Tim Van Schmidt
When I first moved to Fort Collins in 1980, the Aggie Theater was still a movie theater. It was one of those old-fashioned main street theaters with a big marquee, walk-in ticket office, stripped-down snack bar, screen and popular movies.
It would have been hard to believe in those days that the Aggie would ever help put Fort Collins on the rock and roll map.
The Aggie Theater succumbed to stiff competition from multiplex theaters spurred by the region’s growth and closed as a movie theater. But growth has also allowed the Aggie to be reborn as a live music venue and the club has since earned its considerable bragging rights by putting on some pretty amazing shows. Not just a few, but many.
My first experiences at the Aggie as a concert hall—in 1998—are a pretty good example. One night I saw a top supergroup, Jazz is Dead, with drummer Billy Cobham, best known for his work with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, guitarist Jimmy Herring from The Aquarium Rescue Unit, bassist Alphonso Johnson from Weather Report and keyboardist T Lavitz of The Dixie Dregs and Widespread Panic.
The previous night, the Aggie had been invaded by The Insane Clown Posse, which caused a stir in the community due to the loud fanatic nature of the band.
The night after Jazz is Dead, I saw The Funky Meters at the Aggie, featuring New Orleans legends such as Art Neville of the Neville Brothers.
This is just the beginning. Since then, the Aggie has been presenting what can only be called music history night after night. The walls of the Aggie have absorbed a lot of diverse music, so much so that you can practically hear the hum of the building as you walk past it on the street during the day.
The craziest night I spent at the Aggie was when Gwar performed his show on the downtown stage. If I understand correctly, Gwar, the hardcore/punk/metal band with an irreverent and messy attitude, were recording at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins and decided to do a show in town too.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into but the first clue was that black plastic had been put up on the walls all around the stage. I soon realized why, when the band took the stage in their outrageous costumes and started dozing the crowd with water cannons spewing tinted liquid, the crowd loved it. They also brought in a number of other costumed characters who would all end up being dismembered in one way or another while Gwar’s throaty rock was spinning.
Right next to Gwar was a performance by Captured by Robots. A human was on stage with a whole group of music-creating robots. Yes, robots that knew how to play drums and guitar and abused their chained human captive with foul language.
But there is much more to the story. I saw quite a few music legends at the Aggie. That would include Hot Tuna, revered songwriter John Hiatt, as well as North Mississippi All-Stars, venerable rocker Leon Russell and great fusion keyboard pioneer Brian Auger. Then there was a very brief tour with the surviving members of hard rock band MC5 – remember the rock anthem “Kick Out the Jams”? – playing with notable volunteers Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Evan Dando of The Lemonheads and guitarist Marshall Crenshaw.
Three members of The Grateful Dead have played the Aggie at different times – drummer Mickey Hart, guitarist Bob Weir with his band Ratdog, and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on a rare solo tour.
I’ve seen world class reggae at the Aggie including Culture, Burning Spear, The Wailers, Michael Rose, Marcia Griffiths, Ziggy Marley and The Meditations.
Rap to the Aggie? Ice T and Flavor Flav. Progressive instrumental groups? Lotus and Umphrey’s McGee – who had the best light show – as well as Ozric Tentacles and Medeski, Martin and Wood.
Country? Yes, even country music when Dwight Yoakum played the Aggie.
I asked permission to photograph Yoakum that night, but thought I was in trouble when Yoakum stopped his broadcast, called a security guy, and angrily seemed to point in my direction. The security guy came down from the stage and headed straight for me, but passed me and cornered a guy behind me who was filming the performance. Yoakum said, “You can take as many photos as you want, but that’s stealing” as the guy was uprooted from the venue and ejected.
Other names? Well, it’s a bit endless, but let’s just mention a few: moe, Gov’t Mule, Jello Biafra, Buckethead, Dokken, Junior Brown, The Toasters, John Popper, Fishbone, Ozomatli… and that’s not are only shows that I have personally seen.
Despite all that hoarding, you can expect a star-studded lineup every night at The Aggie. You’d be right in a way, because the Aggie has not only attracted tons of heavy hitters, but also hosted countless major touring and regional bands. I think you could easily say that every band in the area worth their salt wants to play the Aggie.
What I found was that these bands often evoked the same ferocity as the stars – sometimes even more. It’s still the power of performance that counts.
But memorabilia isn’t all there is to the Aggie Theatre. The Aggie continues to work on ways to keep live music burning during a pandemic and upcoming dates include two Gasoline Lollipops shows on April 23 and 24. Also on the program: Break Science on April 29 and 30, Mersiv on May 1 and 2, Manic Focus on May 6 and 7, Random Rab on May 13 and 14 and A Very Jerry Evening, featuring JGB’s Dave Abear on May 15 . Find more dates and antivirus protocol on theaggietheatre.com.
The pandemic has been difficult in many areas of our lives and concert halls have been hit very hard as an industry. But the Aggie Theater survives and continues to make musical history, one band, one show, one big night at a time.
Tim Van Schmidt is a Fort Collins-based writer and photographer. Check out his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt”.