This past Sunday saw New West Fest at Bohemian Nights in Fort Collins, an event which hosted nearly ninety bands and hundreds of turkey legs; a conglomeration of great music, tye-dyed garb, carnival rides and most of all, good people. I made the hour and a half drive from Denver to FoCo for my first time, and despite the existential inner turmoil which inevitably arises while you’re in the midst of 3:00 I-25 madness I did not once regret the trek. Every band I saw that Saturday brought something to their stage that felt inventive and fresh, but more importantly the event accomplished what music and art attempts: bringing people together and creating a simple happiness.
I arrived in Downtown FoCo right around 3:30 on Saturday, just as iZCALLi was doing their soundcheck and things were steaming up. Crowds of people were trickling in from the entrance on Mountain Avenue, spreading like wildfire through the web of stages and vendors. A few beer gardens were flooded with standing crowds and charmed laughter. Despite the low bearing, arid heat, the feeling in the air was light and breezy. Families with young children reclined in the grass, two year olds twirled around the trees and shaded sidewalks lining the street with cotton candy encrusted hands and eyes glinting, and couples walked hand in sweaty hand through the fenced off streets.
The thing that surprised me most was the variety, not only in performances but in attendance. Because the event was free, passer-bys fluttered in to catch a set or two, or merely to browse the tents and peruse. Fort Collins folk from two to ninety-two crowded the streets in support and appreciation of the Colorado grown arts.
There were six stages on site and each held a new performance nearly every hour. I flitted around quickly, doing my best to take in all I could during my day trip. After iZCALLi’s set I ran to see Gora Gora Orkestar, a ten piece Balkan brass band who since 2009 have been blending World melodies of Eastern European Balkan folk with New Orleans jazz lines, paired with the backbeat of American funk and South American tango. They announced themselves to be ‘the only Balkan brass band who also plays country music’ and swung into a cover of an old-timey crooner with sweet syrupy vocals, brass and heavy hitting bass drum.
Next, Elise Wunder Band took to the Singer-Songwriter’s Stage which was packed with rows of folding chairs and sidelined with onlookers. The tent was crowded and darkly lit. Unsurprisingly, the Colorado skies had gone from shining to foreboding and clouded within a matter of minutes. Elise Wunder’s folky, sultry voice had just began to take effect when lightening struck down no more than a mile away and the band called it quits. The entire festival shut down for severe weather conditions and people packed into the parking structure like barn animals, looking out onto the suddenly soaked streets with dripping, wet funnel cakes.
After an hour of panic and meander on the part of the attendees, the festival resumed in time for Brent Cowles to woo on the Main Mountain Stage.
Cowles, since his amicable separation from Denver’s beloved folk band You Me & Apollo, has remained an active member of the music community and has embarked on his career as a solo artist. His shows are known to be wild fun (their evening set at Three Kings Tavern during Denver’s UMS had the entire Ultra5280 team singing along and unabashedly dancing) and FoCo folk carry well-deserved pride in knowing that Cowles voice and candid songwriting were cultivated on the local scene.
I chatted with Michelle Venus, Development Director of KRFC 88.9 FM, a Fort Collins based community radio station right before Cowles set, and Venus put into words the impression of the town I had been gathering on my own: the town is made up of good, kind people who have a deep running vein of music appreciation connecting each and every one of them. Venus has seen the transgression of the local scene during the past years, and she’s had the privilege to see innumerable live performances by local bands as they’ve come to play at the station. She is a first-hand witness to the indefatigable fountain of talent running from the Rocky Mountain snowmelt straight into the Fort Collins venues, and spoke with love for Bohemian Nights and everyone involved in the local scene.
After our chat, Venus was off to catch 12 Cents For Marvin: a ska-reggae band also from Fort Collins. Bearing our conversation in mind, I made my way towards Cowles' set. I watched as a gathering of hundreds stood enraptured in stillness, iPhones tucked safely into pockets save for a few quick pictures. Cowles and his band emanated a powerful, endearing energy which, paired with methodically written and simplistic, ingenious folk lyricism caused the entire crowd swell with love and pride. The moment I heard his buttery voice calling out the lyrics to “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” during sound check I was a goner. Their alternative-folk sound is a testament toward the town itself, anthems of the paradigmatic shift from a corporatized music industry for a return to a homegrown and interconnected music community occurring right in Fort Collins.
After Cowles’ set, I wove through the maze of carnival rides towards the Library Park Stage to see the folk-pop powerhouse SHEL, comprised of the four closely-knit Holbrook sisters who learned to play both pop and classical music together when they were growing up in Fort Collins. They seamlessly strung together facets of modern music; including but not limited to R&B, commercial pop, folk, classical and rock. Somehow, the sisters gave an edge to their mystic vibe in a way that made perfect sense and felt totally organic.
Liza Holbrook, vocal percussionist, showed some serious skill with a beat boxing solo, followed by a jaw dropping piano solo performed by Hannah Holbrook. SHEL imparted on the crowd many heartwarming ‘thank-you’s to the crowd before shooing them off to the hundred yard long line coagulating at the entrance to the Main Mountain Stage for The Fray.
One of Colorado’s national acts, The Fray drew a crowd that spilled from Mountain Avenue to three outlying stages where their set was simulcasted onto large screens. The band members were more than happy to play crowd pleasers like “How to Save A Life” and “Over My Head (Cable Car)”, urging people to sing along, playing animatedly and bashing around on the stage with excitement. The Fray’s drummer Ben Wysocki recently told 303 Magazine during an interview: “We love performing in Colorado! The fact that most of us call it home is just a bonus. There’s obviously a different kind of pressure because of all the family and friends that come out to hometown shows. You want to make them proud.” And make them proud they did.
Fort Collins may seem to be another small, run of the mill Colorado town to the average passerby, but open the doors to The Downtown Artery during a show or tune in to KRFC 88.9 Community Radio and you’ll quickly learn that there’s much, much more to the local Fort Collins music scene than meets the eye, evidenced by the love in the local’s hearts for their local musicians and the various nationally touring bands hailing from the county.
If you’re bummed you missed out on this year’s Bohemian Nights at New West Fest, there’s still hope for you to see Fort Collins’ musicians in all their FoCo glory. The annual festival FoCoMX is aiming to take the streets this April, a three-day festival that staged almost 200 Colorado acts.
Until April, FoCo!