Boundaries between music communities shift constantly in Colorado Springs, much like the genres they embrace.
Drop by a local hard rock show tonight and you might find yourself standing next to the musicians you saw accompanying emcees at a hip-hop showcase a week earlier. You may also have seen them playing in a blues band the week before that.
One of Colorado Springs' virtues is that you can often find acts from disparate genres all sharing the same bill. It's kind of like those '60s Fillmore posters featuring a dozen eclectic acts, most of whom you've never even heard of.
Yet each of the city's local scenes also has its own style and substance, something that becomes increasingly apparent the more time you spend around them.
So to help you get situated, we've enlisted prominent figures in the local hip-hop, indie-folk and rock realms to take us on guided tours of Colorado Springs' musical nightlife.
"Hip-hop and marijuana aren't synonymous, but it's no secret that the two are known to high-five each other," says Jon "Jayoin" Stevens, who raps in both A Black Day and Mad Trees while also playing a more behind-the-scenes role in organizing local hip-hop shows.
For Jayoin and many of his peers, the hip-hop scene has expanded greatly with the opening of cannabis social clubs like the Speak Easy Vape Lounge (2508 E. Bijou St., speakeasycannabisclub.com), which has rapidly become a focal point for local rap in the aftermath of recreational marijuana's legalization.
"Week in and week out, the Speak Easy is where you can find hip-hop in its element," he says. "They have a great sound system that is usually being held down by DJ Gravity on the ones and twos."
The smoky venue is also now home to "Word Wednesdays," a spoken-word open mic hosted by David "Big Ro" Rheault that had previously been held at the V Bar downtown, where alcohol was the inebriant of choice. The weekly event continues to draw a diverse crowd that's ranged from free-verse feminists to Colorado College professor Idris Goodwin, whose rap résumé includes an appearance on HBO's Def Poetry Jam.
For a city its size, Colorado Springs also draws a surprising number of nationally known hip-hop emcees. Tech N9Ne typically does a two-night run each summer at the all-ages Black Sheep (2106 E. Platte Ave., blacksheeprocks.com) which has played host to pretty much every Juggalo-friendly act on his Strange Music label. While some artists bring their own opening acts, you can usually expect to find at least a few local emcees sharing the bill.
"It's a regular occurrence to see a talented local blaze the stage right before a music legend appears in front of a packed house," says Jayoin. "You might have Stoney Bertz freestyling with C-Rayz Walz. Or Bullhead*ded exhausting the crowd before Macklemore takes the stage." It was also at the Black Sheep that Jayoin and his fellow A Black Day emcees opened for KRS-One, arguably the best-known and most important political rapper this side of Public Enemy.
The downside, if it can be called that, is the occasional night when there's just too much going on to keep up, leaving hip-hop fans to shuttle back and forth between venues where set times are approximate at best. "Sometimes even the performers find ways to pack a mini-tour into one night," says the rapper, "by opening at one place and then headlining another across town."
And don't be surprised if the Vape Lounge is part of the itinerary. "Did I mention you can smoke herb there?" deadpans Jayoin. "You can. Twenty-one and up, of course."
"I think our little scene has really embraced being a little scene," says Changing Colors singer-songwriter Conor Bourgal, who also serves as "co-conspirator" of the indie-folk-inclined Blank Tape label. "There's not a lot of competition, and when there is, it's friendly. Although, there are a lot of folks taking music seriously and working to make a living at it."
In fact, that small-is-beautiful aesthetic may be the most sensible approach at a time when the major-label model has become increasingly dysfunctional. "House shows are maybe our specialty," says Bourgal. "We get to go to Bill Starr's house and catch Damien Jurado, or the German composer and pianist Nils Frahm, and look out at the mountain. I think some of that intimate house-show vibe comes along when the show moves to a venue."
While the musician expresses appreciation for a number of local clubs, he cites the gymnasium at the repurposed Ivywild School (1604 S. Cascade Ave., ivywildschool.com) as his current venue of choice. "The room still has a ways to go, as far as sound and vibe, but most of my favorite shows in the past year have been there," he says, citing artists like Gregory Alan Isakov, Paper Bird, Nathaniel Rateliff, Shakey Graves and Richard Buckner.
"No one is trying to brand Colorado Springs as the next Austin," says Bourgal, "but it is a great place to get inspired and write some music and find folks to play it with. I moved here 10 years ago from New York, and I've found all the inspiration and collaboration I could have hoped to find."
As co-founder of the DIY venue Flux Capacitor (3530 N. Chelton Loop, goo.gl/8VZSxa), former booking agent for the Triple Nickel Tavern (26 S. Wahsatch Ave., triplenickeltavern.com) and member of no fewer than three thrashy rock bands, Bryan Ostrow is living the dream. Or, at least, his version of it.
So if the guitarist for Blighter, 908 and Night of the Living Shred were to imagine some of his favorite real-life experiences taking place in a single day, what exactly would that day look like?
"I stumble out of an overly smoky, skunky van," he enthuses, "load into a dive bar that double-booked poker that night, and play metal while a midget on a massage table gets a massage. This really happened. I then meet tons of great people, the van breaks down, and we flip it over. We get to play a ton of excellent shows all over the country, and then finally get to our show at the Black Sheep and Sizzle [sound engineer Chris Forsythe] yells at us for being late."
Ostrow started putting on his own shows nearly a decade ago while living in Fountain. There'd be as many as 10 bands playing, he says, and a friend's van did once get flipped and set on fire. Happily, it didn't explode. "We weren't really in our right minds," he admits. "We were hopped up on booze and metal."
Flux Capacitor is, by comparison, a tamer undertaking. Together with his brother Sean and a few of their closest friends, Ostrow opened the all-ages space last December in a building that also houses rehearsal studios. The venue now puts on three or four shows a week, with more than 50 bands having appeared there in March alone.
Although he's understandably excited about the new venture, Ostrow is quick to credit three local venues — the Triple Nickel, Zodiac (230 Pueblo Ave., zodiacvenue.com) and the Black Sheep — with keeping the spirit of local punk rock and metal alive and kicking.
"The Black Sheep gets the bigger shows, but still always gives newer bands chances to play without any pay-to-play scenarios. A lot of the people running the show there were a big part of the DIY hardcore and metal scenes in the late '90s and early 2000s."
And while Ostrow's wide-eyed enthusiasm for the local rock scene may seem a little over the top, it's not unjustified. "Colorado Springs has something that a lot of bigger cities don't have: passion," he says. "I believe most people are grateful for the shows that happen in this town, and it really shows. A band can come through here and be completely blown away by kids going nuts. The 719 also has an incredible sense of community that I am very proud of."