Now back for a fourth year, Denver Comes Alive has been expanded to two nights at the Mission Ballroom. Before a funk-driven lineup on Saturday, January 14, with Lettuce, the Main Squeeze (which played a killer set at this year’s Westword Music Showcase), an all-women funk supergroup and more, the Friday, January 13, show will focus on bluegrass, with headliner Yonder Mountain String Band, the Kitchen Dwellers, Maggie Rose, a sextet of women in bluegrass with Winter Wonder Women, and a jam with Billy Failing (banjoist for Billy Strings), Jason Carter, Tyree Woods and more.
“The Comes Alive events focus on musicianship, community and giving back. Denver seemed like the perfect fit to bring the event because the music scene is so vibrant, the community encourages live music, and the music industry supports the nonprofit world,” says Shah. “We’re proud to have Backline as a beneficiary for this year’s event. I’m looking forward to the two incredible female supergroups! It’s wonderful that we have so many women showcased on the lineup, and the fact that we have some of the most talented women in music playing has me beyond excited!”
The Friday show is a homecoming of sorts for Yonder Mountain String Band, a bluegrass staple that got its start in Nederland and has pushed the genre into more alternative territory over the past 25 years, becoming one of the best-known bluegrass acts in the country.
“Yonder Mountain could not have been born anywhere but Colorado,” says Yonder Mountain bassist and vocalist Ben Kaufmann. “In the mid- to late ’90s and the early 2000s, Colorado and the Front Range was a groundbreaking audience for music. They were into everything and supportive of everything. And so that was the fertile ground that birthed our band and supported other bands like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese. And then from there, as we toured, as those bands toured, it began to spread out, and the scene began to grow.”
Yonder Mountain was one of Colorado Music Hall of Fame’s 2021 inductees, alongside fellow jamgrass innovators String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon. The Fox Theatre, where Yonder Mountain debuted to a sold-out crowd, was also inducted with that class. “Back then, alternative bluegrass was just the biggest deal,” Kaufmann remembers of that first concert.
But traditionalists weren’t as welcoming to Yonder Mountain, at least until the band began to gain widespread popularity. “What we did was play bluegrass with a different take on it and with a ton of energy. And the traditional bluegrass world didn’t want any part of us,” Kaufmann recalls. “And we were like, ‘That’s fine. Fuck you guys. We’re gonna do our own thing.’ And we did our own thing, and thousands and thousands of people were showing up at our shows. The next thing you know, we’re in this [genre] called ‘jamgrass,’ and we’re the leading light of that music.” The band’s innovation made Yonder Mountain a key influence on the swath of alternative jamgrass bands that came later, including Billy Strings, Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass.
There have been challenges along the way, though. Kaufmann says that the band lost many fans after original member Jeff Austin departed in 2012; Austin, who played mandolin and washboard, passed away in 2019. Kaufmann had to unplug from social media because of all the hatred the band was getting, with one person even blaming him for Austin’s death. “The temptation is there for us to just go, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough. Now we’re going to release our book. Here’s the truth. You all asked for it,'” Kaufmann laments. “All of these people, they’re thinking they know, and they’re talking all this bullshit. And they think they want the truth. But let me tell you something: They don’t. They really don’t.”
After Austin left, Yonder Mountain went into its “second chapter,” Kaufmann says, with new members for a few years. But it wasn’t until recently, when the band brought on Nick Piccininni to play mandolin, that Kaufmann thinks Yonder Mountain captured the same feeling it had in the beginning. “He’s brought an energy and light and a spark back to the experience of Yonder Mountain,” says Kaufmann. “We’re seeing audiences come back and are getting these reactions that are familiar from when we were starting. It’s not the same thing — it can’t be. That’s just the nature of life. But it’s the similarities of response and reaction that we’re experiencing at the shows now that feel really rewarding and make me feel really happy as a performer, as an artist, as a human. We have that exchange happening between band and audience again, and feeling that community still being there and people having a good time, myself included.”
Over the past decade, the band has been playing fewer shows in the state, though it’s always done its annual Red Rocks jamboree and is now happy to add Denver Comes Alive. Kaufmann is particularly excited about seeing more women on a bluegrass bill. “If there’s any chance to have more women participate in our scene, the better,” he says. “To show empowered female artists doing their thing, being successful and just making their statement — that’s what we need. The bluegrass community can be a bit of a sausage fest. And if we can have more of a balance, I’m an advocate for that. So more of that, please.”
Maggie Rose is one of those female artists, and she’s excited to be sharing the Friday bill with Yonder Mountain — “I’m a big admirer of them,” she says — before playing her own solo show at the Aggie Theatre on Saturday. Raised in Potomac, Maryland, the country singer-songwriter didn’t grow up surrounded by the sort of thriving community she’s enjoyed in Nashville for the past fifteen years. “It’s not necessarily the most creative community, the one that I grew up in, but I always had a huge amount of support for my love of singing from my family and friends,” Rose says. “So where I didn’t have the musical peers to kind of collaborate with, I definitely had a lot of support and encouragement. And I got connected with a Bruce Springsteen tribute band.”
Playing and touring with the BStreetBand, the teenage Rose caught the attention of Tommy Mottola, the former Sony music executive who’s known for signing the likes of Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Destiny’s Child. “With his contacts, I moved to Nashville when I was nineteen. I was thrown into the fire right away and started writing songs with some of the best songwriters,” she recalls. “I just became like a sponge and learned exponentially what I couldn’t have learned anywhere else, and then signed with a division of Universal in 2010. That was a whirlwind.”
At the time, she says, the country and bluegrass industry was even more male-dominated than it is today, with male artists getting more radio airtime and gigs. When a smaller label she signed to later fell apart, it was a blessing in disguise to start over again. “The album I made in 2018 felt like a new beginning for me,” Rose reflects. “We recorded it all together in one room and we did it live, and I was working with all these people that I love and that I had selected myself to work with. It was just new to me again.”
And her career took off. Rose’s albums Change the Whole Thing (2018) and Have a Seat (2021) were highlighted as top records of the year by both Rolling Stone and American Songwriter. Rose has toured with such national acts as Kelly Clarkson, Joan Jett, Marcus King and more, and most recently performed in Denver with the Allman Family Revival. Rose says she loves Denver’s music scene — her first post-pandemic show was at Cervantes’ — and is excited to be at the Mission for the first time.
“The audience should expect a lot of sincerity and camaraderie with the band on the stage,” says Rose. “It’s gonna be a really fun time; there’s gonna be plenty of opportunity to party!”
Kitchen Dwellers are also ready to party. Many people think the band is from Colorado because it plays in the state so often, but it’s actually based in Bozeman, Montana. While they were at Montana State, the founding members of Kitchen Dwellers watched the explosion of the jamgrass scene that Kaufmann and his bandmates had pioneered. “In school, everybody was always going to Leftover Salmon shows and Yonder shows and String Cheese shows,” recalls guitarist Max Davies, who joined the band in 2014, a few years after it formed. “So in the early days, those were some of the biggest influences.”
Denver was the setting for Davies’s first Kitchen Dwellers concert. “Denver was the closest really fun, music-oriented city that we could go play, and we also had so many friends that lived there,” he says. “It’s a great place to go play. People love live music there, and they love adventurous live music like what we like to do. It’s a perfect mix of jamming and bluegrass, and it’s just a great place to be able to go play. We’ve always called it our second home.”
And the band particularly appreciates sharing a stage with Yonder Mountain this time. “I mean, they’re one of our biggest inspirations as a band, and without that, we probably wouldn’t be a band,” Davies says. “We’ve had the fortune to play with them a handful of times over the last couple of years. I definitely can’t wait to check out Maggie Rose, too.”
The evolution of bluegrass has just improved the scene. “The community is so strong; these people are coming to show after show after show,” Davies says. “And so there’s a huge emphasis put on making each show unique and different, and that’s something that has really helped the genre evolve — because everyone’s trying to keep it fresh and keep it exciting for everyone who’s coming show after show.”
Although the musicians’ performances have become more freewheeling, Kitchen Dwellers continue to pay homage to traditional bluegrass through both their technical prowess and storytelling lyrics. “What keeps it the same is that the culture and the heritage of telling stories is still there,” he says. “People from blue-collar upbringings are playing music [with] high musicianship.”
High musicianship is what everyone coming to Denver Comes Alive can expect. Most bluegrass blasts culminate with all bands on stage for a giant pickin’ party, and Davies hints that there will be a similar celebration on Friday, too.
“The day is full of musicians who are friends,” he says. “So, yeah, with all the other artists that will be there, I’m sure it will be something very, very fun and memorable.”
Denver Comes Alive, with Yonder Mountain String Band, Kitchen Dwellers, Maggie Rose and more, 6:30 p.m. Friday, January 13, Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street. Tickets are $25 to $99.50.
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