Kegs, tents & Deadheads

Michigan Mike tells the story of NedFest

Great American Taxi
photo by Joshua Elloseff

Now in its 13th year, NedFest has been virtually shock-proof in the face of economic shifts and dime-a-dozen festival saturation. With a dependable yearly lineup, partnerships with local breweries, tickets capped at 2,000 and a true scene of devotees that returns year after year, NedFest continues to keep the mountain town’s homegrown musical legacy alive.

This year’s festival features another stellar lineup that includes plenty of local talent, including headliner and “Cajun slamgrass” act Leftover Salmon. Original Grateful Dead member Bill Kreutzmann will also perform alongside Dead companion Steve Kimock, The Meters’ vocalist/bassist George Porter, Jr. and The String Cheese Incident keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth. Bluegrass legend David Grisman also headlines.

For any fans of mountain-stomping mayhem, this year’s festival is poised to be one of the best yet.

And locals count on “Michigan” Mike Torpie to make his perennial endeavor a hit every year. He’s a “festival guy above all else,” he tells Boulder Weekly over a beer, and he lives to ensure Nederland always gets a solid festival. Even without seeing his legendarily massive archive of live shows, there’s just something about his polite, understated demeanor and innocent awe of the human experience that lets you know he’s spent more than a few nights in a tent.

As a Nederland resident for almost 20 years, one of Torpie’s great joys has been watching the evolution of jamgrass, the cross between traditional bluegrass/ folk with the light-hearted and improvisational sensibilities of “jam” music.

Nederland is somewhat of a sanctuary for the music, as many musicians in the scene (who also frequent NedFest) have homes in Nederland, including Yonder Mountain String Band, The Motet, String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon.

Folk music has always been important to jam bands, and jamgrass is just the result of a jam mentality leaking into regional music. Jerry Garcia was influential in one way by embracing bluegrass into his music, and Torpie considers Garcia playing in Old and In The Way (with bluegrass legends David Grisman and Peter Rowan) to be a watershed moment in music.

As Torpie points out, the genetics of jamgrass — from hippie rock to bluegrass to jamgrass — have unintentionally been laid out in this year’s lineup.

“[Bluegrass] bands like New Grass Revival with Bela Fleck and Sam Bush, Hot Rize from Boulder, those groups led to Leftover Salmon, led to String Cheese to Yonder Mountain String Band and half the bands out here,” Torpie says. “It’s neat and wasn’t planned this way, but this year we have an original member of the Dead on Friday, David Grisman on Saturday and Leftover Salmon on Sunday.”

Jerry dies, a star is born

Modern festival culture is rarely examined as a descendent of early jam culture. The post-Woodstock hippie resuscitation surely set some kind of precedent for the communal experience, half-assed camping and oneness with your personal filth that became today’s festival scene. Roving Deadheads were not the first to tour as extensively as their favorite bands, but they certainly ironed out all the details over the years. This doesn’t make the Dead unique, but the band carried the torch for hippie culture well into the ’90s, and did it so effectively that even the passing of Jerry Garcia couldn’t kill the momentum.

Enter Michigan Mike, an emigrant to Nederland who, on this particular Aug. 9 in 1995, was hand-drawing flyers for a kegger. New in town and with an eye for seeing potential in bands, it had been easy enough for him to gather local musicians at his house for small backyard parties. Torpie’s parties were well-attended, but little did he know the path towards the modern NedFest was about to rip wide open.

“That was a wack day,” Torpie says.

It was his 27th birthday when Garcia died of a heart attack.

Still, there was a kegger to be thrown, and flyers to bring down the canyon to Boulder. Torpie arrived in town to find that a mob of grieving Deadheads had flooded the courthouse lawn to hold a candlelight vigil in Garcia’s memory. Torpie passed out flyers to all of them. Inappropriate?

Possibly. But the chance run-in set the first NedFest in motion when hundreds of these lost souls arrived in Torpie’s backyard the next weekend.

“Hippies going East Coast to West Coast on tour were all of a sudden like, ‘What’s our future?’” Torpie says. “We have no plans now. We were going to the next show!” “People stayed [in Nederland] for days and days,” Torpie says, “selling veggie burritos and shit on the street. It was a scene, cars for miles along the road on the side. That was a pretty epic party, kinda the first NedFest before it ever had a name.”

Nederland Acid Jazz

“Festivals weren’t really a huge thing, not like a fest every weekend like there is now — ‘You want to do what? Bands? Dancing? Music? Outside?’ It was like Footloose,” Torpie laughs. “Now, it’s a welcome thing for the community.”

Nederland was hardly a ghost town when Torpie arrived in Colorado in 1991. After all, Leftover Salmon had found enough footing to outgrow their shows at the Chalet Suisse (now the Black Forest, home of NedFest late nights) and launch from the small mountain town to tour nationally (Torpie videotaped an entire summer tour for the band during this time). However, Nederland, and even Boulder, were not quite the hippie meccas he had envisioned.

Nederland suffered a culture flux about every decade, beginning in 1976 with the debaucherous, cocaine-fueled legacy of the Pioneer Inn and Caribou Ranch recording studio. After the Caribou Ranch fire in 1985, the party ended, Torpie says, and Nederland was nothing but “rednecks, cowboys, mountain men, miners, bikers, vets crying in your beer, shooting guns off in the bar.”

“I never saw that personally,” he laughs. “That’s just what I heard. This is before my time, but when you drove through town you’d roll up your windows. It was a rough place.”

Torpie said the time between 1985 and his arrival was bleak, but it wasn’t a wasteland. Intuition, and not much more, revealed that the small town had a small something special, what Torpie reluctantly calls “an energy.”

“Not to sound too Boulder County hippie, but there was this real energy going on,” Torpie says. “You can’t put it into words other than ‘energy.’ It was just a feeling, like, something’s gonna pop.”

A small bar named Top of the Square had one of the only open mic nights in town, in a space which Torpie illustrates was the size of a walk-in closet. The claustrophobic jams were small but inviting, forgoing a sign-up list for musicians who freely jumped in and out of simple bluegrass jams.

Winter was approaching, and Torpie wanted to move his backyard parties indoors. Top of the Square wasn’t much to work with. But this was also around the time when the Fox Theatre opened in Boulder, and many small venues were failing in its wake.

“Cool places like JJ McCabes shut down, or turned into pool halls,” Torpie says, effectively squashing the microscene that had nurtured homegrown music.

But Torpie saw success where Boulder had given up. Crowds grew at Top of the Square, and walls in the bar were knocked down. Acid jazz and bluegrass nights nearly filled the calendar week. And Nederland began to embrace it.

“Next thing you know, people are even coming from Boulder to this dinky little club,” Torpie says. “Other bars thought, ‘Wow, we want a piece of this action too!’” Everyone began to partition space for music — Torpie laughs that even the Mexican/Chinese restaurant added a bluegrass night.

Now, NedFest’s impact has actually been written into the town code, in reluctant legislation that allowed camping in town limits for the first time (with approval and permits, Torpie adds). Less obvious is residents’ physical connection to NedFest, an inheritance that is created as new fans are literally born into the culture.

“What’s cool is that people who used to attend, the partiers back in the old days, now have kids that they bring, and now their kids have been there every year. After 13 years, there are people who have grown up, literally born into, the environment that is NedFest.”

“I’ve gotten so many people laid over the years, people have gotten married,” Torpie says, unable to finish without laughing. “It’s pretty funny. People have kids and get homes up there now.”

Even with its continued success, Torpie keeps NedFest a one-man operation, refusing to delegate the work until the final weeks approach. The bands and the beer have improved over the years, but in many ways NedFest still has the heart of Torpie’s first backyard ragers and the spark that he saw in Nederland’s improvisational jams.

Michigan Mike hasn’t changed much, either.

“I still feel like the dork I felt like in junior high school,” Torpie laughs. “You might get a little grey and your teeth go bad, but you’re always the same person that you always are.”