In my article, “My First Speakers” (Issue 158), I touched on the beginning of promoter Chuck Morris’ career as the booking agent at Tulagi. It’s now time to further develop that theme, as you can’t have a discussion of live music in Colorado without mentioning the names of the late Barry Fey, and Chuck Morris. They are synonymous with the area’s concert promotion, beginning in the 1960s through today. Fey and his company, Feyline, are responsible for over 900 concerts in the Denver metro area. Both Barry and Chuck have been inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.
This series will discuss a few of my favorite venues where I actually attended shows, and occasionally will include some tourist-guide-style information as to how we made it all possible. Although I spent much of my adult life in Colorado, I no longer live there, so this is a good place to start from a historical, sometimes hysterical, perspective.
And yes, there are newer large venues that have been added over the years, such as the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs and the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, but I haven’t attended concerts there, so I won’t be discussing them.
In the Beginning
Barry Fey got his start in 1967 as the booking agent at The Family Dog, a bar in southwest Denver. In its brief 10-month life, Barry booked a lot of the biggest rock acts, including Janis Joplin for the bar’s opening night. The Denver Police Department was known for harassing the place. Denver wasn’t always the liberal city it is today and the DPD didn’t want hippies listening to rock and roll in their city. A bit presumptuous of them don’t you think? When the club closed, it reopened as a gentlemen’s club and then the harassment really began in earnest. Barry moved on to found Feyline.
(Click here for a link to The Family Dog Experience, “a psychedelic rock poster immersive exhibition celebrating Denver’s late ’60s The Family Dog” that will be held June 23 through July 27 at the Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Englewood, Colorado.)
Chuck Morris began his concert promotion career as a booking agent for Tulagi, a bar in Boulder’s University Hill district. In 1973, in partnership with the Feys, Chuck opened his own club, Ebbets Field, in the garden level of the Brooks Towers in downtown Denver. After being in business for only a short time, Denver-area audio dealer ListenUp got the contract for the sound system. Ebbets Field closed in 1977 after bringing many big music and comedy acts to Denver. Chuck went on to join Barry at Feyline as vice president of booking. As they say, the rest is history.
Barry was a big man. When he spoke, the world shook. Never shy, always passionate, often loud, sometimes profane, he got things done. With the arrival of Chuck, there was now someone to clean up the carnage left behind and to smooth over the waters. They made a good team and the area’s music fans benefited from it. For musicians, they turned Denver from a place you flew over to one that you wanted to play.
After more than a decade of studying under his mentor, Chuck left Feyline to start his own company. A few buyouts later, his company became part of Live Nation, the highest-grossing promoter in the United States. In 2008, he left Live Nation to join the Anschutz Entertainment Group, as President and CEO of AEG Live Rocky Mountains. AEG is now the second-highest grossing promoter and the largest in the Rocky Mountain Region.
My love of live music began in the summer of 1970. I saw concerts by John Kay and Steppenwolf and the Kinks at the Masonic Temple in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The facility seats up to 1,190 people, so everyone had a great view of the bands and the atmosphere was cozy. Later that summer, I saw the Rolling Stones at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Of course, the Spectrum felt enormous, seating around 15,000 at that time. It was a large sports arena through and through with matching acoustics, but a lot of concerts were held there over the years. What I remember most about the Stones concert was the six-hour-long, go-nowhere traffic jam on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
And that’s how the locus of events all came together. Barry and Chuck made magic and I was fortunate enough to be there to witness it. The timing was impeccable. You often hear it said that other, older generations were the best, and those arguments have merit, but for a music lover, it couldn’t get any better than this.
To the reader of this series: I encourage you to follow the links. Don’t assume that when you follow one with the same upper text that the link leads to the same place. Many of them lead to rabbit warrens, where you could spend an enormous amount of time. Beware that if you drill down deep enough, you might find Alice. Just don’t be late.
The Denver Coliseum
When I arrived in Colorado in August of 1970, there weren’t many large venues. The Denver Coliseum was home to the National Western Stock Show and two professional sports teams. It was an entirely different animal from the Spectrum. My college dorm mates affectionately referred to it as the Cow Palace (not to be confused with the Cow Palace in San Francisco). The Coliseum was really most at home with rodeos and tractor pulls, and it had a certain smell to it, but that may also have had something to do with the Purina dog food factory down the block. The acoustics weren’t really set up for music concerts, but there wasn’t much of a choice. It wasn’t ideal, but this is one of the places where Barry Fey started his career. And, during the stock shows, there was always at least one custom boot maker with a stall and good prices. Back then, you went to a highbrow party in Denver in your best cowboy boots, a Western shirt (often white) and ironed your jeans.
Denver also had the Auditorium Arena, and a few concerts were held there in the 1960s and early 1970s. but not many. The missing link was Barry Fey. When McNichols Arena opened, the basketball and hockey teams moved there, as did the concerts, and the Auditorium Arena’s arena section was razed. After 24 years, McNichols was also razed to make way for a new football stadium, and the Pepsi Center opened with a great sound system by ListenUp. For many, tearing down McNichols Arena, named for the former mayor, was fitting punishment for his 1971 decision to ban rock concerts at Red Rocks. The Pepsi Center, now Ball Arena, became the host venue for the sports teams and for concerts. Ball Arena is the home of the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Colorado Mammoth professional sports teams.
University of Colorado Balch Fieldhouse and Folsom Field
Of course, we can’t leave the arena concerts discussion without mentioning the concerts Barry Fey helped promote at the University of Colorado. There have been many concerts held at CU, especially Folsom Field. My first exposure was a Fleetwood Mac concert in the Balch Fieldhouse. It was also my first exposure to the laws of fluid mechanics. I had arrived early and got a spot within inches of the gate that would be opened to let the fans in. When the gate finally opened, the crowd surged and pinned me against the chain link fence while they flowed right on by. My hopes of being the first one in for general admission were dashed. Instead, I was one of the last. I pitched a mighty fit, and to my great surprise, I was led to a place where I could sit on the floor directly in front of the stage.
It was 1972 and I watched new band members Christine McVie and Robert Welch begin to change the dynamics of the English blues band to a softer pop version. It was the time of the Future Games album and the sound was fantastic, despite the enormous slap-back echo of the fieldhouse, which was so strong it could come around and slap you on the back of your head. Over the years, major improvements have been made to the Fieldhouse’s acoustics and to the sound system, to the point where it’s really good now. Sound by ListenUp, of course.
As for me, I tired of the hassles of arena concerts – charges for parking, and not enough parking at that, traffic jams, small seats, and unmanageable crowds. I moved on to small club venues and outdoor concerts. It wasn’t until later in life, after much business travel, that I discovered the modern concert convenience of the hotel. Why fight the crowds? Just wait until the next day when it’s convenient to leave. Until then, take the hotel shuttle.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
The City and County of Denver began work on Red Rocks Amphitheatre in 1936. It was dedicated in 1941. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided most of the labor. Originally scheduled to be completed in two years, the amount of rock to be removed actually required five years to complete. Red Rocks was granted National Historic Landmark status in 2015, has nearly perfect acoustics – helped by natural sandstone first-bounce sound-reflection diffusers – and ample bench style seating with legroom. It’s held concerts of all music genres, as well as hosted many other functions. One of the big events, depending on the weather, is the Easter Sunrise Service. It’s not uncommon to see an exceptional sunrise during the service.
Red Rocks wasn’t always held in high regard. During a Jethro Tull concert in 1971, fans without tickets attempted to crash the gates and get in free. The Denver Police Department dispatched 200 officers and their helicopter to quell the riot. The helicopter, known colloquially as the Whirly Pig, was used to toss tear gas into the crowd. Jethro Tull continued to play, but Bill McNichols, the mayor of Denver, and the city council immediately banned rock concerts at Red Rocks. Barry Fey is credited with saving Red Rocks after suing the city four years later and winning. Rock returned to the Rocks in 1976, and The Rocks became Barry’s favorite venue. Barry was now The Rockfather, and the famous Summer of Stars concert series was soon to be born. As for the helicopter with its incredibly bright light, it met with an untimely fate a few years later. The chopper had been used in a very offensive manner by the authorities and a tremendous number of people were glad to see it go.
More recently, neighbors as far as two miles away from Red Rocks had been complaining about the noise levels from electronic dance music concerts. One person claimed the music, heavy on bass, shook the windows of his home at that distance. A truce was negotiated in 2016 and a sound-level policy was implemented. When Red Rocks partnered with Mixhalo to provide high-resolution sound to concertgoers’ phones, where they can listen at their chosen volume level, many EDM fans thought the sound level was being lowered again and erupted in protest. They argued that damaging their hearing is a right that comes with the price of admission.
Despite being hit hard by the pandemic, Red Rocks was the highest-grossing concert venue in the world in 2021, hosting 177 concerts. Attendance for the 2021 season was an amazing 996,570 paid admissions. 2022 promises to be a very busy season again, but the interesting part for me is that I’ve never heard of most of the bands who will be playing. It’s as if many of the regular touring acts haven’t restarted, leaving room for newer acts to step in and fill the calendar. And everyone wants to make the ritualistic exchange. Every artist who plays Red Rocks gets a small red sandstone plaque with their name engraved on it. In return, they leave their autograph on the backstage walls with a Sharpie.
I’ve attended a lot of shows at Red Rocks, but I don’t remember any of them. I don’t think that’s related to the 1970s, but rather to our beverage of choice. It gets hot in the amphitheater in the afternoon due to the blazing Colorado sun beating down on the red sandstone, which absorbs a lot of heat, much like a sauna. So, we devised a strategy to take our own beverages in. Back then, you were allowed bring in a small cooler chest, an acknowledgement of the fact that it got so hot. One that was just big enough to hold a gallon, a brick of blue ice and a few plastic cups was perfect. Of course, security would always stop us, inspect us, select us, detect us, but never reject us. They would always ask what was in the container. Cranberry juice, just like it says on the label. eh? Not. They were Cape Codders – cranberry, lime and vodka. Not to worry, we always had a designated driver. Whomever was in the best shape at the end of the concert was designated as the driver. Life was simpler back then. This clearly wouldn’t work today. We always made it home safely and were never involved in any incident.
The Rainbow Music Hall
The Rainbow Music Hall was one of Barry Fey’s great dreams, and another collaboration with Chuck Morris. Barry boasted there wasn’t a bad seat in the house and that the acoustics were great. ListenUp had once again engineered a phenomenal sound system. Even the ceiling appeared to be full of Klipsch La Scala speakers, a reference standard for commercial sound systems at the time. Though there was limited seating of only 1,400, the venue drew many big-name acts. I had the chance to see the Pretenders, Earl Klugh, Pat Metheny, Sadao Watanabe, Spyro Gyra, and Al Jarreau during the venue’s 10-year run.
In the next part of this series, we’ll explore some of the smaller Colorado venues, both past and present, saving one of the masterpieces for last. 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 with regards to your concerns for health and safety, and patronize them, 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 photo courtesy of Arts and Venues, City and County of Denver.