At the beginning of every autumn in Denver, Colorado, a single spotlight cuts through the shadow cast over the city's underground scene. Ironically enough, around here we call it Cloak & Dagger.
Having just closed out its third annual edition this last Saturday, October 15th, Cloak & Dagger Festival once again challenged the notion that nightclub events and music festivals must remain mutually exclusive. Local promoter TheHundred curated a lineup big enough to occupy two floors of Club Vinyl and all three rooms of City Hall Events Venue consisting almost entirely of house and techno artists such as Will Clarke, Sage Armstrong and Audion.
The two SoCo Nightlife venues are located a block apart on Broadway, so as soon as the sun set the stretch of road connecting their entrances filled up with stereotypically laid-back Denver bros, floppy black hat-wearing techno purists, and every shade of scenester in between. The soundscapes ricocheting out from each of the five rooms ranged from deep house to shallow house to ghetto tech and even the occasional downtempo future bass, in the case of the upstairs City Hall Cues Room, affording partygoers suffering from musical ADHD a number of options.
The festival also featured a heaping helping of local artists like Rose Hips, Freddy Rule and Aaron Bordas - the latter of whom warmed up the decks of the basement-level City Hall Amphitheater stage to a very respectable turnout, considering that his opening time slot ran from 6:00-7:00 PM.
“I played last year, and ever since then I think I’ve been getting a good amount of followers around town,” Bordas told me when I caught up with him after his set. “My good buddy Brennan [Bryarly] had the idea to put me on the main floor and it turned out really, really well.”
Aaron and his twin brother, Brian (who he asserts is by far the more social of the two) have become fixtures in Denver’s underground music scene as of late. Whereas twins typically repel one another and seek to establish discrete identities and social circles, the two are quite often together on any given night out.
“For the longest time, my brother has kinda’ been my manager,” Aaron explained. “He reps me harder than anybody I know, and it goes a long way. As an artist it’s hard to talk about yourself, so me having a twin brother is an amazing dynamic.”
Bass music has been central to Denver’s electronic music scene since the dubstep explosion of 2010, due in no small part to hip-hop and jazz soul-infused acts like Pretty Lights and Big Gigantic. Although it wasn’t until a couple years ago that denizens of the Red Rocks Amphitheater lot scene began to appreciate the sophistication of the four-four spectrum, Bordas pointed out that he’s been a “house advocate” for about a decade himself. “Even when this whole dubstep thing came about, I was opening up at dubstep shows and changing people’s minds about house,” he said.
After Bordas finished up his fellow Denverites Black/Tuesday took his place, and at the same time Kevin Callison and Seth Nichols (who runs the underground techno-geared after hours venue Ekō House) took to the stage of the City Hall Ground Level Floor for their vinyl back-to-back set. A city block to the south, Collin McKenna played on the Club Vinyl Main Floor before out-of-towners Peter Anthony, Weval and Honey Dijon followed.
Detroit house duo Golf Clap closed out the Club Vinyl Rooftop around the point that Will Clarke started spinning at the City Hall Amphitheater. English house DJ/producer Marc Kinchen A.K.A. MK came next, followed by perhaps the strongest selling point of Cloak & Dagger Festival: a two-hour set by Dirtybird Records’ chief export, Justin Martin.
As smoothly as the third installment of the festival appeared to run from the vantage point of the passive observer, an endearing air of unpredictability permeated behind the scenes. TheHundred founder Brennan Bryarly, who also performs under the moniker Option4, could be seen frantically darting between the venues to put out figurative fires at any given point, his long tee flapping in the wind as slapped hands with however many acquaintances called out to him as he made his way from point A to point B - or C or D or E, as it were.
After an impromptu trip to a Wal-Mart across town to procure European power converters necessary for Agents Of Time to perform their closing set on the Club Vinyl Main Floor, Bryarly carved out fifteen minutes to talk to me on the venue’s rooftop. “I’ve always been really underground,” he told me against the backdrop of the downtown Denver skyline. “Even stuff that got popular, at the time that I was into it, was really underground.”
Bryarly moved to Denver exactly five years ago this Thanksgiving, and next month also marks TheHundred’s five-year anniversary. Bryarly thinks of the organization as more of a community than a company; he maintains that he would never even have started throwing parties if there had been a more active underground house and techno scene in Denver at the time. “I had to come up with a concept to get people to care about the music,” he recounted, “so I put a hundred people in a group and let them book what they wanted and the rest is history.”
Incidentally, 2011 also marked the year that SoCo Nightlife (the company that owns Club Vinyl and City Hall, in addition to other off-Broadway nightclubs like The Church and Bar Standard) was facing a noteworthy crisis.
The company’s founder, Regas Christou, had filed a monopolistic practices suit against Beta Nightclub founder and part owner Brad Roulier the previous December. Roulier had previously promoted for Christou’s clubs, but parted ways with SoCo in 2007 to open Beta, bringing a wealth of booking leverage along with him.
Prior to joining forces with SoCo Nightlife, Bryarly had organized TheHundred's events at NORAD Dance Bar - a struggling underground electronic music nightclub located in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood that had been owned and operated by Preston Douglas. After NORAD discontinued business operations in May of 2014, Saturdays at Club Vinyl became TheHundred’s holdover - and dance music’s more classic styles reached a new generation of fans, effectively breathing new life into the nightlife destination.
“When we started throwing parties we always chose venues that were not well attended,” Bryarly told me. “Then, we could build the vibe from there. If you start from scratch and put all the right people in there, that’s how you build a vibe.”
However, Bryarly was Gracious enough not to make himself out to be SoCo’s savior. He continued:
“I don’t feel like SoCo owes us anything at all. We owe a lot to SoCo because they’ve allowed us to be really competitive and bring some of the biggest names in the world; I don’t think one independent person could ever do that with their checking account. There’s always a balance, and if you swing too heavy and lose too heavy then you’re out of business. I feel like we owe everything to SoCo, because when I was at NORAD we were on the verge of going out of business every week.”
When Cloak & Dagger Festival debuted in September of 2014, it took place on the same day as Skylab XX - an event brand co-owned by Roulier and Global Dance Festival promoter Ha Quang Hau. The timing of the event seemed like a purposeful jab at the Denver nightlife hegemony, and I even recall hearing rumors that members of TheHundred had grumbled about Skylab on their secret Facebook group while I was covering it for my previous publication.
This year, however, Cloak & Dagger took place a whole month after Skylab 2016, and Bryarly insists that what resentment once existed between the two nightlife factions is a thing of the past. “Brad and I are friends; when all that stuff went down I wasn’t there for any of it, because I moved here afterwards, but I don’t feel like there’s any resentment left there at all,” he said. “I was even on the verge of working with Beta, and I’ve thrown parties there, like the Get Real party with [Green Velvet] and Claude VonStroke, so there’s no animosity there at all.”
According to several Denver partygoers to whom I spoke after Cloak & Dagger wrapped up, this year’s edition was the strongest yet. Indeed, even the official afterparty at Ekō House was so packed that Party Guru Productions owner Mike Knopping couldn’t get in (for which I made sure to tease him on my way out).
That being said, it can be argued that the rise in popularity of house and techno will only serve to commodify it - and eventually, perhaps, lead to its downfall. I made such a case in my review of CRSSD Festival in San Diego, after all, and the music itself has already been watered down in an attempt to make it more accessible. Golf Clap themselves even admitted to making their performances more mainstream friendly when I spoke to them after they wrapped up on the rooftop, and at moments, MK’s set took a downright saccharine turn compared to the last time I’d seen him spin.
Be that as it may, what may prove to be TheHundred’s saving grace is the fact that they’ve already diversified beyond house and techno alone. While a fair number of Denver dance music hipsters balk at some of the promoter’s bookings - like Malaa and Rezz, who are slated to perform tonight, October 19th at Club Vinyl - their grounded approach will likely prove beneficial when house is driven back underground (as it is every several years).
In regards to TheHundred’s shift in booking priorities, Bryarly told me:
“I realize that the most important thing about buying talent and promoting shows is not having an ego. I think the first couple years I was really guilty of that. I was really snobby, because I was the first to book Disclosure, the first to book Duke Dumont, the first to book Kaytranada, and I was really, really snobby. What it really taught me more than anything is that there is nothing worse than being in a room full of stuck up, snobby people.”
For that matter, in the context of the Denver market, house and techno may prove to have real staying power anyways. Aaron Bordas, for instance, doesn’t seem inclined to give it up anytime soon. “I’ve been doing this for ten years now and I’m gonna stick to my guns,” he said. “I don’t care, man. I’ve been changing people’s minds about house for so long that now that I get to play for all these fans, and it’s nice to play what they wanna hear.”
It’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances that could derail the momentum of Cloak & Dagger Festival at this stage of the game, especially considering Denver’s exponential rate of metropolitan growth. No matter what the future of the brand may hold, though, the general consensus among attendees of the 2016 edition is that it shone brightly enough that they’ll look forward to its return next year.