Features, Print May 3, 2021

Pump Up The Jam: Festivals Get the OK in Vaccinated NoCo – We Break It Down

by Dan England

After a guest asked how he was doing, Justin Watada sighed through a tired laugh. “I’ve had better years,” he said. 

Watada’s been through 17 Greeley Stampedes (as the head of media relations years ago and now as its general manager) and this year’s been the toughest. Yes, this year, even with the good news that there will actually be a 2021 Stampede. That’s because he still doesn’t know exactly what the Stampede will be this year. The event’s changed more times than the restrictions surrounding COVID-19. That, as we all know by now, is a lot.

“We are on version 10 of our budget this year,” Watada said. “We are 80-some days away, and there’s still so much unknown.”

So, yes, there will be a Stampede this year: a multi-day event, at the usual time, even operating on Fourth of July weekend, with the goal of five evening concerts and some rodeos. There will also be a Greeley Arts Picnic at the end of July, a Neighborhood Nights series and even a Greeley Blues Jam on June 5. In many ways, these events will look and feel like the same events you loved before the virus wiped out everything fun last year.

Even more big events look promising, such as High Plains Chautauqua, who claim via their website that 2021 will be “better than ever.” UNC’s Concert Under The Stars says the same thing. Yay! 

But exactly what they will look like, or, more importantly, sound like, remains to be seen, even with the news that all state restrictions on outdoor gatherings were lifted.

That’s the hard part for Watada and other organizers. In fact, it makes this year even harder than 2020 when they had to cancel everything. Last year was a bummer. This year feels more like chaos. Let’s dig in.

Greeley Blues Jam: June 5

Remember, these are huge events, with thousands of people, national acts, attended by people from all over the world. They take a year to plan. And yet, the Blues Jam decided basically a month before the event that “it’s time to get back to the party,” as they put it in a news release. 

That could make it the first festival that happens in all of Colorado, said Pam Bricker, who founded the festival with her husband, Al, and still has a major part in running it with him. Most other festivals pushed themselves to late summer or early fall to play it safe. 

“We have this wonderful opportunity,” Bricker said. “All we need to do now is say it’s going to happen.”

That won’t affect the lineup, as it’s essentially the lineup who was supposed to play in 2020, said John DeWitt, the chairman of the Jam, as they retained everyone except for one act. Here’s a quick preview:

Ronnie Baker Brooks – The 2021 headliner is a Chicago blues guitarist and well-respected solo act. 

Southern Avenue – This Memphis band’s frontwoman and drummer are sisters, and the band’s founder/guitarist Ori Naftaly hails from Israel. Their significant following here is thanks to many Moxi shows and Naftaly’s numerous appearances at the Jam. 

Jimmy Hall – Harmonica player known for his work with Wet Willie, which had the huge hit “Keep On Smilin’” in 1974. 

Johnny Sansone – Veteran and multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans. 

Erica Brown and the Cast Iron Queens – Brown, another Greeley favorite, brings her all-women group with Emily Nelson, an artist with Greeley ties. 

Remaining line-up – King Cake (formerly the Movers and Shakers), the Grace Kuch Band, Kerry Pastine & The Crime Scene.

There will be a second, smaller stage, which may feature local acts, enough to “keep the music going,” DeWitt said, while the Main Stage prepares for the next big name.

Other new stuff includes a Kansas City sanctioned barbecue contest, beer tasting and a whiskey and cigar event. 

“For a couple of years now we’ve been trying to add value to the event,” DeWitt said. “We hope to attract a different crowd who doesn’t realize the Blues Jam is so cool. They maybe check out the barbecue event and then they hear the music and go, ‘What’s that?’ I’m excited about music again.”

The Blues Jam hopes to have a Friday night pub crawl downtown as well, which will happen outdoors, at least, even if indoor restrictions remain in place.

The Island Grove Arena will still have sod covering the dirt floor, and there’s still more than enough room to distance everyone if that’s what is needed, Bricker said, or a portion of the audience who desires to. Sometimes there are advantages to having an older audience:

“They will all be vaccinated,” Bricker said. “I’m feeling very positive.”

Friday Fest: May 28 – September 17

Fridays are fun again in Downtown Greeley, as the city’s promotional association announced the return of Friday Fest starting May 28. The free event features live bands, the famous Go-Cup service that allows residents to carry a cup of alcohol along the 9th Street Plaza and other fun.

“Of course, if our numbers spike and we start overwhelming our healthcare system again, things could change. But as it stands today, we are moving forward,” said Alison Hamling, chairwoman of the association. “We strongly encourage vaccinations to help ensure this season will be possible and we will not have to cancel.” 

Friday Fest, unlike other events, doesn’t have a way to control crowd numbers, as it’s free and doesn’t offer a controlled entrance and exit. But the space itself should allow people to evenly spread out on the plaza, Hamling said, according to their own comfort level.

Friday Fest should run until September 17. Highlights besides its Blues Jam kickoff on June 4 include the Greeley Stampede’s kickoff on June 18. The season’s full lineup isn’t set yet, but the Greeley Friday Fest Facebook page will be updated accordingly.

Greeley Stampede: June 24 – July 4

The state’s new comparatively relaxed regulations, with the promise of more as long as cases drop, gives the Stampede hope for a fun time. Cases were actually on the rise nationwide in April, but more and more people are getting vaccinated. 

“It’s looking better and better every day,” Watada said, who could use the good news. Even so, he still expects capacity limits. He wants a safe event. 

“It doesn’t mean we will go from 0 to 60,” he said. “Right now, even if everything is wide open, we will have capacities and stuff like that. It’s a tricky situation. We know there’s some consumer confidence we have to get back.”

Even if Watada wants those limits, they leave the Stampede at a disadvantage as some states such as Texas are 100 percent open. It’s hard to say what that means for concerts, although the Stampede still wants to present five nights of shows with national acts. He doesn’t know what the capacity will be for those shows, and that makes negotiating hard when some artists are taking big money to perform in places with no restrictions. 

“We are reworking with some of the artists,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate mess, although I understand the artists’ position. They haven’t been working for the last year either.”

The goals remain modest this year, Watada said, even as last year delivered a financial hit to the organization. 

“Our board hopes to make $1 and cover all expenses,” he said – only partially joking. “That would be a success.”

Greeley Arts Picnic: July 24 and 25

Andrea Haring probably could have picked a better year to run the City of Greeley’s largest entertainment events for the first time. But the special events coordinator for decades, Rhonda Welch, retired last year. Oof.

Haring, however, is excited about the fact that the city will have a Farmers Market as well as the arts picnic and a Neighborhood Nights series, which presents a free movie and a fun live music act in a Greeley park.

The event should, however, look like the Arts Picnic of years past, with vendors and live music similar to what they’ve had before – i.e. local and regional bands that offer some culture as well as good music. But the vendors could be spaced out, and there may not be chairs for music fans, as patrons should bring blankets to sit on. There may or may not be food vendors, and she doesn’t know if there will be a kickoff concert the Friday before the two-day event. 

People are eager to get out, however, and she knows, because of that, the event should be a success no matter how it’s presented.

“We typically don’t go over 250 for Neighborhood Nights, but this summer, who knows? People are itching to get out,” Haring said. “We will do everything in our guidelines to make all of it safe, but we also want to offer a little joy.”

That’s Not Quite All, Folks

Many other festivals across Colorado have either pushed their dates to September or still are hoping to offer more information soon. 

Ely Corliss said more information on his May Play event is coming soon, but so far the street music festival in downtown Greeley is booked for May 28, the opening night for Friday Fest. The one-night festival will feature headliner Mike Zito plus The Great Salmon Famine featured on this months cover), The Cuddies and Ben Pu. Since most of it is outside, it should be good to go, meaning there shouldn’t be many restrictions on crowd sizes. 

The Arise music festival in Loveland had an “Arise Online” concert on Earth Day, April 22, and the website says they will have an announcement soon. Finally, Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest, one of the biggest events of the year, usually has its event in mid-August. Last year it was canceled, but this year it may go on: The website says to check back for updates and that it’s still too soon to say whether they can host their festival. But it also says, in one of the understatements of the year, “We are missing live music, and we know you are too.”

This story was reported in a partnership with NoCO Optimist.