An entertaining 20 years: Looking back at Boulder’s music history

The sound in print


Twenty years ago, Boulder was a very different place. Commercially, that is. Geographically, the basics remained the same. The nightlife, for the most part, centered around Pearl Street and the Hill (though recently, the Puritans on city council have done their best to quash late-night fun on the latter). People who lived here were often outdoor sports enthusiasts or, almost as often, involved in tech of some sort (little known fact: Pretty Good Privacy, one of the most important encryption softwares ever written, was created by Phil Zimmermann in Boulder in 1991). But the businesses and the bars and clubs of Boulder had a very different feel. You could smoke in bars; the Sundown Saloon was, by all accounts, an actual dive, not just the closest thing to one Boulder has today. Pearl Street was not the fine dining Mecca that it is today. Parades of weirdos dotted the mall, and back then the townsfolk tolerated and even celebrated their oddness.

There were still a smattering of clubs and bars that hosted live music around town. There are a few that are still around — the Fox Theatre, Boulder Theater (which actually closed for a time in the ’90s), The Sink, The Outback Saloon and Chautauqua Auditorium, to name a few, not to mention the creation of the Dairy Center for the Arts and the Boedecker Theater — but the vast majority are gone, having closed doors to be replaced by other music-hosting bars and businesses or, in some cases, demolished and replaced with something less romantic, like office buildings and apartments.

Pearl’s, at 1125 Pearl St., is now West Flanders Brewery. Two Jerks Tavern, at 2850 29th St., became Oscar’s Pub before being demolished to make way for affordable housing this past summer. The Pearl Street Cellar, 921 Pearl St., is now Bacaro Venetian Taverna. Atlantic Pearl, 1795 Pearl St., was at one point Penny Lane coffee shop, and now it’s a Full Cycle bike store. Caffe Mars, 1425 Pearl St., is now Pedestrian Shops.

Where Chalet Suisse once sat, 24 Big Springs Drive in Nederland, now sits Black Forest restaurant. Round Midnight, 1005 Pearl St. in Boulder, is now the arcade bar Press Play. The building housing the legendary J.J. McCabes, which hosted a Phish show in 1990 and where Leftover Salmon regularly played before they got big, was demolished. In its place are a few businesses, including The Attic. Where Jose Muldoon’s once stood is now FATE Brewing Company. The Marquee, which brought in bigger local acts as well as touring national ones, is now the Absinthe House.

These are just a few of the businesses to turn over since Boulder Weekly published its first issue in 1993. Perhaps most sorely missed is Tulagi’s, the small venue on the Hill that in its heyday hosted acts like ZZ Top, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, the Flying Burrito Brothers, John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis. Just last week we published an article interviewing Boulder musicians bemoaning the lack of a venue like Tulagi’s where they can get the exposure they crave without the pressure of playing three hours of material (mostly covers) at a bar. The once-venerable music hall is now a sandwich shop.

These days, the health of the Boulder music scene is the subject of a lively, spirited debate. There seem to be two sides to it. You either think Boulder’s scene is stagnating, played out, predictable, homogenous and dull, or you like jam bands. Regardless of which side you fall on, one thing’s for sure. The debate isn’t ending anytime soon. We know this because even in the first year of Boulder Weekly’s history, there were three articles examining the scene, reflecting a discussion that was at times very similar to the one taking place today, and at times very different.

On Oct. 21, 1993, in BW’s ninth issue, then-Entertainment Editor Teresa Younger interviewed Christian Dicharry of the local band Love Lies in a column titled “Boulder, music mecca?” Younger noted that a few bands had recently moved to Boulder from the East Coast in hopes of making it big in the music world, perhaps a sign of the vibrancy of Boulder’s music scene. Dicharry wasn’t so optimistic.

“I’m not positive about the Boulder scene lately,” he told Younger. “It’s losing its venues. Also, Boulder seems somewhat sedentary in its tastes. I guess I should try to be more politically correct, but Boulder is getting older.

Boulder is losing its insane and on-the-edge verve.

“It’s not as supported as it could be,” he continued. “But actually we’re experiencing a resurgence. We hit bottom. Ground Zero closing and J.J. McCabes stopping live music also hurt it. And we’re not a Taylor’s band. We physically can’t fit in that space. The only places we can play are the Marquee and the Fox Theatre.”

Yes, that was 20 years ago, and the complaints about the Boulder music scene were practically the same. Venues are closing; musicals acts aren’t diverse enough. Some things never change.

In the Jan. 13, 1994, issue, Younger wrote another column, this time interviewing Paul Trunko from Denver band The Keepers. Apparently, it was hard for Denver bands to break into the Boulder music scene, suggesting that Boulder gigs were desirable for musicians from the other side of the turnpike.

“It’s hard to get a gig there,” Trunko lamented. “I guess the Boulder scene comes and goes. And now the Boulder bands have a base following, so bars know that by booking a Boulder band that they will get people in the door.

“We’re a pro band, not just a group of kids.”

The March 24, 1994, edition brought up the issue again with a cover story titled, “Where has all the music gone?” Freelance reporter Bob Donchez posited that bars and other venues around town were phasing out live music and putting in pool tables. Places that once hosted bands were turning into sports bars, Donchez wrote.

“Boulder, not exactly known for its normality, has seen a uniform theme sweep through its eating and drinking establishments,” Donchez reported. “The growth in pool halls and sports bar themes has rivaled growth in automobiles about town. Dining tables have been replaced by pool tables, chopsticks by pool sticks. Only the prairie dog population has multiplied as quickly.”

The article later quoted Tulagi owner John Fenton, who noted that Boulder bands just weren’t as popular — and therefore as profitable — as they used to be.

“For many clubs, live music just wasn’t making enough money to support their operations,” Fenton told BW.

“The best bands don’t necessarily draw the largest crowds. It’s the group who has the most friends attending their show that is most financially successful for both the bar and the group.”

(In a fun example of how Boulder has changed, the article quotes a woman identified only as “Nancy,” who played pool with her husband every Friday at the Sundown Saloon. “This is the only true bar in Boulder. There are no college kids, no fancy motif. … It’s a regular crowd with regular people, brought together for some camaraderie over beer and pool.” No college kids? At the Downer? That must have been in the pre-$6-pitchers-of-PBR days.)

• • • •

For as many venues that have come and gone in Boulder in the past 20 years, thousands more musicians have done the same. Many who graced the pages of the first 52 BW issues have since evaporated from the public eye. But even the ones who are now famous had to start somewhere. You might recognize a few of the then-unknown bands mentioned in or interviewed by Boulder Weekly in 1993 and 1994. Ani DiFranco, Dave Matthews Band and Radiohead come to mind.

Yes, Radiohead, the notoriously media-shy British musical legends. The band was playing the Glenn Miller Ballroom, and Boulder Weekly scored an interview with guitarist drummer Phil Selway and printed it in the Oct. 14, 1993, issue. The band was opening for Belly, a sort of alternative pop band that flirted with popularity in the early ’90s. Of course, Belly broke up in 1996, while Radiohead has since carved a place for itself in rock history, but everyone’s got to start somewhere. At at the time of the Glenn Miller show, Radiohead had only released its first album, Pablo Honey, a good album that hinted at the band’s soon-to-come greatness. The group was basically riding the success of “Creep,” which to this day remains one the band’s most traditional, poppy and popular songs. Most of Pablo Honey contains songs in a similar vein — the band had yet to venture into the unexplored sonic caves it would spelunk in 1997 with OK Computer, and many critics and fans alike had pegged them as simply an alternative rock band.

Last May, singer Thom Yorke described that part of the band’s career to Marc Maron on the comedian’s WTF podcast.

“When we signed to EMI, we just said to them, ‘We haven’t got a clue what we’re doing. It’s very nice you like our songs and everything and you think we’re going to be famous, but we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing,’” Yorke said. “We just left college. Give us some money for a van, and maybe some money for a hotel so we don’t have to sleep in the van, and just leave us alone for, like, a year-and-a-half so we can figure it out. Unfortunately, about a year into that we get this meeting with our manager saying, um, ‘Creep’ is a massive hit, in Israel first and then in KROQ here [in Los Angeles], and in New York, and you’ve gotta go. You’ve gotta go.’ I was still trying to figure this out … and suddenly we’re flown over here and everyone‘s sort of expecting us to be rock stars.”

That said, the band wasn’t immediately a top-billed headliner.

“We booked into these small gigs and it was fun because people were turning up,” Yorke told Maron. “It was pretty wicked actually. We were still learning what the hell was going on at that time.”

So in order to promote the Glenn Miller show, guitarist Phil Selway talked business with BW, telling Teresa Younger how quickly Radiohead became popular, explaining how the band’s cachet grew in other foreign lands before it did in their home country.

“[In the U.K.,] magazines like Melody Maker and Mayhem can make or break a band,” Selway told Boulder Weekly. “The U.K. is a small place. And across a day, a band can be broken down on the wings of the music press.”

Selway said the press in Britain didn’t know what to make of Radiohead, at first.

“We signed on a major label right away, so people thought we were just an attempt by the major labels to get in on the indie-alternative scene,” he said. “They thought we weren’t a genuine band. But by now we’ve proven we are a genuine band. We had a very variable press reaction. But the English position changed when ‘Creep’ caught on here. It had to. We were the first new British band to have real success in the U.S. They had to pick up on us.”

As for “Creep,” Selway said it was just simply a good song.

“Everybody says it strikes a chord with disaffected youth in the U.S. and across the world,” he said, which was actually a pretty cliched way to talk about alternative music in the early ’90s. “But I’ll tell you why ‘Creep’ caught on. Now I’m speaking immodestly. It was because it has all the elements of a great song; a great melody, a good arrangement, good lyrics and universal feeling.”

Let this next tale be a lesson for aspiring singer-songwriters: Never give up. When Boulder Weekly interviewed Ani DiFranco for the Dec. 2, 1993, issue, the first line of the article was, “Many people haven’t yet heard of the frank Ani DiFranco or heard her gutsy mixture of folk and rock.” The article went on to describe a DiFranco song about menstruation. These days, DiFranco can charge whatever she wants, sing about whatever she wants, and sell out the Boulder Theater without much effort. In December 1993, she was playing the September School Arts Building at 1902 Walnut Ave. So take note, creative types: stay true to yourself, never turn down a gig, and you never know what might happen.

Back in 2010, AEG Live Rocky Mountains President and CEO Chuck Morris told Boulder Weekly about the relationship between Dave Matthews Band (DMB) and Colorado.

“We’ve had a history going back to … God, Don [Strasburg] played them at the Fox [Theatre] when they were barely known, and I put them on [with] Big Head Todd/Los Lobos; Dave Matthews was the opening act at Red Rocks, and I’ll never forget that. We gave them barely enough money to fly from Charlottesville [Va.,], the band and crew and manager, mostly because Don told me how great they were … and that was before he was even working here, for me.

“[Dave Matthews Band] just had their independent records out there. I’ll never forget, sitting on the side of the stage, they were introduced and went up there. … [The crowd] was there to see Big Head Todd, Los Lobos was second and Dave Matthews Band was third, the opening act. And I saw 700, 800, 900 people singing along to every song from their independent record, which really says something about the future of an act.”

Well, before DMB became the torch-carriers of bro-rock and headlined festivals and sold millions of albums, they were playing the Fox Theatre in Boulder (as Morris said), hoping they could sell out two nights at the 600-person venue. That show Morris mentioned, where DMB opened for Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Los Lobos? That was happening in May 1994 at Red Rocks. In December 1993, Dave Kirby (going by David Kirby back then) interviewed Matthews as he prepared his band to play a string of Colorado dates, including two nights at the Fox. Apparently, a major storm had just dumped a load of powdery, white goodness on Colorado.

“I’m not a great skier, but I love it,” Matthews enthused. “I’m incredibly psyched to be here at this particular time. The gigs will be great, but I wanna GO SKIING!!!” (Emphasis taken from the article) “It’s almost as if no one has gotten around to telling this South African-born Virginian that he’s fronting probably the hottest club act in America,” Kirby went on to write.

It’s probably been almost 20 years since DMB could have even remotely be considered a club act. Life’s good as a festival headliner.

There are several other historical gems scattered throughout the early issues of the paper. On June 7, 1994, Soundgarden played Red Rocks with openers Tad and Eleven.

Soundgarden was at the peak of its powers, having just released Superunknown earlier that year. That album would go on to be certified five times platinum and sell more than 9 million copies worldwide. The singles “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Fell on Black Days,” “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun” were not yet classic grunge songs but freshly released burners. Tad was a Seattle grunge band that had a little sharper bite than Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, yet never became as popular, and Eleven was the band of future Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Alain Johannes and keyboardist Natasha Shneider (Shneider would eventually support QOTSA on tour). Funny enough, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron ended up playing on four tracks of Eleven’s 1995 album, Thunk. Perhaps that show was when Cameron and Johannes first realized that good things would come if they combined their powers.

In the sixth issue of Boulder Weekly, Leftover Salmon made its first appearance. The band was fresh; it was about to load into an old yellow school bus and go on tour. Even back then, the band was proudly wearing the “polyethnic cajun slamgrass” label. Kirby posited that Leftover Salmon just might be the next Boulder band to go national.

“I think we’re just sort of realizing that now,” the late Mark Vann, Salmon’s original banjo player, explained. “Sort of like the band is starting to think that something like that can actually happen. You have to understand, we’ve always been a little shy about this band.”

Vann went on to say that the band had sold out shows at the Fox for almost a year. He said the band was considering getting an agent and had just hired a full-time sound guy, which was making a hugely positive difference in the band’s sound. It was just the beginning of the band’s success. To this day, Boulder Weekly has likely written about Leftover Salmon more than any other band.

There aren’t many newspapers that last to document 20 years of music history. Here’s to 20 more years of vibrant art, music and creativity in Boulder County.

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