A Look at the Denver Music Scene

By: Nick Virnich

Denver, Colo. … talk about a city with an ever-evolving music scene with rich history. When people think of cities with big music scenes, they often think of Los Angeles, New York City, London, Chicago, the Bay Area or even Seattle. Denver is often overlooked as a city with only a few mainstream bands to offer today, such as the Lumineers, the Fray, the Flobots, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and Tennis. If you really delve into the local music scene, however, you will find that it offers a full range of diverse sounds and styles for anyone to appreciate.

Starting in the 1920s, Denver became a big attraction for notable Jazz artists during the explosion of the genre. Jazz venues in the Five Points area, including the well known El Chapultepec, played host to legendary jazz, R&B and pop artists of the time such as Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and even Frank Sinatra. These old jazz venues still stand along Welton Street in the Five Points neighborhood, while other venues in the area like the Roxy and Cervantes Masterpiece continue to showcase hip-hop and electronic shows, along with jam bands. 

During the 60s and 70s, Denver experienced a very strong folk, bluegrass, country and Americana revivalist scene. Given the natural beauty of Colorado and its friendly music scene at the time, Denver was held in high regard for artists from the country-folk scene such Townes Van Zandt, Judy Collins, the Grateful Dead and, of course, John Denver — the man who fell in love with the city and its folk scene so much he changed his last name in reverence to the state capitol. John Denver’s music inspired by the city would grow to international fame. John Denver’s big hit “Rocky Mountain High” was inducted as Colorado’s second state song in 2007.

The 60s also brought on a small but growing scene of psychedelic and garage rock, similar to other states in the West, such as California, Texas and Washington. The Astronauts were a noteworthy surf rock band, who achieved a small national audience with their hit “Baja.” 

As the 70s began to approach, Denver would become a big tour destination for the up-and-coming hard rock and metal bands that would dominate the next two decades of the music industry, playing sold out stadium shows and being constantly played on the radio. Legendary rock n’ roll band Led Zeppelin made their North American debut on Dec. 26, 1968 at the Denver Auditorium Arena. Queen also made their North American debut in Denver at the Regis Field House on Apr. 16, 1974, opening for the Mott the Hoople. Joe Walsh formed his band Barnstorm in Colorado before joining the Eagles, and recorded two albums, one of them containing his big hit “Rocky Mountain Way.” Denver’s venues like the McNichols Arena and the Mile High Stadium would become big stops for hard rock and metal bands of the 80s who dominated the MTV air waves.

In December 1975, Jim Nash and Danny Flesher opened Wax Trax Records in Denver, which quickly brought punk rock to Colorado in an easy and accessible manner. The record store eventually gained prominence as a label in Chicago for its growing underground music scene. Richard Girladi of the Sun-Times stated that “as important as Chess Records was to blues and soul music, Chicago’s Wax Trax imprint was just as significant to the punk rock, new wave and industrial genres.”

The original Colorado punk band is often claimed to be The Ravers, for whom future Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, a Boulder native, was a roadie. Punk acts from the 80s include the Frantix, Rok Tots, Urban Leash, Bum Kon and Dead Silence. Denver was a big stop for more popular punk/hardcore bands like Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Millions of Dead Cops and Black Flag, whose members including Henry Rollins would visit Wax Trax to browse and purchase their records.

The most notable post-punk/alternative band of the 80s in Denver, however, was probably Fluid, who were known for creating Denver’s alternative post-punk “grunge” sound that was growing in the Pacific Northwest during the time. The Fluid signed to Seattle’s independent label Sub-Pop Records in the late 80s, which was home to other local grunge bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tad and Mudhoney. The Fluid were very close with these other acts, and played shows with them frequently all the way until the explosion of alternative music in 1991 with Nirvana’s first major label album “Nevermind” peaking at number one on the Billboard 200. 

Until the late 90s and early 2000s, Denver maintained a relatively strong alternative and punk scene, but the genre started to die down. However, during this time, many local bands started to branch out and play more experimental music, filled with extended periods of jamming and noise. In addition to the jam bands and Black Sabbath-influenced stoner rock, doom metal exploded in the late 90s, complementing the jam scene. Notable desert rock acts such as Kyuss (later Queens of the Stone Age), Fu Manchu and the Earthlings frequently played shows in Denver during the palm scene renaissance. 

At the turn of the century, a handful of Denver bands began to gain more international recognition and radioplay, demonstrating that bands from the middle of the country could dominate the national air waves. The band that achieved the biggest success was the soft, alternative rock band The Fray, formed by two former schoolmates from East High School, Isaac Slade and Joe King. The band found international success after two years of playing local venues in Denver and recording their debut major label album, “How to Save a Life,” which charted in the top 15 on the Billboard 200. 

Other Denver bands that have found commercial success within the past two decades include OneRepublic, The Flobots, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats, Tennis and The Lumineers. While these bands have carved their own spots within the mainstream popular music of today, many local musicians and songwriters will tell you the city still hasn’t yet experienced its defining spotlight moment compared to other cities. However, the rate at which musical acts from various backgrounds and areas have made an appearance outside of Denver has increased dramatically.