When Will Concerts Return To Colorado? Bad News, It Might Be 2021

Lizzo plays the Fillmore on Colfax Avenue. Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Colorado's legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre was set to host The String Cheese Incident this summer for the 43rd, 44th and the 45th time. That’s until the triple run of shows was crossed off the calendar. Done in by the coronavirus.

“Even until the last minute, I was holding on and clawing to the edge like, ‘What if we put tarps every six feet and we sell half the amount of tickets?’” the band’s keyboard player Kyle Hollingsworth said. “In the end, it was the smarter choice not to do it. It was heartbreaking.”

String Cheese’s two-night stint at the Dillon Amphitheater in Summit County was also shelved. So have a lot of the band’s other dates across the U.S. — at least, for the time being, until September.

The pandemic hasn't been kind to concert loving Colorado.

Big Head Todd’s regular run at Red Rocks? See you next year. Denver’s Underground Music Showcase has thrown in the towel too, while the city’s annual Juneteenth Music Festival will go virtual. Phish’s annual run at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park? Sorry, 2020 wasn’t in the cards. Plan on Labor Day Weekend 2021 instead. The list grows longer every day.

Venues, promoters and bands aren’t the only ones making these decisions. Fans are too. Linda Salus and Jennifer Callahan, who live together in Aurora, both had bought tickets to a handful of shows this year. 

“We both made the call just on our own that we are not prepared to go out to a concert in 2020,” Salus said. “It’s too dangerous, we don’t know enough right now. It’s something I’m missing every single day.”

Instead, bands and fans are filling that hole in their heart with archival concerts, videos new and old, and live streams.

“I appreciate all the bands that have chosen to take their own stand to keep their own safety because I want everybody to live through this,” Callahan said.

Sylvan Esso plays Red Rocks, July 18, 2018. (Courtesy Kevin J. Beaty)
Kevin J. Beaty/CPR News
Sylvan Esso plays Red Rocks, July 18, 2018. (Courtesy Kevin J. Beaty)

As virtual performances become the new normal, they still can’t fully replace a summer concert season typically ripe with shows and festivals across the state. Right now, most gigs at Red Rocks through August have been postponed or canceled. The next concert still on the books is headlined by Lindsey Stirling on July 8. But even that seems likely to change.

“It’s going to be a lost summer for the industry,” said Brian Kitts, spokesman for Denver Arts and Venues, which owns and operates Red Rocks. “This is a rolling process. So as you get through May, then all of a sudden it’s time to start rescheduling the next wave of shows.”

Around 170 shows are scheduled at Red Rocks every year. Many have already been pushed back to the same dates in 2021. Even as music fans learn to deal with a lost concert season this year, it seems they may get a do-over. But they’ll have to be patient.

The biggest roadblock to the return of live music is Colorado’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people under the state’s current Safer-At-Home order. Restaurants can now reopen dining areas and Arapahoe Basin ski area also reopened — both with limited capacities and strict health mandates in place. But entertainment events are a whole different animal.

“We all would love to say, ‘Guess what? Next week we’re back to concerts and sporting events,’” Gov. Jared Polis said at a May 11 news conference. “We need the data we don’t have yet.”

Some Of Colorado's Best Unsigned Acts Entered NPR's 2020 Tiny Desk Contest. Check Out These 7 Standouts

At the same time, venues have a lot to consider when trying to strike a balance between economics and public safety once they can welcome concert-goers back.

“It’s wishful thinking that we go from mass gatherings of 10 people to 10,000 people like we would have at Red Rocks,” Kitts said. “I just don’t think anybody’s expecting that right now. It’s hard to see how this works out in any venue without a lot of creative thinking, and that’s what’s going on every single minute of every day.”

Ideas like cashless and touchless vendor systems, socially distant seating and timed entry could help ensure that everyone is comfortable.

“I think concerts come back probably when the public is ready to come back and when artists are ready to go on the road,” Kitts said.

The Bluebird Theater, March 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The Bluebird Theater, March 8, 2020.

In order to provide a blueprint for clubs and theaters and help fans feel at ease, the city of Denver has joined an international effort to help live music venues get back up and running as soon as possible. The idea behind Reopen Every Venue Safely is to connect venues with resources, health experts and public officials to determine policies around safety and ways to budget for them.

"It's just extremely important to be talking to other cities and being more in lockstep with best practices, globally and nationwide so that we’re not reinventing the wheel but really pulling together a support system," said Lisa Gedgaudus with Denver Arts and Venues, who will coordinate the Mile High City’s program. 

Right now, REVS includes 10 other pilot cities including Seattle, Los Angeles and Austin. Canada and the United Kingdom have similar programs. Once formalized, the initiative will share plans with other cities. 

“Most venues are not going to open until next year,” Gedgaudus said. “So it's just a way forward. How do we look forward and start doing that safely?”

At the same time, musicians must also adapt and make the most of the downtime. For keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth, that means more time to practice classical piano, relearn algebra with his kids and break in his family’s new trampoline at his Boulder home. He’s also planning to stream a June 4 performance to support his new solo album “2020” (written and released just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak). For the rest of the String Cheese Incident, it means virtual band meetings with plenty of brainstorming.

“It’s made me think outside the box of what I can bring to the fans, without actually seeing them or being with them,” Hollingsworth said. “Other ideas are part of a larger conversation. What could we do that’d be more interesting? How can our online presence be more? Can we do drive-in movie theaters?”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Interpol at Red Rocks, May 1, 2019.

Colorado Springs husband-and-wife hip hop duo The Reminders had to pull the plug on festival gigs around the world. That includes Greenbelt in the United Kingdom and Sonic Bloom in southern Colorado, which has postponed its annual festival to June of 2021.

“It’s been tough, and it’s also been a blessing at the same time because we haven’t been home for this long in years,” emcee Big Samir said. 

Samir and Aja Black have spent much of their extra time with their three kids, their miniature poodle puppy Nipsey, and taking MasterClass courses online. They decided not to rush into playing live streams, partly because they recently observed Ramadan and fasted. But they also wanted to write new music and work out some kinks before they beam their bedroom sets out to the world. 

“The kind of energy we bring live is something that I believe you cannot recreate virtually,” Samir said. “We didn't want to go live and then, you know, it doesn't sound right, it doesn't look right.”

The Reminders have lost more than just concerts during the pandemic. They also teach financial literacy courses in high schools, writing workshops and participate in artist residencies around the country.

“These are strange times that nobody could have planned for, and I'm sure a lot of people are losing money, so it's tricky,” Samir said. “Now we're just really trying to try to figure out how that's going to work.”