Indie 102.3 host Jessi Whitten left her full-time position with Colorado Public Radio to join the team at Levitt Pavilion Denver in March 2020. The time seemed right: The nonprofit venue, which was ready to reboot its fourth season of concerts, was looking forward to major growth.
Levitt, which had opened in 2017, was still something of a secret after its first three years, offering fifty free high-end concerts showcasing some of the best local and touring bands each summer alongside a number of ticketed blockbuster shows.
For those looking for free killer music for all-ages audiences, Levitt had become the destination in Colorado. Shows, geared toward families, ended at 10 p.m. Talent buyers booked a diversity of genres, from cumbia and bluegrass to hip-hop and rock, and attracted those who might not be able to afford high-priced tickets and fees at Red Rocks Amphitheatre or a club. And the view of Denver from Ruby Hill Park, where the amphitheater is located, is stunning.
Whitten, a smart hire for the venue, brought along a strong fan base and community trust in her taste as a DJ, as well as a passion for introducing people to music that they might otherwise never hear. But the news of her arrival was lost as the United States woke up to COVID-19 and the music industry came to a screeching halt.
“There was other shit to talk about,” she acknowledges. “It’s been fascinating taking this massive career move into live music the month live music shut down. It’s been an interesting year. It was good timing, because my particular strengths were useful.”
While other venue owners wrung their hands over closures and their fears about shutting down for good, Whitten booked a livestream series called Levitt in Your Living Room, to ensure that Colorado music fans stayed in touch with rising artists from here and beyond, and to make sure musicians were paid something.
“It ended up pretty great,” Whitten says. “We did more than sixty livestream shows — above our typical fifty free concert series. We had over 300,000 views over the course of the series. We were able to keep people together in that way, at least to remind people that we exist.”
Since the pandemic began, Chris Zacher, head of Levitt Pavilion Denver, has rallied venue owners scrambling to survive, organizing dozens of independently run Colorado bars, clubs and theaters — from Red Rocks to Seventh Circle Music Collective — to join forces under the banner of the National Independent Venue Association and the Colorado Independent Venue Association. He successfully advocated for local, state and federal funding, meeting with government officials along the way to remind them that live music is a major economic driver in Colorado and how its loss would devastate the state's culture and revenue.
He managed to keep his core team employed through the pandemic, though security, concessions operators and others found themselves out of work. And while Zacher focused on his work as an advocate, the rest of the full-time staff kept online shows running, long before most venues launched their own livestreams.
Last summer, Levitt stocked up on hand sanitizer and planned to reopen before the season ended. Every few weeks, the venue signaled that some sort of live event would soon return, but then...crickets. Cold weather arrived, and COVID-19 cases spiked with a bleak third wave. The state shut down again in November after Levitt had already postponed its entire season.
Whitten plugged along with little ceremony, committing herself to the organization’s vision to bring free music to everyone while paying bands industry rates.
“It’s been a hell of a year,” she confirms.
But even as Colorado reconciles itself to being in the middle of a fourth wave of the virus, Levitt plans to reopen its concert series in May. Pimps of Joytime will open the season on May 14; on May 15, the Latin rock fest Rock de Mayo will highlight a string of Denver’s best Chicano and Latinx bands, including iZCALLi; DeVotchKa will perform on May 21; Dustbowl Revival will take the stage on May 28; Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers will perform on May 29; Neoma will headline June 4; and Flobots will be there on June 5.
“For every name on this list, we’re going to be adding more local bands to this lineup,” says Whitten. “We’re building up the music industry with paid opportunities.”
As excited as the Levitt team is to reboot the summer series, the nonprofit knows that it will have to remain flexible; no single set of rules will dictate how things proceed over the season.
“The biggest lesson from last year is you make a plan and don’t get attached to it, and have four more waiting in the wings,” says Whitten. “Right now we’re expecting to open at just over 3,000. I think that number puts us at the largest music capacity in Denver. We have the space to accommodate it."
Even if coronavirus case numbers continue to rise, Whitten is confident that the venue will be able to move forward with the current concept.
“We have plans in place that are safe, and we’re proud of them," she says. "We wouldn’t move forward this year if we couldn’t do it well."
When concerts do come back, Whitten doesn’t want them to return like they were before the pandemic. Her hope is that the lessons society as a whole learned in 2020 change how the industry approaches live music altogether: no more racism, no more space for sexual predators, and no more unsafe spaces.
“I keep talking about 'Never go back to normal' in my personal life, because this last year has been such an opportunity for reflection personally, as Coloradans and as Americans,” Whitten says. “Levitt has been having these conversations in our actual practices, in acknowledging privilege and prioritizing our representation in terms of booking. We’re not only making sure people will be taken care of, but also that they will not be assaulted and will be listened to if there is a problem.
“There are," she adds, "a lot of ways of thinking about how not to go back to normal.”
For more information, go to the Levitt Pavilion website.
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