(July 21-24, 2011 in Denver, Colorado) “The Denver Post Underground Music Showcase” is a proper mouthful of words. It's also a proper four days full of music, movies, art, comedy, street food, and industry seminars. Just as Austin's “South By South West” gets its chop toward easier brand recognition in 'SXSW,' so the Mile High City's music showcase is known as 'The Denver Post U.M.S.' Or, more simply, 'The U.M.S.' If you're really cool -- and somewhat sardonic, like a handful of local hipsters -- you know the weekend as 'The Ums.' The irreverence toward the festival name represents an ability to lovingly mock an intimate friend. There's a tangible air of affection and respect; you can feel it every day of the long weekend.
In its eleventh year, this year's attendance saw the streets of Denver filled with 11,000 wrist-band-wearing music fans. They came, they mingled, they sang, they danced, and they discussed the things that they love. Local, national, and international artists -- about 300 in number -- filled local stages, stores, and street corners. Name a genre of music, and it was repped at The U.M.S. Event organizers -- either by luck, lethal fascist accuracy, or....what is the third option? -- orchestrated a festival where one sprawling corner of town was peppered with a blend of styles and different levels of notoriety.
Local or unsigned artists shared proximity with bigger, buzzier acts. Denver scene-favorites Fingers of the Sun played a couple of blocks from nationally acclaimed Scattered Trees. Ridiculously talented 17-year-old surf-punk four-piece Sauna played one of the most joyously memorable sets of the festival just two doors down from the where Colourmusic had previously punched a hole in the night. Danielle Ate the Sandwich calmed things down with the purest three-part harmonies, whilst later, The Pirate Signal ripped it up as the sun set over the Rocky Mountain back-drop. Colors ran, equipment was shared, ideas and genres cross-pollinated. Long after the official stages stopped showing and the lights were shut off, parking lots and alleyways filled with impromptu sets and songs from unified fans and bands. Throughout the four days, a continuum sustained itself; there was never a lull, never a dull moment. Unless, of course, you don't like music or comedy or art or movies or food or people.
There is a very real sense of opportunity about the festival, for both artists and audiences. What fan doesn't like to rub shoulders with musicians? Which bands really don't like to feel so at home when on tour or playing live? A festival occupying the summer streets of a city is by no means a unique idea. All around the world, there are countless other towns that offer similar experiences, in terms of concept. What The U.M.S. achieves is an organically distilled sense of atmosphere. It's a rare thing. This is not a hippy festival, yet everyone seems to get along, naturally, with a shared vision to just enjoy and to take part in one way or another. No one harshes anyone else's mellow. Over the course of four days, only four cops were spotted. They weren't called in to intervene. They were drinking Cokes and nodding their heads to the contagious beats coming from Delite Lounge & Bar. Let's be honest: no one really likes to see certain shiny badges at a festival. However, when they're dancing and smiling, a warm feeling happens.
Early in the afternoons of Saturday and Sunday, there was the opportunity for anyone interested in the 'business' side of music to learn new aspects of the old behaviors. Seminars and panel discussions illumined the congregated hangovers and those folks most keen to turn passions into better performances. Whether you 'knew it all' or not, these events in the cool basement of a church, offered an opportunity to hear the experiences and opinions of industry insiders, keen to grant everyone access to a world that they loved. One of the most enjoyable discussions was a panel, comprised of Duncan McKie, President of FACTOR Canada, Craig Grossman of Green Room Touring Source, Shannon Daut, of WESTAF and Shawn King of local-band-made-global; Devotchka. The Subject; “ Is your band 'Tour Ready'?” Each panelist represented a different element of live tour preparation, from booker, to tour manager, to artist. The level of insight was as sharp as anything, and the ease of access to experts of this caliber was worth the price of a wrist-band, even before the music started. Whether you wanted to hear what it's like to be a tour manager arriving in New York with no way of fixing a bass amp with only 30 minutes before a gig, or if you wanted to hear how DeVotchka also started, just like you, in the back of a van, earning no money, there was much to distract you from the hangover and inform you of a possible future.
Having started eleven years ago, from humble, perhaps unambitious beginnings, The Denver Post U.M.S. has slowly been maturing and growing in size. There's a shrewdness about the festival, but it's not a contrived atmosphere, or calculated vibe of mercenary design that's obviously evident in other regions of the music industry. A natural progression has occurred, the reputation of the event has developed in the Old School way; hard work and the pursuit of the collective heart's desires bring their own rewards. The U.M.S. wants to show the best of itself to the national and international artists and crowds, and that level of respect invites a reciprocated approach from visitors. Next year's banner should read; “No stage is too big, no stage is too small - we'll find a way of sharing” or perhaps, more accurately; “We love music, you love music – come over to our place.”
If you weren't aware of the festival, you'll want to clear your calender next year. As a fan you'll be spoiled for choice. As an artist you'll be spoiled for crowd response. As a music industry watchdog you'll reconnect with a scene that doesn't seem to give a damn that we're meant to be in a recession, with struggling unit sales. This is what live can music can do, when it's done properly.