There was that time when Tab Benoit wrapped up his Delta blues-infused set on the Fanny Hill stage and clearly didn’t want the evening to end. Before darkness completely enveloped the venue still buzzing with woozy concertgoers, Benoit was on to his next gig a few hundred yards down the hill in the Base Camp bar for an impromptu jam session with John Oates.
During one of the first years of the Snowmass Free Concert Series, christened in 1991 as the Summer of Music, guitarist Bo Diddley tore up the joint with masterful playing, leaving no doubt why he was the maestro, according to Doug “Merc” Mercatoris, who co-founded the series with Terry Long.
While the free music series has undergone some significant changes during its 27 seasons – including a BYOB alcohol ban and a fancy new stage – its underlying raison d’être, to provide quality entertainment in an unpretentious setting, has remained constant.
And after experimenting with charging a fee for some shows (a non-starter) and moving the concerts to alternative nights (an epic fail), the series is back where it belongs, with entertainment on 10 consecutive Thursdays, beginning June 14 with Elektric Voodoo. The series also includes a pair of “bonus” Saturdays, including one that was held June 9 in conjunction with the craft beer festival.
“We heard loud and clear from the community about Thursdays,” said Rose Abello, director of Snowmass Tourism, which oversees the music series. “We made that change specifically in response to what we heard.”
Mercatoris recently recalled the series’ roots, which originally relied on volunteer labor and individual contributions from the private sector. Since about 2003 the funding has been sales-tax based.
Long, who at the time was bar manager at the Mountain Dragon, had a good eye and ear for booking bands. He approached Mercatoris, who owned the Dragon, with the idea: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we set up a stage on Fanny Hill and did music there?”
Mercatoris, who was a town council member at the time, asked his colleagues their opinion. Universally they agreed it was a good idea.
“We decided on Thursday night because there wasn’t anything going on during the weekdays,” Mercatoris said. “We thought it would be a good way to extend the weekend.”
Musician Anne Harris was part of the final Fanny Hill show last season that featured Otis Taylor, a longtime collaborator. It was her second time performing in Snowmass and one that left her open to a return visit.
“Both of these concerts were absolutely unforgettable and rank among some of my fondest outdoor performance experiences,” Harris said. She’ll return with Markus James for a new collaboration and a June 28 date as headliner, an appearance in advance of their American roots band’s debut record later this year.
“The magic of the mountains is a breathtaking backdrop and the incredible vibe and energy of the crowd is singular,” she said. “Additionally, everyone working behind the scenes to make it happen are an absolute joy to work with, from the stage crew and sound engineers, to the people helping with merchandise sales.”
She also enthused about the artists’ “green room,” the backstage hospitality area bedecked with lava lamps, “rock-icon” decorated pillows and glow-in-the-dark rocks which “add to the magic and mystery.”
The scenery and the chill-vibe audience are also appreciated by visiting artists, Harris suggested.
“The view from the stage is truly special. The people who come are there to have a good time and they gather in the spirit of celebration. It’s so great to see such a wide range of ages, from babies on up dancing and having fun, or sitting with picnics taking in the fun people watching as the evening sky transitions to night. All to the soundtrack of live music,” Harris said.
Volunteers at its heart
The original Fanny Hill stage and tent were modest – “nothing like we have today” – according to Mercatoris, who never drew a salary during his more than 10 years at the helm of the series. (Co-founder Long relocated to Missouri shortly after helping to launch the series.)
“The stage was scaffolding with plywood over the top,” Mercatoris said with a laugh. Volunteer labor was key to the early success, with gratis services provided by community members for the series’ legal work and tax preparation.
“If the stage needed painting, TJ from Snowmass Mountain Painting and I would go out and paint the stage. One time, the day before a concert, one of the guys from production was standing on the deck and fell through. Stan Stokes from Mighty Mouse Management repaired the stage so we could pull off the concert the next day,” he said.
“It was a huge community effort. It was all done with volunteers and donations,” Mercatoris added.
During the early years, about $140,000 was raised to support the series annually.
“Every year, as it became more popular, I was able to raise more money,” Mercatoris said, crediting the late Bill Getz, and Marilyn Getz, as angels who provided tens of thousands of dollars annually to the then start up.
“The more support we’d get allowed us to make improvements to the sound and talent,” Mercatoris said. He recalled that when the series first began, entertainers were tasked with bringing their own lights and sound mixing equipment.
Public funds and bigger acts
The 2018 Snowmass Free Concert Series will cost roughly $350,000 to produce, according to Abello. The town took over the series around 2003 after citizens passed a marketing and special events tax to fund efforts formerly assumed by the Snowmass Resort Association, which eventually disbanded.
Mercatoris said that was an important time in the free concert series’ evolution.
“The sales tax and the town made it possible to have that beautiful stage and the improvements to the lawn,” he said. “We were proud of what we did and we were happy to turn it over to the town and grow even bigger.”
Not every change was greeted so wholeheartedly; during the mid-aughts a ban on bring-your-own alcohol was a hard sell by the police to elected officials, including Mercatoris and his then colleague Arnie Mordkin.
“I was not in favor of that change. I enjoyed more the relaxed atmosphere with the less security and the fact that people could bring their own bottle of wine, cooler of beer and picnic,” he said. At the time, Mordkin vowed bring his own alcohol in defiance of the ban.
Eventually the realities of the state’s open container law, coupled with the ability to better enforce underage drinking, became strong arguments by supporters of the BYOB ban.
“We still have the picnic aspect. And I do understand the town’s position that trained bartenders dispensing alcohol is better from a public safety and underage drinking situation,” Mercatoris said. Still, something in his voice suggested a fondness for an earlier and simpler time.
“It kind of grew too big and too successful to continue with BYOB,” he allowed.
Learning from experience
During the first years of the free series, former bar manager Terry Long did the bookings. Over time that role was filled by David Laughren of Avalanche Productions, Josh Behrman, who worked for the town’s marketing department, and Jim Horowitz, the executive producer of Jazz Aspen Snowmass.
Behrman was at the helm when Tab Benoit absolutely commanded the Fanny Hill stage and had enough nervous, creative energy left in the tank after the final encore to continue the evening in a Base Village bar with Woody Creeker John Oates. That’s the level of talent which usually commands a ticket.
But attempts to charge for shows in the free concert series haven’t gone over well; the organizers were reminded of that fact yet again during 2017.
“One thing we learned is that concerts on Fanny Hill are free,” Abello said. While the July 21 Deaf Camp Benefit show, one of the two “bonus” Saturday concerts is gratis, a free-will offering for the Old Snowmass school will be gladly accepted at the venue.
Madeleine Osberger is a contributing editor of the Aspen Daily News. She may be contacted at Madski@aspendailynews.com. Follow Madeleine on Twitter, @Madski99