All Photos By Johne Edge
As summer wound down, we packed up our tent and headed off to check out State Bridge, a Vail valley venue that I had intended to visit all summer. Colorado favorites, Elephant Revival and DeVotchKa, were co-headlining the show that Saturday and I knew that I would not be disappointed. We pitched our tent at Rancho del Rio, a short four miles up the road from the venue, just in time to avoid being caught in an unexpected summer shower. Fortunately, the clouds passed quickly and we soon found ourselves sitting under a big tree at KK’s BBQ, waiting for the free shuttle to take us down the road.
As we entered State Bridge I found myself instantly at ease with the place. The tiered lawn seating and the sandy dancing pit at the front of the stage provided the crowd with various options for how to view and enjoy the show. Picnic tables peppered the area nearest the open air bar and grill, providing folks with plenty of room to sit down and enjoy a 24 ounce PBR and a brat or gourmet grilled cheese. As I got cozy next to the fire-pit, I began to notice the surrounding cabins, teepees and yurts. I had heard there were nearby rental properties, but I hadn’t realized that they were literally within spitting distance.
As the music began, I discovered that one more of the amenities unique to State Bridge are the beautiful acoustics provided by the valley. The night air hummed with the tender harmonies of Elephant Revival and thumped with the boisterous brass of DeVotchKa’s tuba. Everywhere I turned, I seemed to make a new friend. I’m not sure if there is something in the water in the mountains, but everyone seemed to exude generosity of heart and spirit. I think part of that vibe can be attributed to the music, but I’ve seen both of these artists before and I’ve never felt quite the same way. I returned to camp feeling content but exhausted from several hours of nonstop dancing.
The next morning, we returned to State Bridge for Bloodies and Bluegrass. This free event is a Sunday ritual, and as I relished the deliciousness of it all, I soon realized that I was also lamenting a loss. It wasn’t the loss of summer, but the loss of a summer not spent at State Bridge. I vowed to return the following week for the final night of the season with Vince Herman’s Great American Taxi and Billy Kreutzman’s 7 Walkers.
The following Sunday, despite having to work the next day, my husband and I took the relatively short two and a half hour drive back to Bond, CO for the final evening of State Bridge’s 2011 season. Before the show started I had an opportunity to sit down with Matt McCrae, State Bridge’s Director of Operations, and talk to him about what some folks are referring to as “the little Red Rocks in the mountains.”
McCrae started by explaining a bit of the history of State Bridge. A fire burned down the original structures, including a cabin, the lodge and the restaurant, about four year ago. The next few years were spent remodeling and rebuilding the infrastructures of the remaining properties, but the permission to rebuild the actual venue did not come until October of 2010. McRae told me: “from last October to Memorial Day, the day that we opened…I didn’t see how it was all finishing…the beauty of what was being created here… until the very first day when we had a ribbon cutting ceremony. It was like I was on stage seeing it for the very first time…it was amazing… and it was because of all of our volunteers. So we opened up on Memorial Day. We were supposed to open up at seven, but we were still building the bar at 6:45 so we opened up at 7:30 instead.”
McCrae’s personal history with State Bridge goes way back. Sixteen years ago he met his wife there and while they have lived, and worked, in different capacities in the area over the years, it wasn’t until after the fire that he took on his new management role. McCrae is quick to point out that it was owner Doug Moog’s belief in his dream that allowed State Bridge to rise from its ashes and become the splendor that is McCrae Amphitheater.
Being that it was the final night of the season, it only seemed appropriate to ask McCrae to reflect on the summer and share some of his favorite memories. He replied, “That’s a good one. We’ve had a Facebook post going around…and I didn’t have one at that point, but instead of listing all the favorite moments…there’s things that made us smile…the exceptional moments. There’s so many…really the families and kids coming in here and the smiling faces. I really want us to be known for this…like, kids…we have the biggest sandbox in Colorado, so bring your parents.” Doug Moog’s name comes up once again, as McCrae recalls another exceptional moment; The day that Doug stated he was, “The happiest happy man in the world.” This is not a common feeling for the owner of a new business as he faces the trials and tribulations of the first year of starting up. But McCrae’s favorite moment would have to be the day of the ribbon cutting ceremony when he discovered that his family name was being bestowed upon the new amphitheater. “Speechless,” is how he still describes his reaction to the honor. “When I say it I just get this glow inside…I’m just so grateful. It’s a special and great thing. My heart and soul are right here.”
Despite a sunny disposition, I knew that there had to be challenges to the inaugural season too and McCrae sites, “trying not to take it too seriously,” as one of them. “I was working 100 hour weeks to build the place…and then switched to 100 hour weeks managing. My wife and I actually took a vacation in the middle just to get our heads screwed on straight again. I actually reintroduced myself to people because I don’t think that they actually knew me…I was so frantic.” Other challenges include, naturally, being worried about the money; something that comes with every start up business. Advertising is expensive, but it is a sure way to get a thousand people into a venue. “We’re trying to balance how to get the word out and make that profit for Doug. We’re trying to get better at that every week.” Despite this challenge though, word of mouth advertising may be State Bridge’s biggest success. Matt says, “When people leave, I truly believe that, almost across the board, people have more energy than when they got here and they have a smile on their face and they legitimately want to share their experience with other people. And they have.”
Looking forward to next summer, I asked McCrae who he hopes and dreams to bring to State Bridge. He recalls a conversation that he had with Scotty Stoughton, the venue’s booking manager. “I told him that I wanted to build a place where he doesn’t book shows…bands just call to see when it’s available. I want this to be a place where every musician can experience the energy. I’d like to think that any big name band could play here at any given time.” McCrae’s wife, Audrey, was quick to chime in that her wish is that JB (John Bell), lead singer of Widespread Panic, will come next summer for a solo show. As I walked away from the interview, listening to the great sounds of Vince Herman and Great American Taxi and looking forward to 7 Walkers, I thought to myself, “anything is possible at State Bridge.”