Tim Van Schmidt
When I first moved to Fort Collins in 1980, the Aggie Theatre was still a movie theater. It was one of those old-fashioned, main street theaters with a big marquee, a walk-up ticket booth, a bare-bones snack bar, one screen, and popular movies.
It would have been hard to believe at that time that the Aggie would one day help put Fort Collins on the rock and roll road map.
The Aggie Theatre succumbed to tough competition from multiplex cinemas spurred by area growth and closed as a movie theater. But growth also afforded the opportunity for the Aggie to be reborn as a live music venue and the club has since earned its considerable bragging rights by hosting some pretty incredible shows. Not just some, but a lot.
My first experiences at the Aggie as a music venue — in 1998 — are a pretty good example. One night I saw a top-shelf supergroup, Jazz is Dead, featuring drummer Billy Cobham, best known for his work with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, guitarist Jimmy Herring from The Aquarium Rescue Unit, bassist Alphonso Johnson of Weather Report, and keyboardist T Lavitz from The Dixie Dregs and Widespread Panic.
The night before, the Aggie had been invaded by The Insane Clown Posse, which caused a stir in the community over the nature of the group’s raucous fans.
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.
That’s just the beginning. Since then, the Aggie has been presenting night after night of what can be only be called music history. The Aggie’s walls have absorbed a whole lot of diverse music — so much so that you can practically hear the building hum when you pass by it on the street during the day.
The single wildest night I spent at the Aggie was when Gwar brought their show to the downtown stage. As I understand it, Gwar, the hardcore/punk/metal band with an irreverent and messy attitude, was recording at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins and decided to do a live show in town too.
I had no idea what I was getting into but the first clue was that black plastic had been put up on the walls all around the stage. I soon found out why when the band hit the stage in their outrageous costumes and proceeded to soak the crowd with water cannons spewing dyed liquid — the crowd loved it. They also brought on a number of other costumed characters who would all end up being dismembered in one way or another while Gwar’s guttural rock churned.
Right up with Gwar was a performance by Captured by Robots. One human was on stage with a whole band full of music-making robots. Yes, robots who could play drums and guitars and who abused their chained-up human captive with rough language.
But there’s much more to the story. I’ve seen quite a few music legends at the Aggie. That would include Hot Tuna, the revered songwriter John Hiatt, along with The North Mississippi All-Stars, venerable rock rabble-rouser Leon Russell, and the great pioneer of fusion keyboards Brian Auger. Then there was a very brief tour with the surviving members of the 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 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 at the Aggie? Ice T and Flavor Flav. Progressive instrumental bands? 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 I thought I was in trouble when Yoakum stopped his show cold, called a security guy over, and angrily seemed to be pointing in my direction. The security guy climbed off the stage and headed right at me, but passed me by and collared a guy behind me who was videotaping the performance. Yoakum said, “You can take as many still pictures as you want, but that’s stealing” as the guy was uprooted from the venue and ejected.
Other names? Well, it’s kind of 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 those are only shows I personally saw.
For all that build-up, you might expect a star-studded line-up every night at the Aggie. You would be right in a sense because the Aggie not only has brought in tons of heavy hitters but has also hosted countless great touring groups and regional bands. I think it could be easily said that every band in the area worth its rock and roll credentials wants to play the Aggie.
What I found was that these bands often conjured up the same ferocity as the stars — sometimes even more so. It’s always the electricity of the performance that counts.
But memories aren’t all there is to the Aggie Theatre. The Aggie continues to work on ways to keep the live music flame burning during a pandemic and upcoming dates include two shows by the Gasoline Lollipops on April 23-24. Also on the upcoming schedule: Break Science on April 29-30, Mersiv on May 1-2, Manic Focus on May 6-7, Random Rab on May 13-14, and A Very Jerry Evening, featuring Dave Abear of the JGB on May 15. Check out more dates and virus protocol at theaggietheatre.com.
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of areas of our lives and live music venues were hit very hard as an industry. But the Aggie Theatre survives and is continuing to make musical history, one band, one show, one great night at a time.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Check out his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”