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April 9-15, 2009Take the ride
A mysterious bus cruises through Boulder offering free health care
and the best party in town
by P.J. Nutting
It’s quiet on the Hill — well past sunset but still a few hours to go before migratory patterns of young bar crawlers will flock to downtown Boulder like honking geese. The only noise is the mumbling diesel motor of an old school bus idling in front of a bar called The Goose, the words “Worland Warriors” emblazoned across its sides. The bus sits on the corner of Broadway and Pleasant St. several nights a week. From the outside, it’s nothing special, just a vintage school bus well past its prime. Pedestrians stare at the bus, and wonder why it’s there. Hipsters bustle out of the bar to join a crowd gathering around the bus. The bus churns impatient diesel smoke as a girl named Tawney trades wristbands and a warm “thanks” for a twenty and a five. It’s hard to tell who is in charge here: no uniforms or age gaps distinguish the crew from the crowd, and everyone’s shuffle is draped in neons, plaids and unkempt shag.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you look great tonight!” says the apparent leader, Dustin Huth, as the doors fold open with a creak. People flash their wristband and file inside as Huth begins a rehearsed introduction, which most of these patrons already know by heart.
Tonight, the bus is headed to see a DJ playing a set at the Gothic Theatre in Denver, but the airbrakes have hissed, the bus is in motion and that means the party has already started.
This is the point where Huth drops the bomb. This is not your average amateur limo service; it’s a charity event on wheels. It may be a night of debauchery for these ultra-cool music aficionados, but profits from the $25 riding fee go directly to pay for the health insurance of four starving local artists. What could be an extremely viable business venture is actually a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
“Keeping artists from getting sick, unless they’re succeeding at being sick,” says Charlie Kern, Huth’s right hand man, as he introduces his mission from the second bus in the party caravan, laying out the dream for the rows of concert-goers like a flight attendant demonstrating emergency-landing procedures.
Though most refer to it as “the Warriors bus,” “the party bus” or “that seriously chill banger on wheels,” the official name of the multi-bus operation is The Basics Fund. TBF started in 2007 as a one-man operation. Huth organized it to aid the career of friend and writer/playwright Jonson Kuhn, paying out of pocket to help send Kuhn on a book tour around the Midwest.
At that time, things were almost as desperate for TBF as they were for the starving artists, and Huth was struggling to keep the organization alive.
And then, in the summer of 2007, Huth found two essential ingredients. Charlie Kern was the first, the future TBF operations manager who posted a personal ad looking to bum a ride to Bonnaroo. The second was the means to get there, a 34-year-old school bus Huth had purchased recently from a friend. That friend found the bus at a high school in Worland, Wyo., and bought it for his snow-film production company. The Worland volleyball team didn’t install the couches, the overhead bunks or the keg mount, but they did provide the iconic painted warrior head and a very vintage, very awesome means to get around.
Bonnaroo was an ideal test for Huth’s plans to expand TBF, and everyone returned from Tennessee thoroughly pleased and willing to compensate Huth for his effort. That’s when it clicked: Huth had found the perfect college magnet and everything he needed to bring money to his nonprofit organization in the form of a crusty-looking school bus packed with ratty couches and cheap beer on tap. It would take TBF another year to recruit enough regular patrons to pay for gas and insurance, but it did not take long for Huth to see marginal profits start trickling through the hissing doors.
And on this weekend night, the bus is packed once again. One trip like this pays for one month of health insurance for one writer/musician/actor/poet/etc., and TBF currently draws enough money to pick up the tab for four artists. Most of the patrons already know this — Kern estimates that 90 percent of their riders are repeats and have heard the speech many times. A lot of them are artists themselves, or at least aspire to be, and it’s not hard to draw a sympathetic dollar from them. The regular bus crowd is a cohesive organism that usually anticipates the same shows around the Front Range. But the bus is available to anyone going anywhere: $25 per person, or $400 for the whole bus, and TBF will drive to sporting events, art showings, poetry readings and even a monster truck rally on one occasion.
It’s well worth the money. Cheaper than a taxi, definitely more fun (and with more head room) than a limo, the bus ignites when the wheels start to turn. Aside from the beer on tap (for those of age), every trip includes a ride-along DJ who often rivals the show itself.
Of the dozen or so DJs that TBF employs, many of them have headlined concerts of their own and are not afraid to start the show before the bus arrives at its destination. Tonight the DJ is Greg Fisk, parked at the very back with a laptop and MPC, his back braced against the frame of an overhead bunk. It’s not easy to crank out beats when the bus is swaying down the highway, but Fisk rises to the challenge and is soon encircled by young females, eyes lit with excitement, unable to hide their enthusiasm. Some patrons rock out, others just tune out; either way, the bus is the definition of a captive audience and no one seems to mind. The shyer crowd has tucked themselves under the overhead bunks or near open windows, where they quietly smoke cigarettes. Everyone else squeezes by each other as if navigating from coach to first class, and after a few beers, it’s hard to tell whether people are dancing or just trying to keep their balance. They mingle, groove, spill drinks and occasionally fall in a pothole-induced twisted heap of elbows, screams and laughter.
The quietly tenacious, always sober bus driver shouts an apology — bumps are inevitable. No hard feelings. Huth, Kern and three others are all trained to drive the bus, and they rotate driving duties, usually based on who needs money and who wants to party.
One hundred dollars is fair compensation, so long as no one yacks on the bus. Venues have gotten to know the TBF bus, and sometimes the driver gets a free ticket, so they don’t have to wait around by themselves for the show to end. Not a bad job — unless chunks are blown.
But now the bus has hissed to a stop a block from the Gothic, and riders are more than ready to shake pants. People are still finding their land legs as they stumble in careless clumps toward the show with random yelps and animal calls. It’s easy to forget that this ride will provide struggling local artists with health insurance this month. The genius of TBF’s bus is its innate sense of euphoria, that it’s too much fun to feel like community service. The bus’s brilliant alchemy translates the patron’s love for the arts and gives it back to those who create it, whether it is a Boulder poet, an art gallery in Fort Collins or the DJ spinning at the Gothic. When you show up at a business with a busload of customers, people start to take notice.
The TBF team has boomed, and it now includes all types of PR reps from the area: people who know promoters, people who know artists, people who know the people who know the promoters and artists. Everyone brings what they can to the cause, even if it’s just being there as a support system, because it’s hard not to care at all once you’ve been absorbed into the family. This is different from traditional business models, which require a strict hierarchical structure in order to function. It’s easier to just go with it. People drift in and out as various tasks need attention. Sometimes the task at hand is finding sponsors, sometimes it’s just spreading the love. TBF is discovering new ways to make money through poster prints, deals with venues and talent, and through new events that will draw more people into the TBF family. As soon as there’s more, another artist will hang from the TBF family tree like a Christmas ornament.
At far past midnight, the bus finally returns to Boulder. People crawl out of the bunks and shuffle off. Some will go home and crash, some will immediately head to the afterparty, and possibly the party after the afterparty. The bus rumbles off and the thumping bass trails into the night, but tomorrow it will return, whether for the diesel-powered open mic nights every Sunday or the “Untitled” series at the Denver Art Museum every last Sunday of the month. Huth supports all art, so he makes sure the bus always feels like home to the artist’s soul. Even if the trip mellows, the haze of excitement never fades inside the party bus.
On the Bill
To find out when the bus is making its next epic run, go to thebasicsfund.org
or contact The Basics Fund staff at 303-579-6555.