BEAVER CREEK — Even music born and bred in big cities needs a breath of fresh air, if only for one weekend.
It’s the can’t-miss concept behind the Soul Mountain Music Festival, a two-day ode to the sultry, soul-filled world of rhythm and blues. After going on hiatus last summer, the festival returns for the third time this weekend with a brand-new venue at Beaver Creek — not to mention the sort of artists that music lovers rarely find in the Rocky Mountains.
There’s veteran jazz singer Rachelle Ferrell from Pennsylvania, the student-led Quincy Ave Rhythm Band from Kent Denver School and four other acts, all spread between the cozy environs of Vilar Performing Arts Center tonight and the grassy, sunlit stage at Strawberry Park on Saturday afternoon. Paired with the concerts are after-parties, VIP lunches and a youth-centric music panel.
Despite the far-flung lineup, for festival founder Rhonda Sams, simply being in the mountains is nearly as important as the music itself. One naturally leads to the other.
“That open-air space is so conducive for live music,” said Sams, a former television producer who first brought the festival to Vail’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in 2011. “The mountains are a natural amphitheater in and of themselves, so when you have that beautiful backdrop, it adds to the entire experience.”
Fresh air is a not-so-secret weapon for returning favorites, from locals like Hardscrabble to Colorado legends like Leftover Salmon. Yet even in a valley known for bluegrass and jam bands — the de facto meat and potatoes of the local music scene — Soul Mountain promises a fresh introduction to the decidedly old-school world of R&B.
But don’t assume old-school means dusty or decrepit. R&B’s roots have spread far beyond its birthplace in the American South.
At its core, though, R&B demands to be experienced, and Sams believes Beaver Creek is a fitting home for the festival’s expansion. This year, the concerts are paired with a slew of after-parties, VIP lunches and a youth-centric music panel. Soul Mountain is about much more than the music: It’s a showcase for R&B culture as a whole, filtered through a high-country lens.
“This is our flagship and our passion,” Sams said. “I’ve been coming to the mountains ever since I moved to Denver and I want to share that with other urbanites. I grew up (in) concrete, living in Chicago, but once I came out here, I was just in awe at the beauty. It’s for the adventurous and loyal music lover.”
SOUL WITH NO BOUNDS
Along with soulful adventure, intimacy is built directly into the R&B aesthetic. (Look at the hits: “My Girl” by The Temptations, “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard and countless more.) Sams jokingly refers to Soul Mountain as “our big little festival,” but it holds true: The last festival in 2012 drew roughly 1,200 attendees — just enough to fuel the energetic groove without feeling claustrophobic. After all, these are still the mountains.
Yet the music is still the highlight, and this year’s lineup already has Sams excited. To pair with the new venue, each act is making its Soul Mountain debut. Along with big names like contemporary vocalist Cody Chesnutt — “He’s no stranger to Colorado stages,” Sams said — the lineup is rounded out by newcomers of a different sort.
Fresh off a European tour, the Quincy Ave Rhythm Band brings a rollicking, pop-inspired set to the festival on Saturday afternoon. The set list covers the whole of R&B history, plus some: John Legend, The Roots, Beyonce, Cakra Khan. At the beginning of the year, the teens sit down with Stephen Holley, the coordinator of the school’s commercial music program, to pick a far-ranging set of tunes for the year.
After Holley writes compositions, he hands the reigns over to the students, who take it upon themselves to tweak, practice and perfect each song. Then it’s off to the live performances — the Holy Grail for any budding musician. Quincy Ave has played everything from festivals in New Orleans to the invite-only Porretta Soul Festival in Italy, where the group performed in mid-July before returning to the U.S.
“For me, you can study something all you want,” said Holley, a longtime professional musician from Memphis who teaches students how to schedule gigs and work with radio producers. “I can teach you how to play a song in the four walls of a classroom, but once you get on a stage in front of an audience, it’s no longer about me. It’s not my gig — it’s their gig.”
Although the students and fellow headliners spent most of summer traveling for shows, Sams believes Soul Mountain is a pitch-perfect getaway for musicians and music lovers alike.
“I’m a believer that people want to get away, not only to ski, but to be someplace new,” Sams said. “We want this to be that final vacation of the summer.”