In my article “My Favorite Venues, Part One” (Issue 164), we explored some of the larger venues on the Front Range of Colorado. While there were occasional jazz acts, these concert locales attracted a largely rock audience. By 1980 I was moving away from rock and more into mainstream jazz and jazz fusion. Live music was becoming so ubiquitous that many restaurants had local jazz bands playing in their lounge on the weekends, generally for free, although some places had a two-drink minimum or a small cover. A good meal followed by some live music made for a great evening of entertainment. We’ll start on some small venues and save the masterpieces for last.
Small Club Venues
There have been so many small club venues that have sprung up over the years and are now defunct that it’s impossible to discuss them all. Many seemed to come and go so quickly.
Simms Landing, a nautical-themed restaurant, had a wonderful piano bar that had a magnificent view of downtown Denver. It was just large enough for a piano, an upright bass and a small drum kit, along with a few tables. Usually, there was just a piano. Under the current ownership, it’s now Simms Steakhouse, and you can now get a $50 steak à la carte in that room instead of live music.
Regas’ Café in Denver had a small jazz club upstairs about the same size as the piano bar at Simms Landing. It was cozy. After a nice meal in the restaurant, you could settle in for an evening of jazz. Rob Mullins was the house act and will always be remembered for his rendition of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy.” He moved to Los Angeles and disappeared for a while, but he’s back, on the internet, and occasionally plays at Dazzle in Denver. Dazzle is a supper club and features a single admission ticket price where you get the music along with your table reservation for dinner from a prix fixe menu.
The Diamond Cabaret is a gentlemen’s club in downtown Denver. In the 1980s, when the witching hour arrived, they sent the girls home and the basement became a jazz club. Guitarist Dale Bruning could often be found there.
The Blue Note on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder was a great jazz club, which brought in big-name acts. It was more commercial than the restaurant clubs, with formal shows and ticketed admission. It had good acoustics.
A few of clubs turned into cultural icons. It’s worth discussing them in some detail.
The Oxford Hotel
Denver’s Lower Downtown, named as it is slightly lower in elevation (in Colorado, up and down are colloquially referred to elevation, not north and south on the map), was a disaster in 1970. If you drove through the area, the most obvious sight was all of the drunks sitting on the sidewalk leaning up against the dilapidated buildings, often holding a bottle. The first redevelopment project was Larimer Square, a one-block area of Larimer Street just north of Speer Boulevard and Cherry Creek. Larimer Square became an area filled with boutique shops and nice restaurants. Its success spurred other redevelopment projects, reaching to the north, one block at a time.
In a few years, the redevelopment of LoDo caught up with the Oxford Hotel. Opening in 1891, it is Denver’s oldest. In 1983, a multiyear renovation of the hotel was completed and it reopened in its still intact Art Deco splendor with live music in the corner room. The cover charge was low. I remember paying $3.00 for jazz acts. That room, which was behind a giant sagging stained-glass window, later became a restaurant. But for a while, there was a wealth of good music there.
We saw saxophonist Richie Cole twice, along with a many local acts. The stained-glass window is no longer visible in current pictures. I suspect it collapsed before it could be saved. The outward bulge at the bottom was about four to five inches and it was in dire straits even then.
Dana Crawford was instrumental in the redevelopment of Larimer Square. She also played a major role in redeveloping the Oxford and has been involved in almost every redevelopment project in the LoDo area. She was nicknamed the Dragon of LoDo as, much like Barry Fey, she had a fierce bite, but a velvety exterior. She got things done, and sometimes, that’s what it takes. For more information on her, check out this Colorado Encyclopedia article. The Crawford Hotel in Union Station is named in her honor.
After 87 years, El Chapultepec is also gone. It was one of my favorite haunts. It consisted of two rooms. One was just large enough for a billiards table and the other one had a bar, a few booths, and a stage the size of a freight pallet. During the early 1980s, redevelopment hadn’t made it this far north and it was a bit seedy during the day with a largely working crowd as patrons. The Pec was known for their green chile, and it was delicioso. There was usually no cover charge, but it was courteous to purchase food.
Somewhere around 7:00 PM, the tables started to turn over and the upwardly mobile would start to show up for live music. The key was to get there exactly at the right time to get one of the few, maybe eight, tables, and bring cash. Then, you waited for musicians to show up, usually sharing a table with others. You never knew who would stop by to jam, but it was always the best jazz available, seven nights a week. Even Bill Clinton showed up there once with his saxophone.
While the neighborhood was a little questionable, in the 1980s you could usually get parking on the street within 100 feet of the front door and safety was never an issue…then. Acoustics, well, about the same as your untreated living room, but being within touching distance of famous musicians made up for it. The redevelopment of the LoDo area and the opening of Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies baseball team were just too much for the tiny venue to handle, and it recently closed. Some blame this on the pandemic, but the owners say it was more related to the large unruly crowds.
For more than 40 years, Freddy Rodriguez Sr. had a standing gig at the Pec. He passed in March 2020 due to complications from COVID-19. He was 89 years old.
The Margarita at Pine Creek
The Margarita at Pine Creek isn’t a concert venue per se, but it is a great hangout. A bit art gallery, a bit restaurant, with some excellent Southwestern cuisine and a lounge downstairs with live Celtic music. It’s a fun place on the Northwest side of Colorado Springs. I spent many an evening there. When I lived on Monument Hill, long before the advent of Uber, I had my car trained to take me there. All I had to do was point it downhill. Now, if I just could have trained it to take me home at the end of the night, I would have been on to something big.
The Margarita opened in 1974 with a mission of hosting local musicians as part of the fine dining experience. Baroque music is featured in the dining room on Saturday nights. The Margarita may be the only restaurant in Colorado Springs with a harpsichord.
In the late 1970s, the lounge downstairs was opened and featured a variety of folk acts. Blarney Pilgrim, a Celtic Dulcimer band, was the mainstay every month and you could hear hoots and hollers coming up the stairs while waiting at the maître d’s station. A variation of that band, Swallowtail, still plays there once a month. You can also catch bluegrass, calypso jazz, Cajun and other eclectic sounds there three times a week.
During the summer, the outdoor patio opens and the music moves outside to add to the whimsical patio atmosphere. The Margarita also hosts the Colorado Farm and Art Market farmer’s market.
They have brought in a new chef in the kitchen since I was last there, so the menu is more seasonal eclectic than Southwestern now, and the lounge is temporarily closed, due to the pandemic affecting staffing levels. During the pandemic, they filmed all of the live music performances for customers to enjoy while dining on takeout.
Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre
Fiddler’s Green seated (or maybe slid is a better word) nearly 18,000. It was originally a big, steep, grassy bowl of an outdoor sculpture for community and symphonic events. Numerous lunchtime concerts were offered for workers in the surrounding office buildings. That wasn’t lost on the concert promoters. In the beginning, there was no stage, and cranes were brought in to handle the tasks of holding the trusses for lights and so on. The stage, sound system (by ListenUp), 7,900 fixed seats, and other infrastructure were added in the mid 1980s.
When the Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre opened for rock concerts in 1988, the number of concerts at Red Rocks dropped from 55 to 21. Barry Fey responded by flying airplanes above the venue trailing banners that read, “I’d rather be at Red Rocks.” Red Rocks recovered.
In 2013, the venue owner, the Museum of Outdoor Art, announced a 15-year partnership with concert promoter AEG Presents: Rocky Mountains to run the Amphitheatre. A major facelift was completed, making the venue what it is today. If Barry Fey saved Red Rocks, then you can easily argue that Chuck Morris, the president and CEO of AEG Presents: Rocky Mountains, did the same for Fiddler’s Green.
Brown Note Productions now handles the sound system configuration for AEG, and it varies by individual concert requirements. Of interest is their use of time delay to sync the speakers throughout the Amphitheatre, a technique used in large venues to ensure that the sound arrives at your ears simultaneously from the stage and from speakers that are farther away, if you’re sitting at a distance from the stage.
Shortly before leaving Colorado, my brother showed up on my doorstep with my marching orders.
Bro: “Pack a bag. We won’t be back here tonight.”
Me: “Where are we going?”
Bro: “I have tickets to Jeff Beck!”
I grabbed my gym bag, some clean skivvies, two sets of earplugs, and two ponchos, and we headed out the door. We checked into the Sheraton Denver Tech Center Hotel, grabbed a quick burger in the fern bar and took the shuttle to Fiddler’s Green. The shuttles had special access. For the cost of a tip for the driver, you got door to door service and went to the front of the line at admissions.
My brother had seats all right; front and center, third row VIP seats. Swag, too. What a concert to remember. The opening act was a local band. The second was none other than that little band from Texas, ZZ Top. It was 2014 and the last year Jeff toured with Tal Wilkenfeld and Vinnie Colaiuta.
It was an awesome performance and crazy loud. A local ordinance limits sound levels to 105 dB at the mixing booth. I had grabbed 20 dB-attenuating ear plugs on the way out the door and we needed every one of those dBs. We needed the ponchos, too. As is typical on a hot summer evening in Colorado, the skies opened and drained on us. Jeff never missed a beat. This concert goes down as one of the best ever.
The only downside all evening was the lack of a shuttle back to the hotel. It was about a one-mile hoof in the dark and having no night vision made it less than fun. The next time I’ll bring a flashlight.
While it took a number of years to figure out what should have been obvious all along, we had finally arrived at the best way to experience live concerts at big venues. Arrive early, check into a hotel close to the venue, leave the car behind, and leave for home at your convenience. In the next article in this series, we polish these principles to perfection.
And remember, support live music. With recording contracts being what they are today, touring is one of the few ways artists have to make a living. Find what works for you regarding your concerns for health and safety, and patronize live music venues, and especially local talent. Coddle and foster those artists to help them thrive. Without them, we audiophiles would have nothing to play on our high-end systems.
Header image of El Chapultepec courtesy of Rocky Mountain PBS/KUVO.