Harry Smith hadn’t been living in Denver for more than a week when he found himself invited to a keg party somewhere in Aurora. It was the early ’90s, Smith was 20 years old, and he hardly knew anyone in town. But he was all over it: “Fuck yeah, I’ll go,” Smith recalls saying. He parked himself near the keg—he felt that being near the keg was the best way to meet people—and was surprised to find a local metal band performing in the living room.
Smith, now 44 years old, turned the combination of beer and metal music into Black Sky Brewery in 2013. And this Saturday at the Gothic Theatre, Smith and his team will host the fifth annual Denver Black Sky, a music festival featuring eleven local and national metal bands.
The music festival is but one aspect of what makes this bar special to the local metal community. Smith regularly reaches out to local bands and creates brews modeled after what they believe their music would be if it were a beer (try the Ale of Minerva, an imperial brown ale inspired by Denver’s Eye of Minerva). There’s a jukebox, but don’t waste your money trying to play non-metal tunes—those songs will be skipped immediately. More than anything, he says, it’s a place for metalheads to get together and just have a good time.
“As metalheads, we’ve all been pretty much treated like assholes wherever we go,” Smith says. “You know, people look at you and think you’re a dirtbag or scumbag or stupid. But that’s why [Black Sky] is here. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable at other bars or other places because they look at you all friggin’ weird. Here, we just want people to have a good time and enjoy themselves.”
Smith calls the metal community a “strange brotherhood,” and he felt included in it as soon as he went to that keg party on his fifth day in Denver. That community has evolved alongside the city’s massive population growth. Although the rush of development that accompanied the surge has led to the closing of some beloved venues, the metal community has only become bigger. And if you want to know what that has looked like, Smith says, there’s no one who knows Denver’s metal scene better than Leonard Leal.
“Mine is the one with the skull on the garage.”
That’s how Leal describes his current base of operations, which is essentially two garages that are part of Collective Soul, a community outreach program perhaps best known for its Denver Taco Festival and the Denver Death Fest, a metal fest that Leal helps organize. Collective Soul used to have a home in RiNo’s Glitter Dome, but an increase in property values has driven Leal and his colleagues to a string of garages and warehouses in Globeville.
But right now, his focus is on his screen-printing business, which he runs out of this location. Sure enough, his garage door is covered in a giant skull. Inside, it smells like weed and that’s because Leal’s smoking a bowl. Rock plays out of his stereo, but it’s mostly drowned out by his neighbor’s band practice, the noise from which comes through Leal’s brick walls as if they weren’t even there. Leal appears happy to be precisely where he is.
“You should’ve seen this place when we moved in,” Leal says, as he leads me on a tour around his garage and its surrounding warehouses. “The amount of cleanup we had to do was ridiculous, but now that we’ve done it, I can’t wait to see the events we’re able to put on here.”
Leal’s history with the Denver metal scene dates back to the mid-’80s, after his family moved from Pueblo to Denver and when Leal was a teen. He recalls taking the bus—the 31 line to the 19th—to catch shows at the Rainbow Music Hall, which is now a Walgreens. Since 1992, Leal has been the lead singer for Denver’s Cephalic Carnage. It wasn’t too long after he started that band, he says, that he met Smith. Years before he started Black Sky Brewery, Leal says, Smith was asking Leal to make shirts that he could hand out along with his own home brews. “A beer and a t-shirt is far more memorable than a flier,” Leal recalls Smith saying. “Look at him now.”
Nowadays, Leal’s favorite venues are at the Summit, Marquis, Bluebird Theater, and Bar-Bar. Go to any of those, Leal says, and you’ll probably see a great show. “But no matter where you start the night,” says Joseph Howard, Leal’s bandmate, “You’re sure to end up at Black Sky with everyone else.”
No doubt you’ll also find Smith, hanging out the bar and serving beer. After all, that’s his favorite way to make friends.