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Mammoth changes in store for Snowmass chili festival

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Leigh Vogel The Aspen Times

Around the beginning of the year, representatives from the town of Snowmass Village pitched Steve Gumble, an event producer from Telluride, with an idea. Gumble would come in to handle the booking of music acts and the stage setup for the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest, which had become a signature event in Snowmass over its 10-year history. Snowmass Village would take responsibility for the other aspects of the festival, including the site infrastructure and lining up the brewers and chili cooks.

Gumble had a counteroffer: Put the event in his hands.

“I quickly convinced them that I had to have creative control, top to bottom,” the 48-year-old Gumble said. “If I was going to put my name behind it, I needed to put my creative flair on it. I knew what the changes needed to be, and it’s easier for me to make this happen if I have control.”

Gumble says the town agreed right away. Snowmass recognized that the festival had taken a step down in quality, especially last year’s event, the first presented without Josh Behrman, who had founded the festival. So when Gumble began suggesting alterations — a change in name to the Snowmass Mammoth Festival, and a shift in musical direction, with an element of indie rock — Snowmass went along. Even the biggest change of all, relocating the event from Fanny Hill, adjacent to the Snowmass Mall, to Snowmass Town Park at the bottom of the village, got swift approval.

So it was that on Tuesday morning, Gumble was sitting next to a couple of soccer fields at the bottom of Snowmass, working out details such as WiFi connections for the inaugural Mammoth Festival, set for Friday and Saturday. He looked across the road, where another new element of the festival, on-site camping, would take place. And he pointed out why a flat, open field, even one removed a mile or more from Snowmass’ business centers, was a better location than Fanny Hill.

“Fanny Hill is sort of grassy, sort of rocky. Eight to 10 hours there is not conducive to a festival,” said Gumble, who attended the first Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in 2004. “It works if it’s just a beer festival on the mall. But when you add music and chili, the music was here, the chili was there, the beer was over there. It started not to flow. I looked at Town Park, felt the energy and said, ‘This is the change it needs.’ You can get chili, beer and music in one convenient little pocket.”

By coincidence, Gumble was in Snowmass Village when town representatives first called him with their proposal for the festival. The two sides met over lunch that day and began hammering out the plan to relocate and rename the event.

The reason Snowmass was so willing to follow along was the success Gumble has had with Telluride Blues & Brews. Founded by Gumble 19 years ago as the Telluride Brewers Festival, the event began modestly — one day of tasting microbrews along Colorado Avenue. The only live music was provided by String Cheese Incident, which at the time was a little-known regional act. (“I paid them $500, and I was upset. I wanted to give them $250,” Gumble grumbled.) But the demand for the event was big; Gumble expected 500 attendees and got 1,000. With the encouragement of the town, the music component expanded, the festival moved to the main stage in Telluride Town Park, and the name changed. Telluride Blues & Brews is a now a three-day, mid-September event that draws 9,000 people a day and has hosted the Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker and Phil Lesh & Friends. Last year’s Blues & Brews sold out a month in advance; this year’s lineup is topped by the Black Crowes and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James. Gumble also launched the Durango Blues Train, a music event on a moving train, which had its third outing last weekend.

Gumble has found vast differences between doing a festival in Telluride and one in Snowmass. Telluride is a festival town. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, held on the same site as Blues & Brews and with a huge camping scene, is 40 years old, and there are also events like Mountainfilm and the Telluride Film Festival that fill the town.

“Telluride has been at it so long, the process is cut and dry,” said Gumble, who is part of a four-person, full-time staff at his SBG Productions. “Here, moving to the park, getting approvals, camping, is all new. It takes a lot of time to make the town comfortable with the decisions. What we do in Telluride is not easily transferable — you’re creating a whole new venue in a new location. But we have the basics. We know the 101s of what it takes to build a good festival.”

In some ways, Gumble has started big in Snowmass. The inaugural Mammoth Festival features more music acts than the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest ever did, and headliners include “Return to the Dark Side of the Moon,” with a band of prominent funk players paying tribute to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album, and the electro-rock band Awolnation. Gumble has lined up more chili cooks, about 30, to go with the 28 breweries that will be pouring at grand tastings Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.

But Gumble also is thinking of the Mammoth Festival as a work in progress, as Blues & Brews was in its early years. He is not married to indie-rock as the stylistic foundation but is open to more folk- oriented genres. The town has given him a verbal commitment to support the festival for three years. By then, he hopes the event will have grown big enough to warrant another relocation, across the road, to the softball fields where Jazz Aspen Snowmass holds its Labor Day Festival. (Gumble said he was being careful not to interfere with the music programming of Jazz Aspen.)

“I’m here for the long term. I’ve got skin in the game,” Gumble said. “It won’t happen overnight, but give me a couple years, and we’ll bump the numbers up.”

Gumble believes that a key to growing the festival is the on-site camping, which is an essential ingredient for Telluride festivals but is new ground in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

“The town’s initial reaction was concern over filling beds in town,” he said. “But I told them, ‘Let’s create a vibe, make people want to return, and it will trickle down.’ Telluride never questioned the camping, and now we have 1,600 campers, but every affordable or semi-affordable lodging property is full. Camping is an entry-level, affordable alternative. What we find is people graduate to hotels. They don’t want to keep camping, but they don’t want to give up the festival.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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