PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Like pretty much every state in the US, Colorado loves its festivals, and it’s world famous for its music festivals. There’s definitely something special about a music festival high and deep in the Rocky Mountains. Be it Aspen, Telluride, or Vail, mountain music fests have the automatic advantage of being located in a setting of majestic beauty, making the events a real draw for crowds looking to enjoy the crisp mountain air and dramatic scenery as well as whatever entertainment said festival has to offer.
So it’s little wonder that the mountain community of Fairplay wanted in on the action. As a financial lure, festivals of any stripe offer a quick infusion of out-of-town cash and tourism opportunities into the local economy, and help cement a town’s reputation as a worthwhile destination in the future. The problem Fairplay faces is that it’s hardly a vacation hotspot in its natural state. A small, sleepy town in the vast open valley of Park County (an area roughly the size of Delaware), it doesn’t have the one key ingredient critical to big mountain bucks: a ski resort. Sure, it boasts a preserved Old West ghost town populated by resident reenactment actors, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that pays for new municipal buildings. Fairplay’s main lure as a destination is its close proximity to Breckenridge, one of Colorado’s premier ski resorts and mountain towns, a mere 25 miles away over Hoosier Pass. But a festival—especially a music festival—offers to temporarily bring in people from all over the country to appreciate the area’s natural charms while hopefully dropping a buck or two.
In its quest to turn a town of 600 into a crowd of 6,000 for a weekend, Fairplay looked to one of its own—Matt Fecher, one-time resident and co-founder of the Midwest Music Summit in Indianapolis, Indiana. Luckily for the town, Fecher was excited by the challenge of using his contacts and resources and spearheading the creation of a music festival in his old backyard out of whole cloth.
Fecher’s vision for the festival was both simple and ambitious. In order to stand out and be of true value in a state already featuring its fair share of high profile music events, the Fairplay event would have to stand out in terms of its aims and its offering. Deciding to pattern it after his experiences with the Midwest Music Summit, Fecher opted to make it a full industry event that catered specifically to young independent artists and industry professionals at the same time. While massive events like South by Southwest have lost much of their intimacy as they’ve grown (and grown more corporate), Fecher wanted a festival that stayed true to the intent of being more like a retreat for industry reps as well as a place where small bands could play and get noticed, rather than shunted aside for showcases of bands already world famous. In order to accommodate both aims, the festival would be centered on the music, while offering an attached conference for industry reps in a bid to bring in the eyes and ears that the bands needed to do the noticing and lend the festival a sense of professional legitimacy.
Marshalling his contact list, cell phone, and credit cards, Fecher managed to put together the advertising and promotion, coordinate with the town to secure permits and stages and event space, invite and screen and approve bands, and lock down lodging for invitees. After calling in favors, negotiating cross-promotional deals, and working hard in conjunction with business and civic leaders in Fairplay, the first South Park Music Festival was debuted in 2004, taking its name from the valley region where Fairplay is located (and, of course, because of the ready recognition of the cartoon show of the same name, which also takes its name from the region). With all music at the event made free to the public, it was immediately successful, drawing in over 6,000 spectators, and another Colorado music festival tradition was born.
The 2005 edition of the festival promised to be even bigger than the first, answering the hopes of Fecher and Fairplay. Over 1,000 bands applied for 140 slots. The mountain get-away atmosphere of the event had the industry reps eager to return. Advertisers and promoters gave the festival more press and attention. The gamble paid off.
However, the first thing you notice about the South Park Music Festival are the logistical difficulties the festival faces. Deep in the Rockies, Fairplay is nearly two hours from Denver’s airport. More critically, it is a true small mountain town, furnished with a hotel and a motel and serviced by a main street that is also a section of state highway. In order to accommodate VIPs and industry guests, lodging was secured as far away as the outskirts of Breckenridge on the other side of the pass, in the condos and rental homes that litter the landscape. Musicians shared beds and floors, but then, that’s rock and roll. And of course, as the festival is primarily outdoors, you also have to contend with the infamously unpredictable Colorado weather. (As the local jokes goes: “If you don’t like the weather in Colorado, wait 20 minutes.”)
The combination of distance and the weather conspired to throw a monkey wrench in my plans for the festival kick-off party on Thursday night. Unfamiliar with the switchbacks of Hoosier Pass, when a heavy downpour caught me off guard just before I planned to leave for the party, I chickened out, not trusting my aging two-wheel-drive truck on a curvy wet pass in the dark. That’s not rock and roll, but hey, with two more days of the festival to worry about, tumbling down a mountain seemed like a waste. I later had a chance to catch a repeat performance by Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s, but I’d been looking forward to the set by Denver indie band the Hot IQs, as well as those of Digby and Canoe. Others told me later that the roads weren’t too bad after the weather eased off, and I kicked myself, but decided to tackle the next day with more determination.
Friday offered a combination of music and panels, both of which were made interesting by the persons attending. Unfortunately, the logistics proved challenging again. While the bands set up in their various stages within a few sectioned-off blocks of Fairplay, the industry chats were happening at a mountain lodge a few miles away. Though the festival offered a free shuttle back and forth, it still made for some mad dashes for many people, giving it, I suppose, the feel of more traditional conferences. However, once at the Timberwolf Lodge, the setting lived up to its promise.
Purposefully and practically eschewing the stuffy and boring setting of conference halls or meeting rooms (of which Fairplay is essentially devoid), South Park bills its panels as “Down Home Discussions”. Two concurrent sessions were open to attendees—one on the huge wrap-around porch surrounding the lodge, and one in its cozy and spacious living room. Featured panelists included Billy Zero of XM Radio, Jeff Price of spinART Records, Chris Jackson of E! Entertainment Television, Eden Chen of Village Voice Media, Tim Quirk of Rhapsody and REAL Networks, and PopMatters’ own Sarah Zupko, among many others.
While most of the panels had a specific focus on offering advice to bands looking for a big break, there was also a fair amount of opportunity for networking and discussing industry business with other professionals. As with any such event, some of the artists were heard to grouse about panels devolving into commercials for services and products, and the panels offered varying degrees of actual usefulness, but they had their moments of interest. Possibly the most heated moment came in a simmering debate between Jeff Price and Tim Mitchell of the Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA) over the fees collected by online aggregator services, but overall the sessions were casual exchanges that seemed to genuinely offer solid advice to the musicians in attendance.
However, the scheduling proved a bit of an inconvenience as well. While the panels were being conducted, the Friday set of shows was occurring in town, meaning that those who stuck around for the discussions were unable to hear the bands, and the bands playing on Friday who might also have benefited from the panels were unable to attend. For me, this meant missing out on a good chunk of music in person, and relying on word of mouth to spread the word about some solid performances, including those of the Mercury Project, the Apostles, Rachel Sage, The Its!, and even Helen Slater (yes, the actress of Supergirl fame).
Moreover, the sheer problem of Friday being a work day meant that the usual weekend crowd was in short supply. Despite being free and open to the public, being centrally located in the heart of the Rockies and decently far from Colorado’s population centers resulted in thin attendance. The rows of food vendors didn’t seem particularly thrilled about the lightweight sales, and the stages were discouragingly crowd-free for sections of the Friday shows. Things picked up at night as the parties settled indoors at the more intimate Fairplay Hotel and at the Park Bar, and the T-Minus Band, Happy Bullets, and many others treated those folks to solid performances.
Saturday, on the other hand, finally saw the festival kicking into high gear. Parking in the tiny town became a quick problem as the crowds finally began to arrive. By noon, there were already many more people in Fairplay than there had been for the entire Friday run, and more and more followed. The whole festival finally seemed to fall into place without the divisions of panels to distract, and the town seemed to be swelling with people enjoying the music at last.
Grabbing a couple of German brats and some ribbon fries from vendors, lunch was punctuated by strolling in circles among the vendor booths and stages, checking out the crafts and different sounds on a gorgeously perfect Colorado pre-Fall day. The sky was blue, the sun was hot, the air was thin, and the full potential of the festival could be appreciated. Our first stop was by the main stage on Front Street where we caught the middle of a set by National Blues Arsenal, and the full juxtaposition of the festival hit me. Standing in the middle of the street in a tiny mountain town, I watched as the band of rockers churned through some heavy blues rock, fronted by a large man wailing away thick riffs on a steel guitar and flanked by a rockabilly chick in tight black with tattoos spiraling up both arms who strutted and pounded on her bass like Paul Simonon. All this set against a perfect sky backdrop, and watching the crowd of locals and non-locals cheer for every surly rock pose struck by the bassist.
Up the street, the Songwriter Stage offered contrast in spades, as a sweetly melodic folk set was being performed by Sally Shuffield, whose classic folk styles of love songs and ballads were a sunshine and flowers opposite to the rockers down the street. Further along, we caught a local Colorado artist named Jeremy Yurek who seemed to be headed straight for a capably bland John Mayer/Dave Matthews middle ground. Unsurprisngly, he’s from Boulder. Hopping across the highway with the help of a beleaguered sheriff directing traffic, we walked through a gathering of teepees for sale to the Gazebo Stage in Fairplay’s town square park to listen to a pure funk band called Mojomama try to get the gathering crowds to shake their rumps. If they were less than successful, well, it was early yet and the crowds were still pretty sober.
The standout performances for me came throughout the day. Possibly the most surprising and completely enjoyable was the set by the aforementioned Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s. Performing as an eight-piece, this band from Indianapolis combined the multi-instrumental force of the Arcade Fire with the sort of wistfulness of the Postal Service. Self-described “scarf-rock”, the arrangements are centered around a Rhodes piano and a cello, supported by the guitars, and accented with trumpets and thick percussion, all in the service of a sometimes soft/sometimes loud indie sound. What made it even more impressive was that it came off so well in a live, outdoor setting. Having such music on disc as generated by a studio isn’t surprising, but seeing it translated to stage with an assured presence and watching it lure folks from all over the festival to the stage was truly engaging.
From a performance standpoint, it was the most professional band on the bill that took top honors. Despite being a Denver band, it’s not surprising that putting internationally touring Dressy Bessy into a line-up of struggling up and comers made them shine. Still, they rocked the street with their usual level of guitar pop energy, and it drew the largest crowd of the day. Aside from putting on a great show, the one lesson that other bands should have picked up on from Dressy Bessy’s set was the casual and quick sound check the band went through, with Tammy Ealom winkingly tossing out “We don’t usually get this much time” to the sound man. Yeah, they’re old hands at it, sure, but it went over with the crowds a lot more smoothly than the acts that took twice as long to perfect the sound levels, already an impossibility in an outdoor setting. Running through tracks from their recent release, Electrified, Dressy Bessy gave a lesson in cool and fun professionalism to the acts who gathered around to watch. It certainly stood in contrast to the schlocky performance of Fighter Pilot earlier in the day, whose Top 100 pop-rock single prompted them to play the star. Maybe their vocalist has never had to sing at altitude, but the LA band’s vocals were just terrible.
Also of note during the day was a strange, ominous set by a two-man act called Harley Poe. Consisting of a vocalist on a six-string and a drummer brushing a snare and a high hat, the band ran through a set of darkly humorous songs that sounded like the Violent Femmes as filtered through a psychopath’s diary. It was hard not to grin at songs about transvestites played to people in straw cowboy hats, but they made their weird music fun for the crowd, and doubly impressed by crashing the front porch of the Fairplay Hotel after dark to play an uninvited set for the smokers and folks who were too slow to get inside the small hotel bar performance area.
The nighttime performances provided the real partygoer collection of bands as the food vendors closed down and the beer drinkers started gathering en masse. As stated, it was a struggle to find standing room in the small bars that housed the night’s acts, making it easiest to flit about the edges to listen in and then run around to the next venue. We caught the tail end of Pravada‘s set at the Fairplay Hotel, where most of the indie crowd seemed to congregate. Pravada really got the crowd worked up, and when Lunar Event took the stage next everyone piled into the room to hear the electro-rock act blaze. Skipping across the street, the Park Bar was packed to the rafters and Perfect Confusion was busy shaking the floorboards with a set of Southern-influenced classic rock punctuated by an explosive frontman whose palpably aggressive groove churned the bar up into the most dancing and partying I’d seen all day. From there, we tried to shoot over to the American Legion Stage to catch the Potcheen Folk Band, but it was five long blocks on a cold, dark night at that point, and we arrived as everyone else was filing out raving about the band and the incredible performance that we’d entirely missed.
At that point we were cold and under-dressed for a Rocky Mountain night, tired from a day of fun and sun, and still facing the journey over the pass to get back to our room, so we decided to call it. But we left that evening feeling like the festival had been worth it for that day of music alone.
The South Park Music Festival closes its second year boasting another success. There are still some kinks in the planning that will keep it from growing bigger quickly, especially the undeniable difficulties of housing and arranging a festival of that size in a town so small, but it remains a great place to meet and interact with bands who otherwise might not get the attention they deserve. If anything, the constraints that the festival faces may help South Park maintain its identity, as the physical barriers prevent it from exploding too rapidly in the manner of SXSW. Fecher and Fairplay have a festival that they can be proud of, and it’s one that—like so many of the acts who perform at it—will be one to pay attention to in the future.