The music marathon that is the Underground Music Showcase has come and gone once again in a cluster of loud and beautiful noises, empty plastic cups and a handful of handshakes and introductions you may or may not have recalled Monday morning. The Two Parts-helmed music festival, now in its 19th year, returned to a multitude of venues stretching down South Broadway for what is arguably one of Denver’s marquee weekends.
Bought by Two Parts last year, the festival was transformed — receiving a much needed second wind of creativity and inspiration. For the first time in a long time, the festival’s future was promisingly reimagined. Ultimately it was a resounding success but last year’s edition did have its share of growing pains — many of which came from a lack of time and preparation as Two Parts only took over the festival six months before it kicked off.
But this year’s event was a different beast entirely. With time and resources on their side, Two Parts dug their heels into creating UMS on their own terms. From the booking down to the ebb and flow of the festival, the curation of the event had an omnipresence throughout the weekend. If last year’s edition was the test kitchen, this year was treated as the grand opening.
This year had intentionality at its core. From the site map to the number of bands gracing the official lineup, UMS was condensed in all the right ways. The outdoor stages, all within a block and a half of each other made navigating among some of the largest, most recognizable names on the lineup a breeze. Despite having a reputation for being sprawling, cutting back on how far the festival stretched made the experience that much more accessible and in all honesty, manageable. In addition to the staging, for what may have been the first time ever, organizers instituted a window for artist submissions, letting word of mouth and the desire of the band to perform drive the talent pool from which they could choose. Although there were some glaring omissions on the local side, especially among acts who have long been staples at the festivals, limiting submissions and honing into who they believed deserved to play overall made for a richer more fulfilling festival experience. Likewise, the top-down approach to creating the lineup also made for a far more diverse blend of musicians. Newcomers like LVDY and Adiel Mitchell had well-earned opportunities to showcase a new and exciting generation of Denver artists while national headliners like Earthgang, DRAMA and Empress Of brought new flavors to the traditionally indie-rock outpost. In a lot of respects, there was a concerted effort to outright include more pop, R&B and hip-hop, into the mix, but the inclusions, for the most part, strode the thin line of keeping UMS underground. Most importantly, however, while there was an increase in national acts, the local music scene still stole the show — making one hell of a statement that UMS is a Denver festival first and foremost.
Speaking of the music scene reflected in UMS, the star of this year’s festival wasn’t so much a single band, rather, the immersive experiences and pop-ups led by similar-minded bands and vibes. Among them, Fort Wildermiss, The Moon Magnet Party, Synesthesia’s Cosmic Ball and 303 Magazine‘s and Molly’s Spirits own Green Room (we’re biased) managed to transcend the festival itself and create pocket destinations where one could find themselves completely entrenched in and around people who were on the same wavelength. Even the Goodwill clothing pop-up was a stroke of brilliance, probing into the thrift culture that UMS embodies. However, not all were as successful as others.
The much-hyped Rad Dudes performance, featuring cameos from Kid Astronaut, CITRA and Babelord (amongst others) was a flat-line of an inexplicably space-themed experience. The “party” felt like an exercise in nonsense and obligation, where nothing quite added up and the audience felt almost coerced into showing up to see who Rad Dudes were after their months-long mystery marketing campaign.
Likewise, last year’s innovative Odyssey Stage (located behind Import Mechanics and formerly known as the Imagination Stage) neither felt like an odyssey nor conjured much of the imagination at all. This was a shame especially because walking through Import Mechanics, with its heavy fog and cinematic lighting was an incredible precursor. But at its best, the actual stage featured retreaded elements from the year prior, and at its worst, using the stage utilized said retreads but managed to water them down, which is especially a let down considering how much more time organizers were afforded. On the other side of things, sound issues plagued many of the smaller venues — an oversight that cost a couple of would-be good sets.
Although there were many changes, one thing remained the same, if not better — the attention paid to cultivating a space for the music scene and the community who support them. Artists and musicians were seen throughout the weekend popping up at each other’s shows, promoting each other and taking the time to create genuine connections across genre and from the stage to the pit. Throughout the weekend there was an air of admiration and respect for others’ hustle and vision, something that doesn’t come across enough in the music scene and even less so at a major music festival, but therein lies the magic of UMS. So long as the festival is able to capture that sense of unification, there will always be a need for the gargantuan Broadway festival. The festival’s new owners still have some fine-tuning to do, sure, but what it represents for the music scene and Denver as a whole is worth rooting for. Looking forward into 2020, in what will be the 20th anniversary of the festival, we expect UMS to step it up and knock it our of the park.
*Editor’s Note: 303 Magazine is a media sponsor of UMS 2019