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How Denver’s Live Music Scene Exploded

Jesse Will

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In our new series, we look at eight cities where live music has exploded — from legendary hubs like New Orleans and Nashville and Chicago, to rising hot spots like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Portland, Maine. The first city we’re spotlighting: Denver, where nearby Red Rocks is only the beginning of the rising music destination.

Perhaps no performer has embodied Denver’s past decade more than native Nathaniel Rateliff; at its start, he was playing in a basement bar to 25 people; by its end, he had sold out multi-night stints at Red Rocks. “The interesting thing about Denver is that the music community here is always supportive as artists grow and change,” says Rateliff. “They’re here to listen.”

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Denver is in the midst of a huge live-music boom. By some counts, it now has more venues than Austin; one recent study found residents bought more secondary-market tickets than anywhere else. The city’s growing reputation as the “Amsterdam of the West” adds to the festive vibe; recreational cannabis has been legal since 2014, while psilocybin mushrooms were decriminalized last year. “A lot has changed Denver,” says Paul Epstein, owner of the music shop Twist and Shout Records. “The music scene is just a microcosm of the growth and change here.”

Music’s Natural Wonder

Red Rocks is not only Colorado’s greatest venue, it’s one of the best in the world. Twin 300-foot sandstone monoliths (once part of the ocean’s floor) create an unparalleled natural amphitheater 15 miles from the city. The Beatles famously played to a not-sold-out-crowd in 1964; Jimi Hendrix and the Dead followed. Red Rocks wasn’t widely known until 1983, when Bono and U2 leveraged fog and rain for the live, high-drama Under a Blood Red Sky LP. “That put Red Rocks on the map — and U2 on the map, too,” says promoter Don Strasburg. The city-owned, open-air venue is experiencing a boom in demand: In 2010, there were 73 concerts on the books; in 2019, there were more than 170.

Mission Impossible

The Mission Ballroom, which opened last year, is full of innovations. With a seating plan inspired by Red Rocks, it has a stage that moves on tracks; it’s able to change its floor size depending on how big a show is. Jeff Tweedy recently praised the Mission: “Red Rocks is pretty and everything, but . . . we played in a snowstorm there one time. Fuck that shit!”

The Classic

The Bluebird Theater has what Denver does best: The historic venue (in this case, a 1914 movie house) is big enough to hear a roar, but small enough to feel intimate. This GA, 500-capacity room is where to catch artists about to break big, like Oasis in 1995 or Kurt Vile in 2013.

Time Trip

Cervantes’ Masterpiece is a 1930s-era jazz hall where Duke Ellington and other greats once swung; the independent, 900-capacity venue now hosts dingy dancefests for everything from bluegrass to funk to EDM. Sweat it out to Leftover Salmon jams or a James Murphy DJ set.

Rocky Mountain High

The Kind Love dispensary is open late, seven days a week. It’s known for its friendly “budtenders” and an extensive menu of edibles. Try a pre-rolled Alien Rock Candy joint ($10), an indica strain with a THC level around 30 percent. One puff might be enough.

Best Record Store

Twist and Shout is a throwback vinyl spot is full of rarities like the Beatles “Butcher” LP, old-school listening stations, and short-notice performances from big names like Elvis Costello and local heroes the Lumineers

A Dive for Deadheads

Sancho’s Broken Arrow is a Steal Your Face-bedecked saloon. Bring your best John Mayer-vs.-Jerry Garcia take and debate it with similarly lost minds over local brews.

The Cred-Stamping Stage

The Hi-Dive is the launchpad for everything from punk to alt-country outfits; Rateliff gained fame for his semi-regular performances there. Says Tennis frontwoman Alaina Moore of the 200-capacity room: “Along with Larimer Lounge, it’s where bands are born. You can watch the scene shift and evolve in real time.”

Labor Day With Trey

Every year since 2011, Phish have closed out the summer with a multi-night run far from home, at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Says bassist Mike Gordon: “Denver makes a lot of sense to me: the end of summer bash taking place in the wild West, near ferocious mountains and prairie breezes, in a venue by a bison reserve that sounds pristine with it’s lack of an echoey roof, but with bleachers that create nice reflections. I don’t know all the reasons, but I find Denver so enchanting, the way the sizzling sun cuts through that desert gust as I walk down Larimer Street, all hipstered up with coffee shops that make their own nutmilks and brulée their own grapefruits … Denver has become such a hub to see human creativity in action.”

Festival Destination: Telluride, Colorado

In Telluride, the air is crisp, the views are as mind-altering as the nearly 9,000-foot altitude, and you’re far removed from everywhere. (Denver, for example, is six hours away.) And that’s the point. The San Juan Mountain town (population 2,400) has become an unlikely music-festival destination, with huge events all summer that include June’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival (Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monáe recently headlined) and August’s Telluride Blues & Brews Festival (Robert Plant, Willie Nelson, and Sharon Jones have played in the sweeping alpine setting). If you don’t want to camp, try for one of the 26 rooms at the historic New Sheridan Hotel. Twist & Shout’s Paul Epstein has an idea why Telluride has taken off: “You’re in this pristine box canyon, and it’s just the most amazing place to see music.”

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