BLACK FOREST • So this is what it feels like.
After more than 15 months without live music as we’ve known it, the three-day MeadowGrass Music Festival served as a welcome back to a long list of things missed and, sort of, forgotten: Friends, hugs, camping, clapping with strangers, making new friends, singing along to songs you might or might not know. And, most of all, the normal live music experience.
For attendees of MeadowGrass, seemingly the first big musical event to return to the Pikes Peak Region after the pandemic shut down such things in March 2020, every little thing was something to celebrate.
On Friday, the first day of the fest, Steve Harris, the festival’s co-founder and music booker, said he had the same conversation over and over at La Foret Conference and Retreat Center, the forest-like venue that hosts MeadowGrass.
“People are just overwhelmed to have live music in this beautiful setting. It’s very emotional for a lot of people,” he said. “It’s like waking up after darkness and suddenly there is light.”
You could hear that “light” from the stage as Colorado Springs musician Jeremy Facknitz danced around, as if unable to contain his excitement.
“Some of you guys are like, ‘Chill out, it’s 2:50 p.m. on a Friday,’” Facknitz said. “I feel like I’ve been waiting 15 months for this, how about you?”
You could see the light, too, in the eyes of the woman jumping up and down when she saw her friends for the first time. Well, Trisha Montoya admitted she had seen some of those friends in small, socially-distanced groups during the pandemic. But not like this. Not all together. Not in their special place.
Montoya and many of her friends have attended MeadowGrass since the locally-organized event began in 2009. There’s also that “MeadowGrass family” of people she only sees once a year and that she didn’t get to see last year, when the festival was cancelled because of COVID-19.
“To see them here in a big group and in a setting like this, it’s like we're all OK,” Montoya said. “We made it through and we’re here. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
It’s not just any setting, though.
MeadowGrass is the kind of place where vehicles squeeze between trees on a long dirt road for parking. It’s the kind of place where a lot of people have hula hoops. It’s the kind of place where kids toss frisbees or baseballs or run around playing with cardboard toys.
“It’s a small festival, but it’s our festival,” Harris said. “You see people year after year that care deeply about this festival.”
In front of the stage, which this year was not enclosed by the usual big yellow tent, there were rows of people sitting in folding chairs or atop blankets. There was at least one chess table set up and several people walking around barefoot. Behind the chairs were rows of people in tents and then there was the official camping area, where people set up for the weekend and are known to stay up until the early-morning hours for music on another stage back there.
It’s the kind of place, for Montoya and other previous attendees, that holds years of memories.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say I come through the gates and my shoulders just do this,” she said, as she made her shoulders sort of fall down. “It’s this big sigh of relief. It’s like, ‘Ok, everything is right in the world.”
Her 11-year-old daughter Arianna loves MeadowGrass so much that she took a break from painting a rainbow on a friend’s arm to say: “I love MeadowGrass so much. I’ve come here every year since I was born.”
Mike Lewis and his wife, Lori, are newer to the tradition. But they were happy to get back to camping in their trailer for the “first big event of the summer.” Mike Lewis got his camping area set up at 9 a.m. Friday.
“Not having live music for the last year, it’s like something’s missing,” Lewis said, his dark sunglasses hiding the sound of tears welling. “Not having the ability at all, it was depressing.”
MeadowGrass was about to turn that around for him, he said. And that's what it did for many. As Harris walked around the festival, he said he just saw “a lot of smiles.”
MeadowGrass started as “very much as a community effort” and has remained that way, Harris said. In 2014, when the festival was struggling to survive, Harris and Whitney Luckett co-founded the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Highway to keep it alive. The beloved event, which is powered by many volunteers, probably wouldn’t have survived if it had to be canceled again in 2021, Harris said.
Instead, more tickets were sold than ever in MeadowGrass history. That means the fest saw more than 1,500 people on Friday and Saturday. MeadowGrass continues Sunday.
“That’s partly a testament to this festival, but it’s partly a testament to everybody wanting to go do something and us being one of the first,” Harris said of the record attendance. “We probably could’ve had pig wrestling out here and still get 1,000 people out here.”
Beyond Black Forest this Memorial Day weekend, there were other signs of live music’s return in Colorado. On Saturday, Weidner Field kicked off its alter ego as one of the biggest concert venues in downtown Colorado Springs with a show from country stars Justin Moore and Chris Janson. At Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, The Disco Biscuits played a three-night run for a capacity of 6,300 people. The iconic venue will return to full capacity on June 21.
“I think we’re going to see a giant summer in terms of live music,” Harris said. “There’s just a little fear of maybe it was too soon. But I think from what we see here, we’re on the right track.”
For Harris and other music fans, this feeling was a long time coming.
“For me, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “It’s just a totally different thing than sitting at your house looking at your computer screen.”