While Denver may not be cursed when it comes to music festivals, the demise of once-annual events like Riot Fest, Monolith and Mile High makes ambitious ventures into the Colorado market a risky proposition at best. But the creators of the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands festivals have always thrived on challenges, and this weekend's Grandoozy Festival at Denver's Overland Park will be a test of their talent.
The three-day festival's headliners — Kendrick Lamar, Florence + The Machine and Stevie Wonder — are all huge talents as well as big box-office draws, while the full festival lineup, which you can view at grandoozy.com, is collectively no less impressive, with diverse acts like St. Vincent, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, De La Soul, Mavis Staples, The Chainsmokers, Snow Tha Product, Sturgill Simpson, Miguel, Logic, The War on Drugs and dozens of others.
We sat down last week with festival co-creator Jonathan Mayers, who also co-founded the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands festivals, to get the inside story on what could turn out to be Denver's premier music event for years to come.
Indy: Let's start by talking about your headliners. I'm guessing you've worked with some of them before?
Jonathan Mayers: Yes, all three. I've been so lucky to work with so much of the talent that I admire. And with this festival's three headliners, we wanted to showcase different genres who are diverse and relevant. So Kendrick Lamar, who's our Friday headliner, we worked with him in the early days. At Bonnaroo, he was playing on a Thursday in a tent that was for emerging talent, and now he's won a Pulitzer. His music is just really positive, and it's provocative, he's saying something. I mean, he's a major, major talent, one of the biggest out there.
And the next night, you've got Florence and the Machine.
We actually just had her at Outside Lands. It was an unbelievable performance, and she has a new record out. And candidly, we really wanted diversity at the top, we wanted a woman headliner. That was actually something we intentionally looked for.
It would have been a pretty big mistake not to.
Right, because we really do want to show diversity. And then with Stevie Wonder, we thought about what it should feel like at the end of a festival after you've had what was hopefully a really positive experience. And then here's Stevie and his music, which is so universal. It's about love and peace and coming together.
So how far do you have to go down the bill to find somebody you haven't worked with already?
Well, there's a lot of new emerging talent, and it's been really fun to grow our programming team. I booked the early years of Bonnaroo, and that was really fun, but you become less on the pulse of what's happening, and part of a festival is about the discovery. And so while you may be coming in for Kendrick Lamar, you're going to discover something new, and that's the cool thing.
Who are some of the less well-known acts that you're personally excited about?
Well, I'm excited about Sturgill Simpson and I really like Miguel, who is really cool, and St. Vincent. I'm also excited to see [Denver acts] Gasoline Lollipops and Tennis. I want to keep discovering, I want to keep learning.
How did you get started booking shows?
I grew up in the New York suburbs, and I moved to New Orleans, where I was supposed to go to Tulane — well, I went to Tulane, I paid for Tulane — but I really just wanted to be in New Orleans. So I interned at the Jazz Fest and I graduated, barely, with a degree in business. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at the time, but I knew that I wanted to stay in New Orleans. And I knew that I wanted to combine my passions and interests — in particular with music — and make that a career. And so I stayed. My first job was booking a club down there called Tipitina's.
For how long?
I booked it for about two years, I think mainly because no one else wanted the job at the time. I was booking fais-dodos [Cajun dance parties], I was booking brass bands, I was booking gospel acts. But I was also booking punk rock. I booked bands from Fugazi and Bad Religion to Widespread Panic to hip-hop. This was '97, '98.
Had you been in bands yourself?
I wasn't in bands, I'm a terrible musician, but it wasn't until later that I realized I was a creative person. It's just a different medium. These concept events, they're my canvas.
You've referred to the events you produce as "creative experiences" versus festivals. What is the difference?
I think it's all about the way you go about it and your point of view. I don't look at it simply as this commodity where it's four stages and you put the bands on them. I'm very much inspired by people like [the late promoter] Bill Graham. It's like, what does your ticket look like, right? What does the stage look like? What are all the other visual elements? And what's the overall vibe that you're trying to create? It's a completely sensory experience.
Denver has always been a challenging market when it comes to bigger musical events. The Monolith Festival — which brought together some amazing indie-rock acts — came and went, and so did Riot Fest. Mile High is gone, and The Denver Post has backed out of the Underground Music Showcase, which it started ages ago. How is Grandoozy going to stay the course, and why didn't you go with an easier market?
Yeah, I don't know that there is any easy market. I think it's all hard, it really is. It's hard to, first of all, just get it off the ground. All the logistical elements and moving parts, it's a challenge. And I think that's why we love it, because it's challenging. But I think that there are unique factors to Colorado and Denver. You have Red Rocks, which is one of the most iconic venues in the world, and there's a lot of amazing music that happens here.
When it came to getting the city's support, what was the tipping point? When did you realize, "We've got this!"
I think the tipping point was when one of the city leaders recommended Overland Park, and everyone was like, yes, that actually could be a solution. And then we did a lot of community engagement and ultimately the city council voted yes to support it. And that's when we were like, "OK, cool, we know now. We're doing it."
So you don't envision anything like the problems Riot Fest had after its first year, when the town of Byers refused to grant permission for a second festival?
No. Overland Park is really centrally located, less than 10 minutes away from Mile High Stadium, and there are two stops off of the train — there is the Broadway stop and the Evans stop — so of course we're encouraging people to use mass transportation if they can. And then there's the whole ride-share, the Ubers and the Lyfts. One program that we're really proud of, that we do at Outside Lands, is that we have a really big bike-parking program. So there'll be bike parking available on-site, and we're encouraging that, as well.
I noticed that the festival's lineup seems really light on jam bands. Why is that?
Well, given the origins of Bonnaroo, we are very rooted in the jam band community. And I know the jam band scene still thrives here; this is one of the biggest markets for it. We do have Karl Denson playing, but we knew it was going to be challenging to book some of those bands, because a lot of them are already committed to annual shows at Red Rocks, which books so far ahead that it's crazy! But we're really proud of the lineup that we're putting forth, and that will continue to morph and change. Because at the end of the day, it's all about our love of music.