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Denver's SXSW: UMS Rocks Baker

The River Arkansas performs at a backyard party from Strings & Wood.

Ben Roy of SPELLS gets in his fans' grills.

A jazz trio skronks away in an empty parking lot.

The festival has grown exponentially in its 15 years.

Andy Monley of Jux County joins Jim Nasi at 3 Kings during the 40th Day reunion.

The Underground Music Showcase, better known as the UMS, has been gathering steam for 15 years. Now it's the city's premier music festival, with 450 bands playing all over the Baker neighborhood last weekend.
What would Denver be like if The Denver Post Underground Music Showcase was a year-round affair? Judging by the semi-bedraggled crowd that showed up Sunday for a fourth day of high decibels, debauchery, community and power chords, it would be jubilant, exhausted, sweaty, a little hungover -- and totally blissed out.

From Thurs. July 23 to Sun. July 26, the UMS occupied the music venues, shops and art galleries of Baker, as well as the sidewalks, alleyways and backyards that spilled out from the festival's epicenter, a main stage at Broadway and Archer Place. At its peak on Saturday night, the UMS stretched across seventeen official venues, drawing thousands of fans of Denver music old and new.

"We had over 1,500 creatives perform official sets during the weekend," says Kendall Smith, UMS festival director. "When you look at the ancillary events sprouting up around the festival, building on the confluence of so many creative people in one place for four days, you see how the UMS has become an important summer event."

An unstoppable forceAndy Monley of Jux County joins Jim Nasi at 3 Kings during the 40th Day reunion.

Founded by John Moore and Ricardo Baca in 2000, the Underground Music Showcase has evolved into a sprawling, ear-blasting showcase of Denver's independent music scene, both of which have grown exponentially, even symbiotically, over the past decade. Once a small series of showcases anchored at the Hi-Dive, a small but essential venue for indie bands on the rise, the UMS is now an annual must-play for hundreds of artists from across the Front Range.

Fifteen years in, the UMS celebrates Denver's music scene as a creative incubator with more music venues than Austin, Texas (a statistic Governor John Hickenlooper is fond of quoting). The UMS also boosts the argument that music is a solid economic engine: By Sunday night, taps were running dry, bartenders had lost their voices and businesses up and down South Broadway were closing the books on one of the year's best weekends.

"Because of the numbers of people who come to enjoy the UMS, we have hundreds of people in the store each day of the festival," says Erika Righter Ramirez, owner of Hope Tank, a boutique that sells local and artisan goods; a portion of all sales benefit dozens of nonprofit organizations. Like many business on Broadway, Righter Ramirez outfitted her shop's window to be UMS-friendly, with an art installation by Youth on Record, an official beneficiary of both Hope Tank and the UMS. "The UMS is incredibly impactful for the charities that we support, because most of these people would otherwise not have heard of them. People come back after UMS and shop like crazy."

Banjos, comedy and Denver music history
A jazz trio skronks away in an empty parking lot.

This year's line-up of roughly 450 official performances was a messy encapsulation of the musical moment in Denver. There were plenty of banjos, some spontaneous dance parties and lots of potty humor. UMS-goers moved from quiet rooms, where songwriters shared folk-infused earnestness and occasional string arrangements, to barrooms with floors sticky with spilled beer.

Humor was a theme of this year's UMS, with curated comedy shows from Christie Buchele and Jake Browne, live podcasts (including "Poop Talk," a new offering from Virgil Dickinson of the Greater Than Collective) and performances from funny bands the Ned Garthe Explosion and SPELLS, fronted by standup comedian and Grawlix co-founder Ben Roy.

Youth is king at the UMS, with many bands new to the schedule this year, and those looking to refresh their cache of hipster jokes would find plenty of source material during even a brief UMS tour: As one social media post put it Friday, "Denver, if you've lost your white dude in a band, they are on South Broadway." There were also some meaningful nods to artists that helped build the foundation of Denver's now-thriving music scene, including 40th Day, Jux County and Slim Cessna's Auto Club, which performed on the main stage on Sunday night.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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