Nathaniel Rateliff teases third Night Sweats album, reveals Red Rocks return

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Denver singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff began 2020 by releasing his first solo album since striking gold with his neo-soul band, The Night Sweats. The subdued, folksy “And It’s Still Alright” already boasted a dozen-plus, sold-out international dates, after which Rateliff was planning to rejoin the Night Sweats and open select dates on Bob Dylan’s summer tour.

By late spring, every one of Rateliff’s sold-out, solo and Night Sweats shows had evaporated due to the pandemic.

Turning to activism has filled some gaps. In July, Rateliff and his bandmates helped lead a march and outdoor concert in Greenwood Village to protest that city council’s stance on opting out of statewide police reforms. He’s performed live — including seven, socially distanced Red Rocks concerts that ended Sept. 21 — and virtually to benefit local musicians and his own, social justice-focused Marigold Project.

Next, Rateliff is reconvening the Night Sweats at his home studio in the foothills to record the follow-up to 2018’s “Tearing at the Seams,” the band’s sophomore LP. The Night Sweats toured that well-received, Billboard-charting album globally, and even opened for The Rolling Stones in Denver last summer.

These days, Rateliff is grateful to play before fewer than 200 people, even as he stumps for U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper in a virtual group-concert with Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and others on Sept. 30. That same day — which would have been the final date on Rateliff’s canceled solo tour — he’ll also return to Red Rocks for a multi-camera livestream to benefit MusiCares.

Q: How surreal were this week and last week’s Red Rocks shows? I’m guessing they sold out.

A: They were at 175 capacity, which was weird, and we were doing a simul-stream to the parking lot for another 300 cars, so it was pretty well sold out. Westword was nice enough to post that somebody was trying to sell tickets for $6,500 on StubHub.

Q: You also played to an empty Red Rocks for Visible’s shows in August. Were the small shows this week sort of a middle ground between that and your usual concerts?

A: Yeah, kind of in the middle. I’ve done a few recordings we put out for fundraisers, including here at my house, completely alone. It’s a new world and what the future of live music is going to be, I guess? I’m hoping things continue to change, and then we can go back to being healthy and safe and close to each other again.

Q: How did the Visible shows feel? Talk about the future of live music. (Note: the livestreamed shows in an empty Red Rocks included audience comments projected live on the venue’s walls, as well as other “audience controlled” features).

A: It was cool, but at the same time it was like, “Damn, this is so hard.” You’ve got two cameras you’re looking at, which is not like a show. But it was a cool concept to have the stage built over the front of house. I was talking with my manager and wondering what the production costs on that were. He’s like, “No, the production costs are hefty.”

Q: Are you looking to get a Mick Jagger/Bono-quality walkway into the audience for future shows?

A: (Laughs.) Remember in U2’s “Blood Red Sky” (which was recorded at Red Rocks), there’s like a walkway that goes out into the third row? I’m not really a walkway kind of guy. I’d have to come up with a character or another stage persona. It’s still just me up there, trying not to be totally insecure. I’m happy I couldn’t see any of those social-media projections at the Visible thing. I did something virtual recently where I read the comments while I was playing and somebody’s always saying negative stuff. “Wow, this guy’s gained a lot of weight during the pandemic. He looks like Elton John up there!”

Q: At least you got to play to real people at Red Rocks this week.

A: Katie Crutchfield, who goes by Waxahatchee, had a big record come out this year and also wasn’t able to do what she wanted to do. She and I were talking while Kevin Morby, her boyfriend and my Red Rocks opener, was on stage. It was like, “When was the last time your guys’ touring audience was this size?” It feels crazy to play for 175 people, or even 300 people, these days.

Q: Well: when was the last time your touring audience was that size?

A: Like five years ago, before the Night Sweats took off. This August was actually the fifth anniversary of that release (the band’s self-titled debut). We do great shows in Denver (note: selling out multiple, capacity Red Rocks shows every summer) but it hasn’t been that long since we were leaving town and playing places the size of the Hi-Dive — 250 or 300 people, maybe 800 to 1,000. I was doing that stuff mostly on my own for years, so that’s pretty similar to what these shows have felt like.

Q: I imagine you drew a lot of motivation from those audiences.

A: Normally when you look up at a Red Rocks crowd, there’s like 10,000 people there and it looks like an army in front of you. To only have 175 people there makes me feel like I’m doing a comedy routine somewhere that nobody cares about, or an open-mic. It’s strange. I do miss the energy from the audience, but it’s been good to share these songs with people who are there. It definitely feels important to all of us in the band, so hopefully it feels important to the audience as well.

Q: What have you learned?

A: I’m just kind of approaching shows as an audition and trying to give people the same experience as if there were 10 times the audience there. I’ll be doing virtual Bonnaroo this year — a couple of tunes from the solo record — and we’re excited to start working on the new Night Sweats album.

Q: When is that coming out? 

A: We’re not real sure. But for me, personally, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get my house in order. We have a studio there and I’m excited to use the space. It’s something I’ve been working toward for years — to have a sanctuary as an artist. And I’ve finally found a place I can do that. I feel really blessed after all these years of work and touring to have it during a time like this. Or at all.

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As Suspect Press shuts down, are Colorado’s other free, indie magazines in danger of disappearing?

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The final issue of Suspect Press, photographed at City O’ City in Denver. (Beth Rankin, The Denver Post)The website for Suspect Press, a seven-year-old Denver literary and art magazine, confronts readers with a stark yet familiar proclamation.

“PRINT’S NOT DEAD,” it states just under its digital masthead, and in relation to its Summer 2020 issue — the magazine’s 26th overall.

Just beneath that, however, is a letter from editor-in-chief Amanda E.K.

“We all know nothing lasts forever — especially not in 2020 — and we at Suspect Press have made the decision, after 7 years strong, to go another direction,” she wrote. “This is the last issue you’ll hold of this version of the magazine before we go into hiatus. Then, when the time is right, our art director Lonnie MF Allen will introduce you to a new draft of Suspect.”

But it wasn’t just the pandemic that did it in.

“We knew already a year ago that our Meow Wolf contract was running out,” E.K. said over the phone. “We were like, ‘What’s going to come next? We could look for grants and investors, keep talking with Meow Wolf, or become a nonprofit.’ We already knew we were going to be struggling in 2020.”

In fact, the $125,000 grant from Meow Wolf — Santa Fe’s buzzy art-and-entertainment company that’s planning to open a Denver location next year — was originally set to run out this week. But having laid off half its staff earlier this year, Meow Wolf ended that contract two months early, E.K. said.

“We used their money to help build our book-publishing business, pay salaries and make this a full-time gig,” E.K. said. “That was extremely exciting.”

With an average, pre-coronavirus distribution of 5,000 copies at more than 300 metro-area locations, Suspect Press looked like a success story amid Colorado’s boom-and-bust publishing scene. Even with the decline of traditional media and the rise of multiple digital-news startups, the Front Range has always boasted a panoply of free, arts-and-culture-focused print magazines that can be picked up at book stores, coffee shops, dispensaries, liquor stores, music venues, bars and restaurants.

Suspect Press editor-in-chief Amanda E.K., left, and former editor Josiah Hesse in a photo shoot for Out Front Colorado — another free, independent print magazine in the metro area. (Veronica L. Holyfield, provided by Suspect Press)”Cool, free, arty zines and publications like that — they’re always a struggle,” said Patricia Calhoun, founder and editor of Westword, Denver’s alternative newsweekly that often sits near these free, local magazines. “They’re usually labors of love. People do things like Suspect Press because they believe in them, not because they’re going to make money.”

Some independent magazines do, however. While Suspect Press was a black-and-white newsprint publication, Denver’s monthly magazine Birdy is a sturdy, full-color art concern that has recently expanded to Los Angeles. The Rooster, a college-aiming magazine based in Longmont, runs more like a national glossy, with copious ads, happy hour guides and other millennial-targeting content.

Edible, which expanded from Colorado Springs to Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins earlier this year, tells stories of the people behind the food we eat. The Marquee, a free, Boulder-based print magazine distributed to more than 30 locations since 2013, has filled in the gap of major-market publications’ coverage since investments in music journalism have dropped in recent years.

The Rooster, a free monthly magazine that’s delivered at drop spots around the Front Range, bills itself as “a magazine that allows you to relax and fully engross yourself in a humorous and provocative editorial journey that won’t drain, but enlighten and excite.” (Beth Rankin, The Denver Post)All of these magazines have wildly different revenue models, goals and character, their publishers are quick to point out. But what they share goes beyond their free-to-take print models.

Plummeting or nonexistent ad revenue, hobbled distribution and overlapping national crises have forced them to consider what these labors of love are really worth, and how long they can be sustained. Owing to their print focus, most of the aforementioned titles had little to no online presence before the pandemic. They’re now scrambling to beef it up amid the overall trend toward virtual life.

That makes free, local, indie print magazines even more meaningful, publishers say, particularly as otherwise mundane, face-to-face experiences — from school lessons to doctor’s appointments  — are increasingly conducted digitally. Despite the high costs of paper and ink, and the newly complicated business of distribution, there’s no substitute for the sense of community they encourage.

Ashley Kirkovich took over Edible Denver in January and released her first, retooled print issue in March. (Provided by Edible Denver)”Print is also a break from modern life,” said Simon Berger, founder of The Rooster. “It gives you a moment to step back from the overwhelming bombardment of technology and control your pace of information. There’s a novelty and nostalgia to it, but it really is a reprieve from your phone.”

The Rooster, which Berger launched in 2008, was one of Colorado’s first publications to openly accept medical-marijuana dispensary advertising (and, eventually, recreational ads) starting in 2010. While dollars from that green tide have seemingly lifted all publications in Colorado, Berger knew he had to diversify to keep his core print business afloat.

In addition to locking down big sponsors such as Kroenke Sports and AEG Presents, Berger and his staff launched Red Bird Creative Studios, an advertising agency, and are preparing to debut a digital happy-hour guide next month (yes, even during the pandemic).

But print is still a precarious place to be. The Rooster had to take three months off from publishing earlier this year after the pandemic hit as Berger figured out how to pay for it. With a normal complement of 75 to 100 advertisers, and average distribution of 60,000 free copies in 2,000 statewide locations, The Rooster had significant costs to cover.

Berger won’t say by how much his circulation or distribution has dropped since then. But when The Rooster came back in July with its first new print issue since the pandemic arrived, it was with renewed purpose — and austerity.

(Provided by Birdy Magazine)”We’re conserving cash, cutting our budget and not investing too heavily in anything outside the company,” he said. “And, of course, all of our events are on pause.”

As Berger also began to invest in his digital product, he watched subscriptions — which are typically low-to-nonexistent for free, locally distributed print magazines — jump from about 100 to 1,000.

“We’ve always wanted to create something people would pay for, but that they were lucky enough to get for free,” he said. “We want to be taken home, shared with friends, and displayed on your coffee table.”

Or the dinner table. The Colorado-based franchise of Edible, a free, printed food magazine with products in more than 70 U.S. and Canadian markets, had just relaunched in March when the pandemic hit.

“My timing was terrible,” said publisher Ashley Kirkovich, the former marketing director for Niman Ranch who had admired the magazine (formerly known as Edible Front Range) before purchasing it in January. “We’re a quarterly, so I felt like, for the sake of brand consistency, I really needed to be visible in the market.”

Without bars or restaurants for readers to visit (or for Edible to solicit advertising from), Kirkovich estimates the first issue’s distribution was down by about 60% over previous installments — though she admitted she doesn’t have many data points to compare it to. Her summer issue fared better, even considering that she curtailed the print run from 15,000 copies to 12,000 to adjust for decreased demand.

Jonny DeStefano and Krysti Joméi, co-founders and co-editors of Denver’s Birdy Magazine. (Provided by Birdy)For her fall issue, releasing Sept. 28, Kirkovich will bump Edible’s print run back up to 15,000 copies in anticipation of adding another 30 distribution outlets to Edible’s existing 50 or so. That’s impressive, considering she’s often felt too guilty to ask for advertising from her usual supporters.

“It feels so crummy to say, ‘I know you may not be in business when this comes out, but want to take out an ad?’ ” she said. “So I’ve definitely pivoted toward (advertising from) liquor and retail stores.”

Readership and ad dollars in some Edible markets has increased since March, Kirkovich said, based on calls with other publishers. She sees similar opportunity in serving Front Range foodies who have shifted from visiting every new restaurant that opens to baking, gardening and Instagramming their own kitchen experiments.

Kirkovich has also gotten creative, partnering with community-supported agriculture programs to add a free copy of Edible to the boxes of fresh produce delivered to farm-share buyers. But she refuses to go online-only.

“Call me old school, but at the end of the day, I bought a print magazine,” she said. “When digital fatigue sets in, people need something tangible to engage with when having a glass of wine.”

Also strongly committed to sticking around is Birdy, the monthly Denver art magazine that has benefited greatly from its artistic partnership with Devo founder and film composer Mark Mothersbaugh. Despite the trials of 2020, Birdy recently expanded its distribution to 140 locations in Los Angeles, with about 1,000 copies of each issue (total average monthly print run: 10,000) headed to potential new readers in that city.

Prior to the pandemic, Birdy was distributed to 300 or so locations along the Front Range, not including national and international subscriptions.

“We could not bail out on the most important moment in our lifetimes,” said Krysti Joméi, co-founder and co-editor of Birdy. “It sounds dramatic to say, but as a magazine, we’ve been through times that are just as hard as right now on our (business).”

As a result, Birdy has not skipped a single issue since March, despite ratcheting down its copies from March through May of this year to 3,000, about 70% off from its usual print run. Along with partner and co-founder Jonny DeStefano, Joméi has also seen Birdy’s web traffic skyrocket, despite her lack of past investment in it, even as they build up their print numbers again.

“We never had much of a website before this on purpose,” she said. “We were always, ‘We’re super punk-rock and analog, just like vinyl records!’ But since March, there’s been a real urgency to provide even more accessibility to our readers.”

In that, all of these publications continue a grand tradition of scrappy, DIY entrepreneurship that has defined the Front Range publishing scene for decades, said Westword founder and editor Calhoun, including now-defunct, nationally lauded titles such as Muse and Modern Drunkard.

“The fact that they’re independent means they generally don’t play well with others,” she said. “They often don’t have organizations behind them. Who’s got time for that? But you’ve got to have a patron, or grants, because publishing in print isn’t cheap.”

Whether or not institutions like D.I.N.K. — a.k.a. the Denver Independent Comics & Art Expo — return in the future (they took this year off, for obvious reasons), the scene will continue to exist regardless of economics. The passion inherent in independent publishing is stronger than market trends, publishers say.

“I’m sad that we’re losing this established platform that actually paid contributors,” Suspect Press’ E.K. said. “But I’m hoping that us fading away will inspire other young kids to come up in the scene, take what we did, and make it their own.”

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Your handy guide to Denver movie theaters: What’s open and what’s showing?

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Here’s a question no one was asking at the start of the summer: What’s showing at the movies?

A few months ago, the response would have been “nothing, naturally.” And while the last couple of weeks haven’t exactly seen a record-breaking rush back to darkened theaters, the reopening of corporate chains at least gives us the option to see some movies the way they were intended.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s playing?

The selection is more limited than usual, but exhibitors are almost exclusively showing would-be blockbusters and cheaper, fan-favorite classics, given that they want to reach the widest audience possible.

Director Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” another mind-bender in the tradition of “Inception,” is the biggie opening this week, with preview screenings already starting before its official, Sept. 3 release. The long-suffering “The New Mutants,” an X-Men spinoff that languished on the shelf prior to the pandemic, is also getting surprisingly good reviews and audience scores.

“But I want something more down to earth,” you say? Try “Unhinged,” the Russell Crowe-starring thriller about a homicidal maniac who stalks a young mother. “Too grim,” you say? “The Personal History of David Copperfield” recasts the Dickens classic as an ensemble dramedy, with the magnetic Dev Patel as the title character.

Some theaters, such as the Harkins chain, are running $5 movie specials and reviving recent releases like “Sonic the Hedgehog” in order to draw people back, along with tributes to the late Chadwick Boseman in the form of “Get On Up,” “42” and “21 Bridges.”

Theaters are also betting on upcoming titles such as “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Black Widow,” “No Time to Die,” “Soul” — although the events of the next few weeks will determine if they’re still open when those movies are ready.

Where can I see these movies?

  • Aurora Movie Tavern, a location of Marcus Theatres, reopened Aug. 28 after surveying its diehard customers and finding that 98% of them felt comfortable returning to an auditorium. marcustheatres.com
  • Harkins Arvada 18 and Harkins Northfield 18 also reopened Aug. 28 after a nearly six-month break. Given the number of screens at its Front Range locations, their variety is a bit deeper than most (including subtitled films!). harkins.com
  • Regal Cinemas, which owns United Artists theaters, has also reopened 11 of its Colorado locations, including its Denver Pavilion theaters, Colorado Mills and UA Colorado Center & IMAX theaters. See the full list, including locations in Grand Junction and Colorado Springs, online. regmovies.com
  • AMC Theatres, with more than a dozen locations in Colorado, has also opened about 70% of its locations nationwide. Metro area locations now open include the AMC Flatiron Crossing 14, AMC Orchard 12, AMC Highlands Ranch 24, AMC Westminster Promenade 24, AMC Southlands 16 and AMC Arapahoe Crossing 16. amctheatres.com
  • Cinemark theaters in Fort Collins and Pueblo began opening on Aug. 21, followed last week by locations in Aurora, Boulder, Greeley and Lakewood’s Belmar development. cinemark.com
  • Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, the Texas-based company with aggressive Colorado expansion plans, is now showing movies again at its Sloan’s Lake location on West Colfax Avenue, although its Littleton and Westminster locations appear to still be shuttered. drafthouse.com/denver 

Notably absent from the list are the Landmark Theatres properties of the Esquire (now up for sale, but still leased by Landmark) and the Chez Artiste. While Landmark is screening films at its Mayan and Landmark Greenwood Village locations, the company has previously declined comment on when (or if) its other metro-area locations will return (landmarktheatres.com/denver).

RELATED: Denver’s historic Esquire Theatre up for sale after months of not paying rent

What kind of precautions are involved?

Every exhibitor is touting its health and safety protocols, from deep-cleaned theaters and widely available hand sanitizer to no-contact ticket buying and new air filters. Deciding which one you feel most comfortable visiting will be the real challenge.

Generally, masks are required at all theaters unless you’re eating or drinking. But given that most of these theaters would love to sell you food and drinks, few people may be wearing masks at the start of any film.

Socially distanced lines and seats should be expected everywhere, given that all seats are now reserved, and that showtimes are being staggered to cut down on the number of people inside a building at any one time.

Beyond that, some theaters are allowing advance food and drink orders on their websites and mobile apps. But since none of these theaters appear to be mandating temperature checks, it’ll be up to guests to stay home if they feel sick.

Which is to say: Don’t be stupid and ruin it for everyone else, please.

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Apocalypse here: Why Colorado is such a popular setting for humanity’s downfall

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In Wasteland 3, the latest entry in the influential role-playing game series, a group of militarized survivors fight through the frozen shells of Colorado Springs, Aspen and Denver during a nuclear winter that makes most blizzards look tame by comparison.

The choice of setting was easy for the video game’s art director.

“We’d done ‘brown and hot’ for two games in Arizona, and we needed a change, so we went with white and cold for this one,” said Aaron Meyers, who lived part-time in Denver during the game’s development. “Colorado seemed like the perfect place to give us that feel and those aesthetics, as well as a wealth of interesting lore and locations to mine for our story.”

Wasteland 3, which was released for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on Aug. 28, joins a long line of video games that have pictured Colorado as a blood-soaked landscape of zombies, foreign military invasions and robot dinosaurs, including acclaimed, multimillion-dollar earners like The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn, the Dead Rising series, Homefront, World War Z and Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Even those are just one category in a larger group of novels, TV series, films and comics that have mined Colorado for their apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, from Stephen King’s “The Stand” — which imagined Boulder as the center of humanity’s resistance against a supernatural evil — to “Dr. Strangelove,” “Waterworld,” “Battlefield Earth” and “Interstellar.”

“You can really visualize Colorado when you mention it, even if you’ve never been here,” said Denver author Mario Acevedo, who has written wildly imaginative, urban-fantasy novels starring werewolves, vampires and zombies. “We’re shorthand for ‘mountains,’ but also the type of people who tend to live in the mountains. Scrappy people do what it takes to survive.”

But even as writers and artists paint Colorado with ashen skies, resource-driven riots and nuclear holocausts, the trappings of the post-apocalyptic genre have grown all too cozy in 2020.

Across the U.S., multi-state wildfires, a devastating hurricane, and civic unrest feel like cruel toppings on a summer already larded with misery in the form of a global viral pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and left millions unemployed. As the line between depiction and prediction grows almost invisibly thin for post-apocalyptic storytellers, they’ve been forced to turn up the intensity to stand out from our increasingly grim reality.

“Over 40 years of popular culture, a lot of people have looked at what’s happening on a global scale and extrapolated these disasters that end up mirroring reality,” said Boulder novelist Carrie Vaughn, whose 2017 book “Bannerless” won sci-fi’s coveted Philip K. Dick award.

They just didn’t think it would arrive so soon — or all at the same time.

“The only thing that hasn’t happened yet is zombies,” Vaughn said with a laugh. “And I’m not going to make any bets against that.”

For centuries, apocalypse stories centered around humanity’s punishment from angry gods. That changed after World War II as people woke up to the possibility of global nuclear annihilation. Since then, post-apocalyptic stories and dystopian sci-fi have spread out into every facet of popular culture.

But with the events of 2020, the genre seems to be eating itself from the inside out, particularly as the tropes and clichés of the genre continue to pile up. Is there anywhere else to go?

A perfectly terrible place

Yes, things are messed up everywhere. Few people are immune to the “historic convergence of health, economic, environmental and social emergencies,” as the Associated Press called our “turbulent reality” last week.

But even during good times, popular narratives did not usually depict Colorado as a fun, happy place. Westerns and horror were two of the first genres to capitalize on the state’s isolated, hardscrabble reputation in the 20th century through both novels and films. Harsh winters, brutal landscapes, cabin fever and cannibalism are built into the state’s history — and thus the way people continue to perceive Colorado.

“People who aren’t from here view it as a frontier because it still has this kind of Old West-aura to it,” Vaughn said. “Montana feels remote, but somehow, Colorado is very accessible. You’ve got mountains, prairies and lots of pioneer credibility.”

In fact, the rugged lawlessness and individualism of Westerns, as well as tales like “The Shining,” helped set the stage for today’s post-apocalyptic Colorado narratives, which found their lasting visualization in 1979’s ”Mad Max” and its 1981 sequel, “The Road Warrior.”

But movies such as 1984’s ”Red Dawn” — which imagines Calumet (a former mining town north of Walsenburg) as ground zero for a military invasion by the Soviet Union — also influenced a generation of storytellers.

“I was 11 or 12 when that came out and it was a big favorite of mine,” Vaughn said. “It’s just ridiculous, though. How realistic is an army coming in and trying to occupy the Rocky Mountains? And yet the movie was so iconic that it imprinted on a lot of people.”

Vaughn is a self-described military brat who first came to Colorado when her father was stationed in Colorado Springs. She believes our concentration of military bases plays a big role in the casting of the state. For decades, storytellers have returned to Colorado to visit the command center inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, which has been imagined as both a catalyst for a global nuclear disaster and the last refuge in an irradiated world (see “Dr. Strangelove,” the “Terminator” series, “Jeremiah,” “Interstellar,” etc.).

“I love it because of ‘WarGames’ and ‘Stargate SG-1,’ ” Vaughn said of Cheyenne Mountain’s recurring role in science fiction. “But I got to tour NORAD in high school through my Girl Scouts troop, and again in my current events class, and of course it looks nothing like the underground city you see in most movies. The big blast door, at least, is accurate.”

Some storytellers, such as Wasteland 3 art director Meyers, lean into their artistic license.

“We tend to parody cliché rather than avoiding it entirely, so a few of Colorado’s pop culture connections get a nod and a wink,” he said. “But we didn’t go out of our way to include or exclude any trope based on whether it was well known. If it worked for the story or added to the atmosphere, we put our own twist on it and used it.”

Like Meyers, Wasteland 3 senior concept artist Dan Glasl has lived in Colorado (in the latter’s case, growing up just west of Colorado Springs) and visited most of the iconic areas depicted in the game, from Garden of the Gods to downtown Denver’s Union Station, the Colorado State Capitol and even the former Stapleton Airport.

“We did try to pick locations and landmarks that would be iconic to Coloradans and interesting and visually appealing to outsiders,” Meyers said. “So you can visit places like the Garden of the Gods and the Denver (International) Airport, and see our takes on them, as well as lesser-known places like Peterson Air Force base, and then sillier places like Santa’s Workshop — which is in fact a front for a drug operation.”

Whose apocalypse?

While outsiders may see us a mono-culture, Coloradans know how radically different the conservative Eastern Plains or Western Slope are from ritzy ski-resort towns and liberal Front Range cities. Like Stephen King’s Maine, Colorado is diverse enough in geography and culture to welcome a variety of fictional interpretations.

But that doesn’t mean they’re accurate.

“If you say ‘Colorado’ to someone in the Midwest, they’ll have certain stereotypes about us,” Acevedo said. “And storytellers use that to their advantage. We’re remote enough that they can fill in the blanks and people will buy it.”

Most of these stories don’t reach beyond the history of European settlers as their implied starting points, whereas Colorado’s Native American, Spanish and Mexican history runs much deeper. Until the last century, birth rates in the mountain west were persistently low, Acevedo said, due to the persistently harsh conditions.

That led to constant, life-or-death clashes between indigenous tribes that were, for all intents and purposes, their own versions of the apocalypse. (And that’s not even considering the arrival of European settlers.)

“The Arapaho, Comanche and Utes all had low survival rates,” Acevedo said. “You can’t go to any one part of this land and say, ‘Well, this is the pure, original history of it,’ because everything is folded over everything else. When each previous civilization or society ended, it was truly their apocalypse. You have to look at the history of a people, not just the history of a region.”

For example, few Colorado stories — apocalyptic, western or otherwise — dig back to the Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde, whose civilization collapsed near the end of the 13th century due to drought. Despite their essentially Stone Age technology, the Ancestral Puebloans traded with travelers from all over the region and left spectacular marks on their environment.

“The people living in Colorado 1,000 years ago were a lot more aware of what was going on around them than we give them credit for,” Acevedo said. “But with oral history and no written language, it was harder to keep track of things. You could go back however far you want and find an interesting story about some of the early Cro-Magnons coming across the land bridge, and the onset of the Ice Age — that being an appropriately apocalyptic event for them.”

As in reality, not every fictional character is affected the same way by disasters. People with money and privilege tend to see the effects last, insulated as they are from the rusty clockwork of everyday life.

But when a story involves disasters that affect us all — climate change, water shortages, viral pandemics and zombie/alien invasions — there’s opportunity for pointed social commentary and personal reflection, authors say.

“There are 10 million stories about how computing is going to change our lives,” said Paonia-born Paolo Bacigalupi, a bestselling sci-fi author and Hugo award winner, in a 2015 interview. “I think we can have a few more about climate change, drought, water rights, the loss of biodiversity and how we adapt to a changing environment.”

Bacigalupi’s acclaimed sci-fi novel “The Water Knife” imagines a near future in which the Southwest is dramatically remade by clashes over water resources. Bacigalupi was inspired, in part, by watching the fortunes of the rural area he grew up in rise and fall over dwindling water resources.

“I’m constantly looking over my shoulder,” he said shortly before “The Water Knife” was published, “because it seems so glaringly obvious that someone else would be writing about this exact same thing.”

Too real?

Before the title screen for Wasteland 3 appears, players are shown a disclaimer: “Wasteland 3 is a work of fiction. Ideas, dialog (sic) and stories we created early in development have in some cases been mirrored by our current reality. Our goal is to present a game of fictional entertainment, and any correlation to real-world events is purely coincidental.”

The game’s art director, Meyers, declined to answer questions about the reasoning behind the disclaimer, but that’s understandable. Games like Wasteland 3 typically take several years, hundreds of people and millions of dollars to produce. Appearing too topical, or turning off potential players with real-world, political overtones, can limit a game’s all-important appeal and profits.

Legal concerns also trail post-apocalyptic games set in real locations. When the PlayStation 4 exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn launched to critical acclaim and massive sales in 2017, its publicists pitched The Denver Post on an article exploring their high-tech location scouting, which resulted in stunningly detailed Colorado foliage, weather patterns and simulated geography.

However, game developers would only agree to an interview if trademarked names were not mentioned, given that the studio had apparently not cleared their usage. While The Denver Post declined to write about it at the time, other media outlets ran photos of the game’s bombed-out, overgrown takes on Red Rocks Amphitheatre and what would become Empower Field at Mile High, as well as various natural formations and instantly recognizable statues in downtown Colorado Springs.

That gives Wasteland 3 — which uses elements of parody — some leeway, in the same way that TV’s “South Park” has mocked local celebrities like Jake Jabs, Ron Zappolo and John Elway without getting sued.

“We did have to change a few things here and there, but the references should still be clear to those who know,” Meyers said of Wasteland 3 items like Boors Beer (take a wild guess). “We’re part of the Xbox Game Studios, so there are teams of folks involved in ensuring we have things like proper rights clearances for names.”

Of course, that’s part of the problem in 2020: Bit by bit, it’s beginning to resemble any number of fictional, worst-case scenarios for the collapse of modern society. Competing political factions often label each other as violent cults. People who don’t wear masks have been described as zombies. Police violence and gun-toting civilians are everywhere.

In that way, it’s getting harder for writers and artists of post-apocalyptic stories to stay one step ahead of the news. There’s a creeping feeling that we’ve seen it all before — even if only in our heads. But good writing can be its own virtue, regardless of subject matter, and the post-apocalyptic genre has always stood proudly on the wobbly, irradiated shoulders of others.

“We’re obviously inspired by others and we wouldn’t even be the first post-apocalyptic game set in Colorado, but we have pretty unique sensibilities,” Meyers said of Wasteland 3. “It’s a very serious and dark world, but we put a unique twist on just about everything, and we really enjoy dark humor. You’re going to have brutal ethical decisions to make about life and death, but there’s a lot of humor throughout as well.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Megan Thee Stallion, Nathaniel Rateliff, Sam Hunt and Phoebe Bridgers will play Red Rocks next month

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Megan Thee Stallion, Nathaniel Rateliff, Phoebe Bridgers, Lil Baby and Sam Hunt will play to an empty Red Rocks Amphitheatre Sept. 1, 2 and 3 as part of a new promotion from Denver-based mobile carrier Visible.

The Verizon spinoff, which has previously sponsored free, big-name music concerts in Denver as promotion for its service, has dubbed the series Red Rocks Unpaused.

The series will allow viewers to stream the concerts from home and even control aspects of the high-tech production, Visible officials said this week. The concerts are technically approved to host up to 175 attendees, but Visible opted to keep the amphitheater empty.

“We wanted to build a concept that didn’t have (the audience) as a factor, because (audiences) are very contingent on not only the latest laws but the level of comfort people would have seeing a show,” said Kirstie Rivard, head of experiential at Visible. “With large-scale events like this you want certainty, and those were unknowns, so we just removed that uncertainty altogether.”

The streamed shows will feature live performances from Colorado’s Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and acclaimed indie songwriter Phoebe Bridgers on Sept. 1; ”WAP” rapper Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Baby on Sept. 2; and Georgia singer-songwriter Sam Hunt and Brett Young on Sept. 3.

The virtual concerts begin at 8 p.m. each night and can be viewed via Twitter or visiblexredrocks.com.

Visible’s marketing team had just secured a partnership with Denver Arts & Venues, which owns Red Rocks, earlier this year before the pandemic hit, Rivard said. The goal was to give Visible’s logo, and potentially even some recruitment staff, a presence at city-run events this summer, especially events such as Red Rocks’ Film on the Rocks and Yoga on the Rocks.

RELATED: Film on the Rocks, drive-in style this year, kicks off its 2020 season at Red Rocks

The opportunity to stream concerts from Red Rocks — with huge names attached — offered a chance to make the best of the remaining summer concert season. Red Rocks Unpaused will also include several “firsts” for Red Rocks, Rivard said.

“Red Rocks is closed for most of the season, so that allowed us to do a whole suite of things that have never been done before there,” she said. “One is that we’re strategically placing the stage where viewers would normally be sitting, so you’ll be able to get different views of Red Rocks than you would from the stage.”

In fact, viewers can access different camera angles during the streamed shows that will allow them to “pick their seats” and play director with the concerts. The shows will also feature:

  • The audience’s chat messages displayed on the faces of the Red Rocks “for artists to see and react to”
  • The audience’s ability to “help set off pyrotechnics”
  • Technology that allows viewers’ voices to affect the show’s lighting and color schemes
  • The viewers’ ability to vote and choose the final encore song
  • Audience polling that changes the outcome of the light show

“Red Rocks has had logos and lights projected onto the rocks during concerts before, but we’re talking about mapping messages from fans and viewers onto the rocks,” Rivard said. “Artists will also be able to see an audience Cheerometer where the louder you cheer at home, the higher it goes.”

That raises the question of whether these high-tech features will add to or detract from the experience of enjoying live music — for both fans and artists. For example: Will being asked to pay attention to a stream of incoming text messages and digital metrics distract the performers?

No way, Rivard said.

“You have to keep in mind there’s no one there, so it’s a very different dynamic,” she said. “All the artists will get to walk through this (before the shows), and we’re sharing all of our technology elements with them, so there will be no surprises. At the end of the day they’re performers, and interaction is something they enjoy and embrace.”

Despite a series of acoustic classical concerts from Colorado Symphony, and a single, socially-distanced rock show slipping through from Gasoline Lollipops (on Sept. 14), Red Rocks Amphitheatre has not hosted any live, public, full-band concerts from the main stage this year.

“I wouldn’t say we were forced to innovate, but it’s one of those moments where we had an opportunity to,” Rivard said. “It’s a truly collaborative thing because we’re bringing a lot of creative people together, and Denver Arts & Venues has made it a seamless process.”

Red Rocks Unpaused arrives about a year after Phonetopia, one of Visible’s Denver launch-events that included free (via RSVP) live performances in downtown Denver from Kacey Musgraves, Haim, Anderson. Paak and GRiZ. All took place inside a simulated, giant smartphone. The idea was to get the Visible name in front of potential new customers in a more engaging way than a billboard or radio ad — and in a way that would promote Instagram posts that tagged the start-up carrier.

“We can’t disclose details of that event (such as cost, number of new subscribers, etc.) but if it wasn’t successful or we didn’t see the value, we wouldn’t be doing Red Rocks Unpaused,” Rivard said. “We’re still a young company and awareness is incredibly important for us.”

Whether or not people tune in remains to be seen, but with so little live entertainment and so much demand for high-quality performances — even digitally mediated — there’s a good chance Visible will meet its promotional goals for the event. Big brands such as Red Bull have also invested in Denver in recent years, moving from sponsoring club shows with buzzy indie bands to full-scale art installations.

Besides, Rivard said, doing an event like this anywhere other than Visible’s home city of Denver would have seemed strange.

“It’s a really artist-friendly community,” said Rivard, a Colorado native. “And that just kind of builds on itself until brands realize it, so it’s kind of a supply-and-demand thing. Our very first experiential (event) was at Grandoozy, the big music festival that Superfly produced in 2018, so we’re committed to the creative community here.”

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Denver’s “Clone Wars,” “Phineas and Ferb” voice actor on working (from home) through a pandemic

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Dee Bradley Baker has squawked, snarled and squeaked his way through so many jobs that he relies on his Internet Movie Database page to keep track of them.

Even that’s not always right, since his career spans hundreds of movies, TV series and video games over the last three decades.

“I was never involved with the live-action ‘Last Airbender’ movie, and I was never involved with ‘Frankenweenie,’ ” Baker said as he scanned, at The Denver Post’s request, some of his credited roles. “But it looks like most of the rest seems to be accurate.”

It’s hard to be sure. Since 1995, an average of a dozen new projects each year have been released featuring his vocal talents. In some years, it’s more than 30, from well-known shows such as “American Dad!” (for which he received a 2017 Emmy nomination) and “Family Guy” to kids’ fare like “Muppet Babies,” “Steven Universe,” SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Lion Guard.”

The 58-year-old voice actor, who has become a favorite of Hollywood animation directors, could have watched as his career slipped away during a pandemic that shuttered the rest of show business. Instead, he adapted and is busier than ever, with projects on the horizon including a “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” spin-off, “The Bad Batch,” for Disney+.

With a daughter in high school in the metro area, Baker now splits his time between Los Angeles and Littleton, working with directors through Zoom and recording his voice parts in a makeshift booth in his Colorado house.

“It’s just a bunch of cheap PVC pipe that I cut up and pieced together, then threw some audio blankets over,” he said. “I put a little (sound) rig inside with a Mac computer and a $250 mic. I’m making it work.”

Not only that, he’s teaching other voice actors how to do the same. His website, iwanttobeavoiceactor.com, is packed with advice for people looking to break into the voiceover world, from building a home sound booth to audition tips. Categories include “Agents,” “VO Myths,” “Your Demo” and “Killing Your Career” (sample posts: “Phoning in That ‘Favor’ ” and “Family vs. Acting”).

“I’m very lucky,” Baker said over the phone from his Littleton home last week. “Animation is a uniquely collaborative art form, and by sheer luck, it can be done remotely without a hiccup. … Voiceover’s always been done face-to-face in the past. With big projects like ‘SpongeBob’ or ‘The Clone Wars,’ they’ll even have all the actors together in the room. But we’ve got to adapt.”

Even if he stopped working tomorrow, Baker would continue to watch projects he contributed to months ago, or up to a year ago, hit the market at a rapid clip. The latest is “Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe,” a Disney+ animated original that will debut on that streaming service Aug. 28.

Baker admits he’s barely in it, though that’s not uncommon for his projects. He doesn’t typically voice main characters — those are often left for recognizable names, or people who make their career playing leads — but rather the supporting ones, from friends and pets to vicious vampires and demons (but also chickens, talking pastries and robots).

“I remember when the (“Phineas and Ferb” creators) brought me in for an audition for Perry the Platypus, and I just made these three weird little sounds,” Baker said of his role on the show. “They go, ‘We’ll pick one of those, thanks,’ and they reprint that thing in every single episode. I’m always embarrassed by that, but that’s the gag they use — kind of like the Wilhelm Scream. I’m such a small sprinkling of seasoning on that wonderful show.”

Perhaps, but it’s how Baker has built his career — a few minutes of dialogue here, a few seconds of non-verbal grunting and choking sounds there. Due to his reliability and range, Baker’s résumé grew fast after his first big shows, nabbing projects such as 1996’s ”Space Jam” (in which he voiced Daffy Duck) and various Disney and Marvel properties long before the latter two were intertwined.

“It gets pretty emphatic,” Baker said of his acting process. “You don’t tear up the room because there’s a sweet spot for the microphones, and you can’t deviate very far from that or else the engineer gets mad. You have to act with your whole body, but keep it right in the zone.”

Baker was born in Bloomington, Ind., in 1962, but grew up in Greeley, where he got into stage performing. He devoured sci-fi shows such as “Star Trek” but also books about dinosaurs and early video games. He fondly remembers playing the 1970s gaming frontrunner Pong on the University of Northern Colorado library’s “ancient” computers.

“As a boy in Colorado, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but that didn’t panic me,” Baker said. “What served me well was pursuing things I was curious about and liked.”

Those included plays, musicals, opera, stand-up and children’s theater. After Baker finished at Greeley’s University High School in 1981, he received a Boettcher Scholarship and attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he graduated with a BA in philosophy. His passion for performing brought him to Orlando, Fla., in 1989 to work at Disney’s Epcot Center (specifically, in a sketch comedy group inside the Wonders of Life pavilion).

His first big TV role arrived when he provided the booming voice for the “giant talking rock-god” Olmec on Nickelodeon’s “Legends of the Hidden Temple” game show, which lasted a whopping 120 episodes over three seasons. With that and other major studio projects under his belt, he left for Los Angeles in 1994.

His career since then reads like a shortlist of the most influential and beloved animated series of the modern age, including multiple roles in “The Wild Thornberrys,” “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Johnny Bravo,” “Justice League Unlimited,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Teen Titans,” “Ben 10,” “Batman: The Brave & the Bold,” “Scooby-Doo,” “The Legend of Korra,” “Curious George,” “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Robot Chicken” and dozens more.

And those represent just one-third of the work he’s done.

Baker also has acted in dozens of feature films (“Happy Feet,” “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” “The SpongeBob Movie”) and iconic video game franchises that have collectively earned billions of dollars worldwide, such as Halo, Spider-Man, Call of Duty, Metal Gear, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Doom, Minecraft, Destiny, Overwatch and nearly every Star Wars game that has been released since 2003 (including the Lego Star Wars games).

Dipping into the Star Wars universe, in fact, has been one of his favorite pastimes, with major roles in the “Star Wars Rebels” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” — the latter as fan-favorite characters such as Captain Rex and Commander Cody.

He’ll likely be returning as those characters for “The Bad Batch,” a “Clone Wars” spinoff that’s slated to hit Disney+ next year. But, as is usually the case with anything Star Wars, he can’t really say.

“I’m not sure at what liberty I am to discuss it, since it’s still so secret,” Baker said. “But I’m very much involved and very excited about it. As typically happens with Lucasfilm projects, we’d been working on it for a long time before anything official dropped about it.”

Baker will again work with Dave Filoni, the Emmy-winning “Clone Wars” director who parlayed that success into co-creating “The Mandalorian” with Jon Favreau — among other Star Wars projects that Baker has also contributed to (“Rebels,” “Forces of Destiny,” etc.)

“Dave was really George Lucas’ right-hand man during the creation of ‘Clone Wars,’ and the only person who could say ‘no’ to Dave Filono was George Lucas,” Baker said. “It’s a wonderful and shocking thing to be a part of, especially for a kid who dressed up as a Jawa in 1977 when Episode 4 (a.k.a. the original ‘Star Wars’) came out.”

Still, Baker is not limitless. He gets a workout performing fighting monsters and vampire sounds, “really violent screaming and that kind of stuff,” and the many, many animal noises he has mastered. He only has so much gas in the tank before he needs to give his voice a rest, he said.

“It’s not too far off from being a musician,” he said. “You’re not going to jump right into the solo when you start recording, so you pace yourself and go with the mood of the song or story. You don’t want to blow out all the drama you’re building toward for the payoff.”

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