny Amp Records
Greater Than Collective
Souls in Action
What Are Records
Yucca Mountain Records
Twist & Shout
Black and Read
Albums on the Hill
Mutiny Information Café
Tom Murphy is a native of Aurora, Colorado. He is currently a freelance contributor to Denver-based alternative weekly magazine Westword. He has written for Gutter Bubbles and Cairn, as well as writing about music for The Onion. When not writing or exploring unusual places around Denver, he plays guitar and synth in experimental ambient band Pythian Whispers. He’s currently working on a history of underground music in Colorado, tentatively titled High Plains Underground.
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