Webster’s dictionary defines the word community as “a unified body of individuals with common interests living in a particular area” and the municipality of Fort Collins, Colorado may demonstrate this theme better than most conglomerates its size. From safe, city-wide bike lanes to a plethora of year-round family-oriented events and activities, the community is a common thread seen throughout the face of infrastructure as well as the citizenry.
Earlier this month, community was exemplified through the medium of music as this mid-size city with the small-town feel hosted their 15th annual NewWestFest in the heart of The Old Town district. Presented by the local music and arts-focused non-profit Bohemian Nights, patrons were given a chance to wander closed streets lined with vendors peddling wares from vacation getaways and fitness classes to tie-dyes and hammocks while partaking in food offerings that swung the spectrum of fair treats to the organic fair of local farms. As if these dynamics weren’t enough to get feet to the streets, the opportunity to take in over 90 live musical performances across seven stages, ranging from local to national acts, certainly did. Lastly, in motivating many to load the family up in the car and head into Colorado’s North Country, the fact that this event continues to be free, another indicator of the city’s focus on community, sealed the deal for the droves who turned out.
The weather Friday started with showers that produced the only rain delay of the festival but offered relief and set the tone for a cooler weekend that alternated between intermittent showers and clear blue skies. Regardless of the temperature, the streets were packed, smiles were seen everywhere, and music filled the air.
The music that was represented spanned many genres and included Americana, Jazz, Hip Hop, Latin, R & B, and reggae. No stage time was wasted either as, during many stage changes, 20-minute DJ sets offered attendees to keep the beat as they waited for the next act. Among the seven stages, each offered a varied showcase throughout the day and may have been intentional to keep people moving around the 10-block radius of the festival grounds. In attending multiple sets, certainly a noticeable trait among the venues was an introduction of a staff member of Bohemian Nights who would take the time to reference the importance of community and remind everyone how lucky it was to live in a town with a rich musical history, a thriving arts scene, and leadership that had an eye to the future looking to support the creative endeavor. Each band also would receive their just recognition including a brief history, as many had played the festival in the past.
Safety was also well thought out, as both local law enforcement and emergency medical services were stationed throughout. Bag checks were required at the largest stage, but even the small delay this created did not noticeably leave anyone devoid of fun. From a first-hand point of view, even though alcohol was being served through various vendors, there were no indicators that anyone was detained, nor were any acts of violence noted. A few people needed assistance for minor bumps, bruises, and dehydration and to all of this, the EMS responded quickly and graciously to ensure that the injured could get back to enjoying themselves as soon as possible.
Amenities were also of the highest quality. With water stations at every major intersection and indicated on festival maps and portable toilets that were cleaned nightly, not just emptied, it was easy to see that there was a drive to provide a quality experience throughout the day. Staff members as well as information kiosks were strategically placed so that anyone entering from any of the streets was able to pick-up maps or speak with someone directly about their needs or where they wanted to go.
Although writing about every set would result in a review that would fill pages denoting the endless joy that the live musical experience brings, maybe to the point of redundancy, there are a few sets that require honorable mentions. To begin, Tia Fuller, Grammy-nominated saxophonist, took the cake of most unique and inspired set from this opinion. Expectations were that her set would deliver some form of smooth jazz, but what flowed from the Library stage heralded more from the time of Be-Bop. With minor chords and long streams of consciousness reflected in notes, this brass maiden demonstrated that not only has she earned every accolade she has received but that her foundation lies with one foot in the roots of her craft with another stepping up to her own creative ascension. Fueled by substantial spoken-word interludes and a backing band of equally powerful and pronounced players, anyone standing within earshot of this set quickly made their way to the grassy knoll, taking in the forty-minute set, and in the end, wishing there was more.
Local act Whippoorwill also brought a great example of the talent found in this part of the Front Range. Their eclectic sound that intertwines elements of hard rock, folk and bluegrass are executed with a stage presence and with such a big sound that anyone who was conversing with their neighbors preceding the set quickly lost vocal interest and turned their focus stage side. This band in its usual formation is a three-piece, but continuing in the theme of community, called upon a local friend to sit in on pedal steel guitar and another, the producer of their latest album, to take up the bass role, expanding not only the breadth of the sound but also powering the noticeable joy and energy being felt between those on stage and those getting down in the crowd. For anyone catching this group for the first time, the only thing better than seeing their intoxicating dynamism on the largest stage of the festival is the potential of catching them in the intimate setting of a smaller local venue.
One of the biggest moments that reflected the future focus of Bohemian Nights came in the performance of 15-year old Julia Kirkwood, a long-time member of the Kids Rock initiative that is highly supported by Bohemian Nights. Kirkwood has performed numerous times at the festival, typically in an ensemble formation populated by other youth, but for this incarnation, not only did she perform solo, but the tune was one in which she crafted both the lyrics and melody. Before laying out the first chord, Kirkwood took the time to thank everyone who had supported her over the years and had provided avenues in which she could follow her dreams and passions and reminded everyone that it takes unity and focus on attaining the concepts of the heart and that no one does it alone. The tune she offered up as a solo acoustic piece, The Twisting Tree, had as much depth and felt as much of the music performed by her seniors throughout the weekend. To place the cherry on top of the sundae, Kirkwood was also placed as the opener for Bonnie Raitt, who has not only been a supporter of the Kids Rock Initiative but has in times past personally mentored Kirkwood on her path to success.
As the summer festival season draws to a close, attending the NewWestFest reminds the discerning music appreciator that environment and organization are as important as the musical content and that festival success is as much about the small details as the big acts. Although there is hesitancy to spread the word about this festival in order to preserve it from the masses, especially with its low-cost price tag, its attributes must be heralded so that others can also have their “first-time” experience and witness a gathering with soul whose main aim is the message with the party being a distant second. This trait makes this festival so family-friendly that many of those in attendance were in fact that, families and no man, woman, or child was seen without a smile or a good time, reflecting that Bohemian Nights for the 15th year has accomplished what it has set out to do in the community of Fort Collins.