DebateFest 2012: The Lumineers, Nathaniel Rateliff, Zach Heckendorf at DU (photos, review, video) - Reverb

DebateFest 2012: The Lumineers, Nathaniel Rateliff, Zach Heckendorf at DU (photos, review, video)

It was a tailgate without a football game, a keg party without a keg.

An estimated 5,000 University of Denver students, faculty and select others spent a lazy afternoon roaming Carnegie Green for “DebateFest” in the hours before the first presidential debate a few blocks north.

The decidedly sober college party of food trucks, free swag and top-notch local rock bands was loaned political legitimacy by the 50 tents pitching “serious” issues — women’s rights, immigration – from the corner of the green.

Michael Tsiolis, a 19-year-old DU marketing major, stood in front of University Hall watching Chris Matthews broadcast a live edition of MSNBC’s “Hardball.” He held a large “FIRE OBAMA” sign in one hand and a pro-choice cardboard fan in the other.

“I collect the signs,” Tsiolis said, adding that he falls more on the Libertarian side than anything else. “It’s a party.”

The hot dog-eating contest (hey, it’s college, man), sponsored by DU favorite Mustard’s Last Stand, proved a popular — if head-scratching — draw. Where was the presidential debate going on, again?

“I’ve seen a lot of different perspectives today,” said 17-year-old Grandview High School student Morgan English, attending the event as part of DU’s preps leadership program. “But it hasn’t changed my mind about anything.”

Recent Cherry Creek High School grad Zach Heckendorf kicked off the afternoon with a set of breezy pop-folk, serenading the seated, scattered crowd just before 4 p.m.

Heckendorf strayed from overtly political messages during his set, though hinted at partisanship in an interview immediately after receiving a backstage handshake from Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“I am voting,” Heckendorf said. “I’m not going to say who for, but you can guess who a 19-year-old musician would vote for, and you’d probably be right.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, seated comfortably on a bale of hay toward the back of the crowd, noted that DebateFest was smartly capitalizing on the massive publicity bump that DU — and Denver in general — was receiving from the first of the 2012 presidential debates.

“I feel this campus bursting with excitement,” he said. “All 50 million people seeing these events today have been seeing DU in the background.”

Governor Hickenlooper boasted that the whole world’s eyes were on Denver, and he seemed to relish comparing the city’s music scene to a cross between Austin, Nashville and Memphis before Denver (and Hick) favorite Nathaniel Rateliff took the stage.

Rateliff’s performance, which probably increased the credibility of the whole event, lacked the pop accessibility of Heckendorf and the Lumineers later on.

The headlining set by the Lumineers closed DebateFest during the 5 o’clock hour, when the indie-folk group delivered an energetic finale to a rapturous crowd. Crowd favorites “Submarines” and “Ho Hey” were instant sing-alongs, and a fitting cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” wound down the day with a decidedly Western feel.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz sang, a breeze whipping at his back, as if on cue, a sea of carefree co-eds grooving before him.

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John Hendrickson is the managing editor of Reverb and a multimedia journalist at The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter, if that’s what you’re into.

John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and Features blogs editor for The Denver Post. Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.

Seth McConnell is a member of YourHub at The Denver Post and a new contributor to Reverb.

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