The last time Emma Cole stepped foot on the stage at the Hi-Dive on South Broadway, she sang to an empty room. The lead vocalist of local indie rock band Wildermiss and her bandmates, Joshua Hester and Caleb Thoemke, had arrived at the dive bar that day in July 2020 to record a concert for Underground Music Something—a a collection of virtual performances organized by Denver’s beloved annual Underground Music Showcase (UMS).

“We loaded all our gear up on stage, played one song, played to no one—and then kind of just left,” Cole says. “It was super strange.”

The virtual shows, which helped raise more than $75,000 for local artists struggling during the pandemic, were a stand-in for what would have been the 20th anniversary of UMS’ weekend-long indie festival on South Broadway that regularly spotlights hundreds local and national acts. Thanks to COVID-19, however, the event was forced to move online.

Now, one year later, Wildermiss will return to that same stage Friday at midnight—this time, to what’s expected to be a packed crowd for UMS’ highly anticipated in-person return. “UMS is kind of Christmas for us—for the music scene in Denver,” Cole says. “So it feels really cool to be able to play again.”

That annual tradition is coming back to Broadway August 27–29, bringing more than 100 acts to eight blocks of South Broadway, including headliners like Pinegrove, Remi Wolf, Neil Frances, Shannon & the Clams, and Allah-Las—plus dozens of local favorites like Wildermiss, Wes Watkins, Down Time, The Still Tide, and more. And after most live art was relegated to virtual experiences this past year, that same excitement is palpable from other artists, independent venues, and Mile High City music enthusiasts alike.

“It’s been kind of awesome to see the reaction, especially right off the bat … the first couple of shows [back at Hi-Dive], were sort of our bands—or bands that play the Hi-Dive a lot—and there were just high emotions in the crowd,” Matty Clark, president of Hi-Dive, says about the return to in-person concerts this summer. “It was really emotional for a lot of people when we got back to doing what we do. And I think that there’s gonna be a lot of that this weekend.”

The hope is that the festival’s return will both revive some of the pre-pandemic momentum for the city’s thriving entertainment industry, and offer a much-needed boost for surrounding venues, restaurants, and bars that also suffered under pandemic restrictions.

“UMS is really, whether they mean it to be or not, sort of a celebration of that part of our little strip of Broadway,” Clark says. “A lot has changed in the last year and a half, so I think people are gonna come down [to South Broadway] and kind of be a little surprised that some new things are there, some old things are gone. And it’s kind of nice that we can get all these people out here to see that the neighborhood’s made it, we’re still there, and it’s still weird as ever.”

This year’s festival will take place a month later than usual, which UMS owner Casey Berry says gave his team and the 12 venues across Broadway a chance to pull together the best possible lineup as vaccination rates continued to tick upward, and public health guidelines for venue capacity eased heading into the summer. This year’s showcase will still be scaled back compared to previous years, according to Berry, with no Saturday day party festivities and two main stages as opposed to three. Despite the time crunch, the festival still sold out weeks in advance.

“I feel like a lot of times, UMS was a little bit more of a, ‘If I’m in town, I’ll buy the ticket’ festival,” says Berry, whose event company, Two Parts, took the festival over from the Denver Post in 2018. “But we went on sale [this year], and everybody came out and supported it. And I’m not 100 percent sure without that support, we would have been able to go full steam ahead.”

Berry notes that safety of concertgoers and staff was front-of-mind when preparing for this year’s festival. UMS is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the previous 72 hours to attend shows throughout the weekend. “I think a lot of fans want to have some confidence going into this, that they’re not making an unsafe decision, and want to feel like they can let loose as well,” Berry says. Fans can bring physical copies, or load their information in the state’s myColorado app to show proof at the door.

Even though UMS will look different than previous years—or what Berry hopes for the festival in future years—he, Clark, and Cole all agree: The spirit will be the same.

“We’re always so excited to just run around South Broadway and catch as many sets as we can,” Cole says. “I’m excited to just kind of stumble upon music, you know? It’s kind of just like walking into something—you just don’t know what you’re going to get. And that’s kind of the fun of it, too.”

Who to see at Underground Music Showcase 2021

With so much talent packed in one weekend, it’s easy to get lost in the lineup. And while you can’t go wrong at any stage, here are a few can’t-miss local artists to circle on your itinerary.

Erin Stereo
Erin Stereo has been spinning eclectically infused house tunes in the Centennial State for over a decade, so her set on the Oasis Stage at Import Mechanics on Friday at 6 p.m. is guaranteed to get you moving and kick your weekend off right.

Though most of this pop chameleon’s material defies genre and bounds, his gospel upbringing always shine through in his high-octane vocals and performative flair, promising a dynamic show at HQ Denver, Friday at 7:20 p.m.

Catch your breath at the Showcase Stage before the jam-packed Saturday begins, where Doze will be floating out his synth-smooth alternative R&B sounds like his new single, Inside, starting at 1:30 p.m.

The electro-pop phenom and her producer Danny Pauta were making waves on international charts before moving to Denver from Ecuador in 2018—and have been blessing the Mile High City scene with their ethereal bops ever since. Catch them on the Showcase Stage Saturday at 3:50 p.m.

Pink Fuzz
Hard rock sibling duo LuLu and John Demitro have been bringing magnetic, heavy-hitting sets to Denver for four years now—John’s grungier endeavor with his other sister Demi, the Velveteers, proves that magnetic music must just run in the family—and will shred at ​​HQ Denver Saturday at 8:50 p.m.

Bison Bone
Performing Saturday at the L bar at 10 p.m., this group embraces an ever-shifting medley of country and rock-n-roll infusions to serve their unique take on the Americana sound—one that’s always a delight to the ears.

The fiery soul-pop singer was on the come up before the world shut down, and while she was able to tease her latest EP, Coexist With Chaos, for the Underground Music Something virtual show, you won’t want to miss her sultry vocals make their main Showcase Stage debut Sunday at 4:35 p.m.

Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill is 5280’s former associate digital editor.