Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hell's bells, it's Wild West Week

Photo from the Wyoming State Archives shows downtown Cheyenne's Mayflower Cafe during Frontier Days sometime around the late-1940s. 
"Hell's bells, it's Wild West Week."

That's what Slim tells Sal Paradise in "On the Road" when he realizes he's landed in Cheyenne Frontier Days. It's 1947 and CFD reputedly was a bit wilder. It might have even been Cheyenne Day, that mid-week extravaganza when everyone gets out of work at noon. Bars are open, the streets are closed, and the beer is flowing freely. Those post-war CFD participants at "Wild West Week" were feeling their oats. The war was over, they were alive and felt so damn good that they weren't freezing in the Hurtgen Forest or rotting in the Bouganville jungle that they rose their horses into the Mayflower Cafe. That actually happened, or that's how local lore tells it. Tanked-up cowboys riding horses into bars. Jack Kerouac was here and on his way to Denver's LoDo before it had a fancier title than Skid Row. Seattle may have coined that term -- Skid Row after Skid Road -- but Denver perfected it. Larimer Street better known then for bums and seedy bars than hipsters and swank bistros.

Chris and I left work at noon on Cheyenne Day and made our way to a closed-off Capitol Avenue. The beer flowed freely yet I saw nary a cowboy on horseback except the mechanical one on the Wrangler sign on Lincolnway. There was music and beer over on Depot Plaza. A spacious stage was set up on the big alley on Capitol between 16th and 17th streets. Technical problems forced the bands out of the alley and out onto the street onto a tiny stage the size of my car. But the bands played on, as they do in tough circumstances. The Burroughs from Greeley is a nine-piece funk and soul band with a cool horn section. They shoe-horned themselves on the stage and played a fine set of original music. In the midst of that, they slowed things down with some John Lennon. I'd never seen this band before. Where have you guys been keeping yourselves? NoCo venues, to judge from their web site.

Hell's bells -- Alysia Kraft leads The Patti Fiasco during Cheyenne's "Rock the Block" concert.
The Cheyenne DDA/Main Street org arranged this event which it dubbed "Rock the Block." DDA contracted with four very good bands to play downtown which, in turn, was designed to lure residents and tourists downtown. To judge from the crowds, it was successful. The audience for The Burroughs was modest, but things picked up for The Patti Fiasco which has its roots in southwest Wyoming. Lead singer/guitarist Alysia Kraft is from Encampment in Carbon County and the band formed in Laramie before moving to Fort Collins. Alysia spends a lot of her time in Austin these days, which is the way of things. Her mom staffed the merch table at the concert. She also was the first to get up and dance to some of TPF's better-known songs, such as "Wyoming is for Lovers" and "Small Town Lights."

Chris and I decamped for a local backyard party that also featured a live band. We saw some old friends, quaffed a few beers and then returned downtown in time to catch the last four songs by the Josh Abbott Band. By that time, the technical problems had been fixed and a packed crowd was rocking out to the tunes of the headliner. Not sure if it was country or red-dirt music or what, but the band was tight. The mostly-young crowd was enjoying it, some even singing along. I point out the age of the crowd because I notice that these days. It matters who is coming out to see your shows. At 64, I may have been the oldest person there. I recognized few of my peers in the crowd. I wondered who they were. Locals or tourists or both? If locals, how come I never see these people at other music events? They aren't attending Fridays on the Plaza concerts or Cheyenne Guitar Society offerings or the symphony. There is something about a summer outdoor event that features good music and alcohol. Arts presenters can learn something from this, if they haven't already.

Chris and I finished our Cheyenne Day by wandering over to the Depot Plaza. A soul band from Denver performed contemporary pop tunes and some oldies from the soul catalog and the disco era. This crowd was a surprise, as it was heavily Latino/a and black. That's unusual in our 93-percent-white state. Cheyenne, which has a better ethnic mix than most in WYO, draws mainly older and white audiences for Depot Plaza concerts, even when the band is hip and ethnic. Maybe there were reunions going on, as often happens during CFD. Cheyenne has an active NAACP chapter and several historically black churches. Warren AFB brought many urbanites to Cheyenne who liked it and stayed. Alas, we usually don't see each other at public events. Maybe Cheyenne Day is the draw, or CFD.

Today is Saturday, the second-to-last day of CFD. Chris and I volunteer tonight at the Old-Fashioned Melodrama in the Historic Atlas Theatre. Volunteering -- another CFD tradition. Another Shay family tradition.

See you tonight at the Atlas!

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