Concert attendance has taken a hit the last couple years as high ticket prices and a soft economy have kept music lovers away from some of the bigger events. You’d never have known it Saturday in the Golden Triangle neighborhood, where the 17th annual Westword Music Showcase drew an estimated 13,000 Denver souls to more than a dozen venues to hear 100+ local and national acts tear it up righteously.
I’ve been to nearly every Westword Music Showcase since I moved to Denver 11 years ago, and despite being biased toward the 2003 installment (when my favorite band, Guided by Voices, delivered a brilliantly boozy set) this was easily the best one yet. The festival sold a couple thousand more tickets than last year, according to Westword music editor Dave Herrera, but wasn’t technically “sold out” (as it was billed in 2010).
Organizers deserve kudos for the smooth layout and mostly uniform flow of people from area to area and venue to venue. Regardless of the unavoidable crowds and bottlenecks, lines never grew too long at outdoor areas (for food or bathrooms) and the overwhelmingly majority of shows ran on schedule.
But this is about music, and the showcase delivered there, too. The Westword fest bills itself as the biggest one-day music event in the region (the biggest in general is The Denver Post’s Underground Music Showcase, which takes place July 21-24 this year) and it backs it up with the number and breadth of acts. Besides the mostly-national bands at the outdoor main stage across from the Denver Art Museum (including Ume, Young the Giant, Murder by Death, the Sword, Yo La Tengo and Chromeo) there are dozens of locals. Avant-jazz at Dazzle, acoustic singer-songwriters at new-to-2011 venue Rooster & Moon, punishing metal at the Rockstar Lounge, booty-shaking hip-hop at City Hall Event Center — it’s all there, as the festival tries mightily to cover every musical base.
The street scene was popping early on, with Vices I Admire supporters standing around the main stage entrance sporting handmade signs advertising the band’s set at Stoney’s. Folks filled a couple “art trucks” along 11th Avenue, and the overflow traffic from Civic Center Park’s nearby PrideFest generally made the city feel more vibrant and alive than usual.
I was ridiculously excited early on to see Ume, an Austin, Texas, trio led by Lauren Larson’s scorching guitar work and wailing vocals. Unfortunately, a late arrival relegated the band to only a couple songs (both of which I missed trying to catch Wheelchair Sports Camp at City Hall) but my friends said they killed. Alas.
A respectable crowd stuck around after Ume for the seething vocals and tumbling beats of hot Denver act the Epilogues, recently featuring the guitar talents of Nate Meese (the Centennial and formerly Meese). Folks were clapping along by the second song, causing lead singer Chris Heckman to comment, “I did not expect to see a crowd this big at 1:30 in the afternoon,” just before his band played “Future Box.”
Chalk up the crowds in part to the band’s Westword cover story last week, and its smart, steady audience cultivation over the years. It was tight stuff, musically, but the sudden gaggle of irritating “Woo!!” girls filling the area pushed me swiftly indoors — though I will say the giant video screen was a smart addition over last year, allowing the audience to connect more with the performers.
The blissfully cool Bar Standard was hosting Accordion Crimes, featuring Denver music veteran Brian Feuchtinger (of Hot IQs, and Uneven Studio, where he records all our Mile Marker audio sessions). This agreeably nerdy dude-trio plays a brand of post-punk that’s lately coming back into style, which prompted my friend Paul to observe on one song, “They sound exactly like (Steve Albini’s) Big Black!” (Which is, obvs, a good thing.) The grinding bass and shouted vocals were unusually crisp, as the band wasn’t using its typically crackling equipment. It made for an oddly easy-on-the-ears set, especially coming from a group that’s so famously anti-melodic.
I spotted nightclub impresario Regas Christou, whose more than half-dozen clubs made up a chunk of the local performance venues, patrolling his handsome City Hall Event Center, looking casual in sneakers, cargo shorts and a blue soccer jersey. He stuck around for a minute as the bluesy, groove-driven trio the Big Motif kicked off its outdoor set there.
Whygee got started a little late inside, the already-ubiquitous smell of weed suddenly stronger at the outset of his sparsely-attended hip-hop set. He’s a strong performer with jazzy, inventive flows, but the songs seemed to peter out as prerecorded samples and loops were overwhelmed by the live bass, keys and drums. Drinking a can of PBR between songs, the Denver MC owned the front of the stage — which was filled with more photographers than spectators.
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