The first annual 303 Music Fest was a spiritual experience for the Denver scene. The party took place at The Church Nightclub — a historic building in Capitol Hill — where the stained glass windows framed two stages and a silent disco. Performers proved there’s a vast pool of local talent here in the Mile High city that should be worshipped.
Denver’s Jay Triiiple alongside DJ Hex Kitten started off the festival on the basement stage, dubbed the “The Sanctuary.” This queen emcee rapped personal stories about her life through song. She garnered ravenous audience participation, from hands in the air to basking in the spotlight of numerous iPhones. Pulling out all the stops, Jay Triiiple had numerous guests including an especially sharp performance of “Rollin'” with Dante That Guy. Although her words were personal, Triiiple’s presentation of the material was unflinching.
Elsewhere, on the main stage (aptly named “The Altar”), grit-rock band CITRA threw down an impossibly heavy set. The band’s guitar reliant and dynamic instrumentation took the main stage by storm. Like a bull in a China shop, lead singer Brendan Arndt’s howls tore through the venue with no restraint, as lead guitarist (Augie Menos) and bassist (Sean Slattery) followed suit, decimating anything left standing. Drummer Dan Naddy, only further pummeled the audience with blistering percussion. While the band and audio engineer seemed to wrestle with the sound for much of the set, it was still one hell of a way to set the night off.
The next band to play “The Altar” was Denver’s Eldren, a group that could have re-scored The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, Forrest Raup’s drums could have soundtracked a trek up the Flatirons alone. Josh Lee’s violin was aggressive — from the way he held the bow between his teeth to how the notes bounced off the rest of the band’s instrumentation. It was majestic and it was funky — a wanderlust of sound that peaked the curiosity of the audience throughout. The ring, so to speak, of the performance was a cameo by none other than Wes Watkins on trumpet, driving the entire production home.
From there, I went to my first silent disco and learned what it meant to be alone but also together. Going down in the “Ministry of Silence” — with the headphones and technology provided by Sound Off Colorado, a dance party lit by lasers and shrouded in fog was ensuing. First up was DJ Simone Says’ trap massacre. Rap beats and street heat galore, DJ Simone Says put it down and didn’t clown. All the while looking completely unassuming, DJ Simone Says had the silent disco in the palm of her hand. From the outside, a silent room was the place to be.
Putting on the glowing blue headphones again, DJ Impact’s beats took me to a whole other headspace. At first, I found the experience isolating, as the headphones cancelled out the surrounding noise. However, in that isolation, there was an opportunity to stop caring about what the people around me thought, and just dance. Which is exactly what I — and everyone around me — did.
Back down in “The Sanctuary,” in-your-face goth-electronic duo Church Fire set the stage ablaze with guttural vocals and their signature angst. Between the electronic keyboarding of the man in the mask (David Samuelson) and the twitchy dancing of the woman in the horns (Shannon Webber), Church Fire put on a performance like no other. Some of their songs conducted body parts to act out odd motions while others focused on syncopated rhythms that were better to just appreciate than groove to. Although it seemed like the audience may have been a little intimidated — with several feet between the front of the stage and the first tentative dancers — Church Fire’s performance had smoke coming out of my ears. (-Written by Cori Anderson)
Following the electro-grunge set by Church Fire, Ray Reed gave a performance that commanded the crowd’s attention in “The Sanctuary.” It was easy to listen closely and marinate in his truth. He rapped stories of horror, tragedy and carrying on, despite the injustices he’d experienced. The Denver-native dropped A Dolla & A Scheme earlier this month, and his performance was a nonstop hustle from start to finish. With God as his witness, Ray Reed shined as one of Denver’s best up and coming rappers out there.
Perhaps the most epic highlight of the evening was the 303 Music Fest’s Colorado SuperJam led by Wes Watkins. Denver funk-group Other Black hosted and Watkins — formerly with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — fronted the massive ensemble of local musicians who took the stage in rotation. With a focus on inclusivity and giving marginalized musicians a platform (particularly women of color), the group, which included artists like iZCALLi, Kaitlyn “Kdubbs” Williams, Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp, Ghost Tapes and more, played a mix of covers and originals. Stephen Brackett and Jamie Laurie of Flobots came on stage to rap alongside the horn section for a special performance, rounding out the eclectic mix of Colorado musicians. However, the most surprising was perhaps Watkins’ spin on Rateliff’s breakout hit “S.O.B,” which took on a new life as it was reimagined in the likeness of Other Black.
Though the festival ran behind in schedule, Trev Rich rallied the troops to witness his explosive performance. Surrounded by beams of light, Rich made good on his promise as Denver’s great rap hope. Keeping it short but pointed, Rich relished in the vibe of the crowd and delivered hit after hit. Feeling the love in his hometown, Rich treated the audience to a never before heard track off his upcoming project. The track was absolute heat, and the sheer hype around it served as collateral damage. In fact, as 303 Music Fest ran late into the night, Rich served like the Red Bull vodka many descended upon to “turn up” anew. (-Written by Kori Hazel)
Back in the “Ministry of Silence” local producer and DJ MILKY.WAV had his way with the silent crowd in his usual chill style. Mixing in hip-hop, some Spanish songs and a healthy amount of danceable beats, the little room grooved under the impressive light show put on by 303 Lazers. For a few seconds, if you took off your headphones, you could hear the shuffling and stomping of other dancers’ feet on the church’s old wooden floor — and it proved that MILKY.WAV knows how to keep an audience engaged. As his time came to an end, the next DJ — Boyhollow — transitioned from MILKY.WAV’s trancey set to an almost frantic upbeat house mix. (-Written by Cori Anderson)
Though sparse due to the delay, Stayloose took the stage undaunted and shimmered in electronic decadence. Taking his productions into the live instrumentation realm, Stayloose baptized those remaining in indelible dancefloor grooves. Covering an array of songs from his fantastic self-titled debut album, Stayloose was electrifying and kept the mood of the night on a high point. Most impressive however, was Stayloose’s reimagining of songs by Odesza and ROZES that blew the house down and kicked us to the curb, beaming on a Thursday night. (-Written by Kori Hazel)
303 Music Fest left nothing short of praise and awe for Denver’s music scene. While the night wasn’t without its occasional hiccup, the bands that congregated in the belly of the Church brought their A-game, each one putting on career-defining performances. Potential was the word that never ceased to flutter out of murmuring mouths, and Denver got a mere taste of what’s yet to come. Above all, however, was the absolute heart and camaraderie evident from the performance to the atmosphere of the crowd during 303 Music Fest. The night wasn’t simply about raising the music scene on a pedestal, it was about putting Denver on a pedestal and attempting to shine a light on the diversity and talent that makes Denver’s music scene so special. (-Written by Kori Hazel)
All photography by Kyle Cooper unless otherwise noted.