Outdoor Festivals Return to North Denver

UPDATE: The Dragon Boat Festival has been cancelled. Due to the combination of COVID-19 concerns (including the number of participates under 12) and Sloan’s Lake currently being closed, organizers have decided to postpone until 2022.

Everyone loves an excuse to dress up to theme and dance the night away – and North Denverites can with the return of festivals and fairs to the neighborhood this fall!

After a year off from large, outdoor gatherings, organizers are excited to announce the return of staple events like the Highlands Street Fair, Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, Totally Tennyson, and more. The wide array of bands, themed bar crawls, delicious foods, appreciation of culture, and celebration of community is sure to draw thousands of attendees to these events.

Not only will these outdoor gatherings give small businesses a chance to show off their work, they will give people a chance to do what they’ve missed most – enjoy a night with their neighbors and a good beer.

The festivals will largely look the same as any other year – just with more hand sanitizing stations. Without an active mask mandate or COVID restrictions for events from the City of Denver, all open-air festivals have the green light. Organizers will be sure to adhere to whatever COVID restrictions may arise in the meantime, though they are hopeful things will remain clear.

Highlands Street Fair  

The always popular Highlands Street Fair is returning this year, giving Highlands merchants an opportunity to reconnect with the broader Denver community. Photo courtesy of event organizers.

The first event to hit calendars is the Highlands Street Fair on August 28. This free event, running for its 38th year, commemorates the musicians, artists, vendors, and businesses in the West Highland neighborhood.

Aside from the decision to eliminate children’s bounce houses this year, the festival will look much like it did in 2019, said Jenny Apel, an HMA director and leader at Nostalgic Homes Group. 

“It’s a big day for Highlands Square. It’s huge,” Apel said.

Highlands Street Fair spans multiple blocks between Perry and Irving Streets, where there will be 100+ vendors all the way from boutiques and apparel to food and fine arts. 

Nine entertainers will also be taking to their two respective stages this year. Attendees can expect performances from folk artist Saint Valentine, singer-songwriter Bailey Elora, pop and country artist Alyssa Ruffin, and country rock band The ThreadBarons at the Julian Stage. At the Osceola Stage, expect a workout with Spenga Rep & Revive, followed by music with bluegrass band Denver Burglar Alarm, young guitarist Dylan Miles, groove-rockers RADO, and reggae band Justus and the Limits.

“This is a celebration of neighborhood and the Highlands Square merchants struttin’ their stuff a little bit,” Apel said. “As well as these vendors – these street fair vendors – this is how they make their living. It matters a great deal for them.”

The Highlands Street Fair is located at Highland Square on West 32 Avenue on Aug. 28. Entertainment begins at 10 am and the fair ends at 7pm.

With outside event capacity limits lifted, festivals are returning to North Denver. While the 2020 Sunnyside Music Festival was virtual, this year they will be back in Chaffee Park as they were before the pandemic. Photo from 2019 Festival, courtesy of Sunnyside Music Festival

Sunnyside Music Festival

Next on the lineup on Sept. 11 is the Sunnyside Music Festival, which has an all day line up of music with proceeds going towards youth arts and music grants.

What started as a small music fest in the backyard of a neighborhood couple soon turned into an event drawing an estimated 12,000 people per day. In the last three years, Sunnyside has been able to raise nearly $10,000 per year to provide PAs, instruments, music stands, and more for a number of youth programs.

So when it came time to consider whether or not to host the festival in 2020, it was hard to let the idea go, said long-time board member Joe Michie. 

Organizers got into conversation with Indie 102.3 who suggested a virtual, broadcasted event that would allow Sunnyside to continue showcasing local music. Swallow Hill Music also jumped in with an offer to have musicians perform in their pedicabs.

With those creative solutions in hand, Sunnyside was able to offer a socially-distanced and virtual event during the pandemic last year with the slogan #festinyournest. So while the radio station was broadcasting festival favorites, musicians like Los Mocochetes and Chadzilla rode down 44th street in pedicabs.

“It was amazing. It was not 12,000 people in the park,” Michie said, “but there were moments that were more heartwarming, touching, inspiring.”

Now the festival is entering its 19th year, and the hardest part about bringing it back full swing was finding sponsors. Michie said that some of the restaurants they’ve partnered with in the past are no longer around, and the few that are hanging on are hanging back. For the companies that are thriving, it’s competitive to get donations since everyone else is asking too.

Luckily, Sunnyside was able to find some grants and other resources to sustain the festival. They hope to pay it forward to help keep the small businesses alive, Michie said.

The biggest change this year is, again, rethinking the children’s area. Instead of providing bounce houses, Sunnyside will have an instrument petting zoo as well as some kid performers.

For adult entertainment, besides the beer sales and fitness event, there is a full lineup starting with dance-inspired music from Gumbo Le Funque, Pick & Howl, Cast Iron Queens, Los Mocochetes, and Shakedown Street.

“Let’s pretend we were away from music and everything we love for a long time, which we were. We stumbled out of this cave, and what do you want to do?” Michie said. “I think we all said dance.”

Sunnyside Music Festival takes place for free on Sept. 11 from 11am-7:30pm in Chaffee Park at 44th & Tejon.

Jamming on the Jetty

Jamming on the Jetty, 2018. Photo courtesy of event organizers. This year, the event will be working to raise awareness around how to improve Sloan’s Lake.

Seven days later on Sept. 18, Jamming on the Jetty will be at Sloan’s Lake. While this festival is also focused on music, games, and outdoor activities, it has an ulterior motive.

This year’s mission is to bring awareness to the environmental health of the lake, said founder A.J. Steinke, who also sits on the Board of Directors at Sloan’s Lake Park Foundation. 

On July 22, Denver Parks and Recreation temporarily closed the lake due to a presence of poisonous blue-green algae blooms. All recreational activities are prohibited, including boating, fishing, wading, kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding.

“We’re at rock bottom in my eyes,” Steinke said. “Since our foundation in this event is to bring awareness and raise funds to change that path, that’s also another component as to why our fundraising success has flourished. People want their lake back.”

Aside from working towards revitalizing the lake, one of the biggest challenges in bringing the festival back this year is that organizers didn’t get the green light to move forward with planning until March or April 2021, leaving them only a few months time instead of what would historically be about a year to plan, Steinke said.

Because of this lag time, it was difficult to obtain things like restrooms and stage equipment, and even musicians and sponsors when everything was in such high demand.

Yet Jamming on the Jetty was able to assemble some of the largest sponsorships than they’ve ever done, Steinke said, which he attributes to the fact that folks are dying to get back out there.

“Reengaging the community and reconnecting it has been wonderful,” he said. “We’re no stranger to challenges and are ready to go Sept. 18.”

Attendees can expect to hear a lot of diverse genres of music this year in comparison to others. After a fitness event, music will move from a middle-school-aged DJ, to poli-technic music, to New Orleans jazz band Brothers of Brass. Check the Jamming on the Jetty website for the official lineup announcement.

Jamming on the Jetty is on Sept. 18 from 2-7pm at Sloan’s Lake.

Totally Tennyson is Totally Back. Photo from 2017 event, courtesy of event organizers.

Totally Tennyson

If you’re as sick of this year as 2020, thankfully Totally Tennyson will allow you to throw it back to the 70s, 80s, and 90s with a bar crawl, costume contest, and concert at The Oriental Theater on Sept. 25.

Totally Tennyson has historically been about raising money for area schools. It was started by local mothers in the neighborhood. Now that their children have grown and graduated, it felt natural to hand it off to someone else.

This change in leadership has brought Scott Happel, part-owner of The Oriental Theater, owner of Sacred Chao Productions, co-owner of HQ on Broadway, and owner/producer of the burlesque show Carnivale de Sensuale, to the ring. After being involved with Totally Tennyson the last few years and working closely with previous owner Lauren Wolf, Happel was prepared to take over operations while ownership remained with the original group. 

After the pandemic hit, it made sense for Happel, someone well versed in entertainment ownership and operations, to take over completely after that lapse in time.

From an attendee standpoint, Totally Tennyson should appear the same as it has in the past. Happel said that most, if not all, of the venues that people are used to stopping at will be participating, and the night will end with a performance by party band 6 Million Dollar Band at the Oriental.

On the back end, the festival will no longer be based on raising money for area schools. Given the last year, Happel feels that proceeds for this year might better serve the bars, restaurants, and businesses involved in the event that might have been struggling, he said. In the future, the mission of the festival might shift, but for now the focus remains on supporting businesses.

Totally Tennyson is on Sept. 25 beginning with a bar crawl along Tennyson Street between 38th and 46th Streets from 4-7pm. There will be a costume contest and afterparty to follow at 8pm at The Oriental Theater. This is a ticketed event with limited capacity. Tickets are priced at $35 for general admission and $75 for VIP.

Colorado Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat organizers are optimistic about being able to return to Sloan’s Lake this fall, despite the temporary summer closure. Photo courtesy of event organizers.

Return to Sloan’s Lake on Sept. 25-26 for the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival (CDBF) – the largest in the country. This festival’s mission is to celebrate and showcase the culture, contributions, and accomplishments of Colorado’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.

Aside from the competitive races, there are numerous land activities to enjoy to commemorate AAPI culture, like food courts, performances, educational opportunities, marketplaces, beer gardens, and other interactive activities like live art demos.

The biggest change that was planned for 2021 regardless of the pandemic is the addition of fencing along the perimeters of the festival.

“Before we were just very open, no fencing surrounding the perimeter, but this year just to kind of add that extra layer of safety, especially with the last year and a half to two years of what’s been going on with the AAPI community, we just want to make sure that everybody feels very comfortable coming to an outdoor large event,” Colorado Dragon Boat executive director Sara Moore said.

Another benefit to the fencing is that attendees will now be allowed to carry around alcoholic beverages throughout instead of having to be secluded to designated beer gardens.

This year, the festival’s theme is #respresentASIAN. There is even more of an emphasis on coming together to celebrate diversity after not having that ability last year, Moore said, which was a big blow to the AAPI community.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to have our voices heard and for us to just be present and say, ‘hey, we’re here, we’re strong, we matter, this is our culture, come learn about it, come ask us questions,’” Moore said.

While Sloan’s Lake was temporarily closed at the time of publication, Moore was working closely with the lake and park, and they are confident the lake will be open again in time for the festival.

Colorado Dragon Boat Festival is a two day event on Sept. 25 & 26 at Sloan’s Lake. Check the website for updates on times and schedule.


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