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Sundown Colorado
Live DJ set at Sundown Colorado on RiNo's festival grounds. Image courtesy of @Gooddream.co
Culture

Colorado’s First Sober Music Festival Was a Clear-Eyed Revelation

Sundown Colorado could set the stage for more large-scale, alcohol-free events in the state.

A 30-something named Brad wearing an Alison Wonderland shirt had bought his ticket to see the Autograf set in RiNo last Saturday at the first Sundown Colorado. He’d been at a pool party earlier in the day and wanted more beer to prolong the vibe. He walked past women flanking the entrance dancing in golden furling wings, artists painting canvases, a silent disco on top of a firetruck, an inflatable meditation tent, a real grass forest, a wellness IV detox van, and an acrobatic apparatus where women slinked on silk. Eventually, he made it to the festival’s Detox Bar and asked for a beer.

No beer, he was told. Juice, smoothies, mate.

He bounced to the Awake drinks tent. Still no luck; only nonalcoholic tempranillo and red blends. The third tent he approached, Grüvi, had all kinds of beer: Weisse, Pale Ale, Stout, IPA. But, again, all of it was nonalcoholic (NA). Brad was frustrated because he didn’t realize that he’d stumbled into Denver’s first detox music festival.

He would soon find out, though, that alcohol wasn’t necessary to keep a buzz. Hours later, he was grooving to Autograf while sipping his second NA Grüvi beer. “Hell, yeah, that was great,” he said. “Gimme another.”

In Brad, you can see what Sundown Colorado is trying to accomplish, according to its website: a “new, healthy nightlife adventure.” A raging Denver throwdown for all music lovers that’s comfortable for folks who are adjusting their relationship to the country’s most popular drug. It’s a growing population that includes folks in recovery, religious abstainers, wellness influencers, and a sober curious crowd interested to see what Saturday night looks like without beer goggles. (And, certainly, what Sunday morning feels like minus the hangover.)

Sundown Colorado
Photo by Reilly Capps

The festival was started by Amber and Mike Handby, also known as Denver-based DJ duo DoubleCrush. Amber and Mike are not in recovery. They just got tired of DJing late at night in soused clubs. “I’d see the way [drunk] people treated each other and the way they treated me,” Amber says. Everyone else was just browned out. “They were there, but they were all somewhere else,” she says. “I would feel like the only person in the club.”

The duo threw three sober parties this summer presented by Secret Dance Addiction in front of Denver’s NA bar Awake. The joy, positivity, and presence, Amber says, was contagious. It led to the creation of Sundown. “We’re really excited to see more healthy nightlife experiences,” she says.

The festival, which attracted about 1,000 people this weekend, was like a great NA beer: so bubbly, tasty and refreshing you almost forgot there was no alcohol. (Although, yes, I caught a whiff or two of weed.) The grit and pebble parking lot of the RiNo festival grounds sprouted food and merch tents selling kebabs, CBD lotions, art, and books. A VIP area had soft loungy chairs staring at a stage with a DJ table and a stage-wide flatscreen flashing abstract patterns behind go-go dancers.

Sundown is healthier than a typical concert, with lots of juice bars and massage tents. But you had to look close to notice what this festival didn’t have: no stumbling, yelling, vomiting, or drunk driving. No letchers drooling over the dancers. Just people conversing as coherently at 10 p.m. as they had eight hours earlier in the day. No long lines at the port-a-potties. In fact, the most crowded spot all night? The meditation tent.

The world of intoxication, like so many scenes these days, is in a real state of fluctuating antipodes. On the bleary side, you have our alcohol-soaked corporate culture, our booming weed industry, and our downtown streets full of neighbors nodding to something other than music.

Sundown Colorado
Photo by Reilly Capps

On the other hand, abstaining from alcohol—either forever or just for a night or two—is becoming more common. Sober bars have opened everywhere from Austin to New York. Hashtags like #SoberOctober populate social media. Denver, self-styled Craft Beer Capital of the World, is seeing an explosion of ostentatious non-drinking, with an influx of local craft nonalcoholic drinks, sober bars, sober workout gyms, and sober clubs. Grüvi says its sales are way up, part of the worldwide growth of the nonalcoholic beverage market.

Going out can be scary for non-drinkers. “When I first got sober, I didn’t want to go anywhere where I’d be offered a beer and feel ashamed I couldn’t drink it,” says Vince Huseman, music program manager at Phoenix, a chain of gyms where the entrance fee isn’t money, just 48 hours of sobriety. The gym is hosting its own sober dance party October 2. “This concert is flipping the perspective around and saying, ‘Not drinking is a strength.’ ” But NA parties are not just for the health-conscious either: Macklemore is headlining a sober concert at the end of this month in Las Vegas, the veritable party capital of the U.S.

Billy Wynne started the NA bar Awake this spring in Jefferson Park because, for him, “At a certain point there was a disconnect between mindfulness and getting wasted.” His clients skew female, LGBTQ, and “hipsters for whom it’s a cool new thing,” mixed with a few high school kids looking for a swanky hang after prom.

“[Sundown Colorado] could really change someone’s life,” says Reace Daniel, one of the festival’s meditation teachers and a bartender at Denver’s Honey Elixir, a bar designed for the sober curious. “It’s an incredible way for people to grow their perspective about how sobriety is positive and not negative. You don’t have to close off the world to be sober.”

At Sundown, you could hear people discover that in real time. Like when a burst of rainfall came, a guy named Connor danced shirtless with his buddies to Autograf and screamed joyfully and clear-headedly into the night, “I’m 35 days sober! I’m so f*cking sober! Yeowww!”

This might be the first sober music festival of its kind but it won’t be the last. The Handbys plan to throw Sundown Colorado again next summer. “One hundred percent we’ll do it again,” says Amber. “This was just the beginning.”

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