More than two years since it shut its doors in the grip of the pandemic, the Friday, May 13 grand reopening of The Lariat is more than a relief. It’s a celebration.
Enlisting a familiar, and dearly missed, cast of Colorado musicians to host the two-night kickoff, ticketholders will be treated to a reopening that feels more like a long-overdue family reunion. “This has been a kind of community living room for over 100 years”, remarks owner Court Johnson. “And we’re just so happy…and so very grateful to be back!”.
Reunion of Colorado Legends Grant Farm
Friday, May 13 is exceptionally special as show-goers will participate in the celebrated reunion of Colorado legends Grant Farm. Formed in 2010 by guitarist/vocalist and National Flat-Picking Champion Tyler Grant, Grant Farm has been spreading its brand of Cosmic Americana for over a decade.
In September 2021, Grant even took the stage with and supported, Billy Strings during his Renewal Festival at The Meadows in Buena Vista.
Although Grant Farm has been inactive and all but broken up since 2020, they’ve lost none of their potency as one of the most formidable American roots acts on the Colorado circuit. No strangers to The Lariat, when asked if they’d be willing to bring the family back together for the grand reopening, Grant was elated at the opportunity.
“Court gave me a call and reminded me that we were the first band to play there when they first opened after the big remodel in 2016. It warmed our hearts to know how much he and Zach love us and how important it is for us to perform at the Grand Reopening. It was an easy decision to add this concert to our one existing festival play of the year while we are all four together for the weekend. It’s a special event for all of us. We have quite a history of great shows at the Lariat. We even filmed one of our music videos there, “Morning Train”, stated Grant.
Having played only five shows since the COVID pandemic shut everything down in March 2020, Grant said it just feels right to kick things off at The Lariat once again.
“We went on an indefinite hiatus at that time (March 2020). It’s appropriate to play our first concert of 2022 at The Lariat, as it was one of the last venues we played before the shutdown. We are thrilled to perform together again. It’s an emotional thing, and joyous for all of us. We feel like family there [The Lariat]”.
It’s no accident that Grant Farm was asked to facilitate this special evening at The Lariat. “To me, they exemplify Colorado mountain music”, Johnson explained. When Johnson first started hosting live music at The Lariat back in 2015, he asked people around town who their favorite local and Colorado bands were, and Grant Farm consistently came up as the locals’ number one pick. Several years and over ten shows later, Grant Farm has become more than regulars at The Lariat. “They became friends, they became family”, beamed Johnson.
Leadville Cherokee and Chain Station Take the Stage Saturday Night
Saturday, May 14 will see two more familiar favorites hit the stage as Colorado-based Chain Station opens for Ark Valley mainstays Leadville Cherokee.
Formed in 2009, Leadville Cherokee has won the hearts of Buena Vista and Colorado locals by playing their brand of hard-driving violin-infused folk-rock to “crowds of liftees, raft guides, dirty curmudgeons, and anybody else who can’t afford rent”, according to their official Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/leadvillecherokee/).
With songs like “The BV Song”, Leadville Cherokee has become synonymous with the Valley and one of The Lariat’s most beloved hometown acts. “They’re the local heroes and always have been”, says Johnson.
When asked how it felt to be a part of this grand celebration, Leadville Cherokee violinist/guitarist/vocalist Pete Albrecht felt the love spilling off the stage. “It’s awesome! It’s humbling and really exciting to be asked to do it. It kind of feels like coming home. Like everything’s back to normal”, exclaimed Albrecht.
Opening for Leadville Cherokee is Denver-based bluegrass string outfit Chain Station, who are also no strangers to The Lariat. Formed in 2006, Chain Station is an electrifying, shoe-shuffling, mountain-picking 4-piece that has supported the likes of The Travelin’ McCourys, The Del McCoury Band, Hot Buttered Rum, The Devil Makes Three, Fruition, and many more. Chain Stations’ perfect blend of Roots-rich Americana and classic Colorado mountain bluegrass is the perfect addition to the lineup The Lariat has assembled for this weekend.
How “The Lariat” of Today Came to Be
Johnson wasn’t originally sold on the idea of owning a restaurant and town watering hole.
“It never in my life occurred to me to own a bar,” explained Johnson on a beautiful sunny afternoon on the Lariat back patio. “But I had for a long time loved this town and this valley, and when I walked in this place it was love at first sight…it just exuded this best-of-American small town, turn-of-the-century, industrial soul.”
As well it should, given that the Lariat was built in 1885 and is one of the oldest structures still standing in Buena Vista. “I could feel that history, it was in the walls,” Johnson recalls as he runs his hand over the soft red brick walls.
And those walls would later play a big role in The Lariat’s journey to becoming a premier music destination. “It turns out that they are actually great from an acoustic standpoint, both because they are so soft; and therefore not highly reflective as compared with most walls, and also very irregular and therefore relatively diffusive” Johnson explained as only an audiophile could.
Johnson says he wasn’t thinking live music when he purchased the Lariat in 2015. But its steady evolution as a live music venue was inevitable to anyone who knew him. “I was always the guy driving a bucket of bolts and eating noodles off a hot plate, but always had the top-of-the-line stereo system that everyone gathered around”, reminisced Johnson.
Unavoidably, a proper stage and professional sound system were central elements of a major 2016 renovation, but the work also replaced all infrastructure, including a new kitchen, and five apartments on the second floor.
But the Lariat’s sound was still not up to Johnson’s standards. As Johnson puts it, “It was bouncing off the walls”. Enter long-time BV resident Jeff Jaska (JJ).
An acoustic engineer with a degree in psychoacoustics, Jaska builds high-end amplifiers in his spare time and Johnson says he “has the best ears of anyone he has ever known”. In fact, Jaska once told Johnson, “Your sound system is pretty good, but your room sounds like sh*t”, and he was right, admitted Johnson.
Johnson enlisted JJ to lead the charge in transforming the Lariat from a glorified bar with a stage to a bona fide live music venue rivaling any venue of its size in terms of sound quality.
Jaska accomplished this with an elaborate configuration of sophisticated acoustic treatments that, although straining Johnson’s budget, made all the difference to his ears: “It transformed the room from being sonically annoying, especially when a band was playing at high decibels, to sonically comfortable”, explained Johnson.
Two years later Jaska challenged Johnson to” take it to the highest level”, by installing Meyer Sound speakers and a Midas Pro soundboard. John Meyer created the Grateful Dead’s infamous “Wall of Sound” in the late ’60’s, and since then has established himself at the top of the heap in terms of live sound reproduction.
“JJ said Meyer was simply the best, hands down”, recalled Johnson. He admits he gulped at the price, but took the leap after he and JJ, and long-time music partner Zach Alexander, traveled to Washington’s venue in Fort Collins to hear the Meyer speakers. “They just blew us away”, recalled Johnson.
Since that day Johnson has never looked back.
“Even those that fought me on it, because they said it was too expensive, and our sound was already the best in the county, admitted that the Meyers changed everything”. The quality was obvious, not just for the guests at the Lariat seeing the music, but for the dinner and bar patrons who experienced a significant increase in intelligibility; the ability to hear conversations thanks to the superior clarity of the speakers.
Musicians quickly noticed the upgrade and fell in love with the new sonic capabilities of The Lariat. But it wasn’t just the sound that kept musicians coming back; it was the hospitality. In a unique setup, The Lariat provides band suites above the venue, and complimentary food and drink for all performers.
“They pull in the driveway, turn off the key, and they are in ‘the womb’. They don’t have to worry about anything”, explained Johnson. This is a VIP courtesy most venues do not offer, regardless of how far a band has traveled, or how hungry they are. “The goal is to create a kind of home for musicians, and not just another stop on the tour”, explained Johnson.
That passion and extreme attention to detail is not just for musicians, but patrons, locals, and tourists alike. “When people walk in our doors, they’re in our hands, and we’re going to take care of them” Johnson said affectionately.
This passion for community is why Johnson refers to The Lariat as a “Musical Public House”, hearkening back to the 17th century English law that allowed proprietors to open their homes to the public for food and drink and entertainment. At its core, The Lariat has always been a home for the community of Buena Vista.
The Pandemic Shut the Doors
Midway through March 2020, COVID-19 forced The Lariat to start canceling shows and, after several weeks of take-out service only, eventually its doors. A myriad of factors kept the doors shut, but the inability for people to commune together was perhaps the most devastating impact.
“The Lariat is just not a social distancing kind of place” explained Johnson. After several attempts to keep its doors open failed, Johnson was forced to make the agonizing decision to put The Lariat up for sale.
All of a sudden, the heartbeat of Buena Vista had stopped cold. For over two years, The Lariat’s fate sat in limbo and its lights remained off. Would Buena Vista ever hear that Meyer Sound system again? Nobody knew for sure, not even Johnson.
“I felt like I was giving up, like I was selling out”, Johnson said crestfallen.
Then, through a series of “seemingly miraculous” factors, as Johnson called it, he was able to retain ownership of the building, and reopen the doors with new operating partners Zach Alexander and son Jon Paul Johnson (JP) on board. According to Johnson, from the beginning, Alexander has been his “right hand” on the music side of the business. He has “the best eye he has ever seen” as far as branding and aesthetics and is a “total kindred spirit”.
His son JP, who has been managing restaurants and bars in New York City and Denver for 13 years, is another ace up the sleeve.
A passionate chef and musician in his own right, Johnson calls JP an indefatigable addition to the Lariat team. “It’s the perfect partnership from my standpoint as JP has the same passion for the food and beverage side of the business that Zach and I have for the music and community relationship side. There’s nobody in my experience that does it better, and I totally trust him” Johnson said with a smile.
JP quickly took the reins and transformed the rustic menu into a contemporary take on “New American food with a Southwestern flair”, according to JP. “It’s such a passion project for him [Court] and all his family”, said JP enthusiastically. “I wanted to be involved as much as possible to make it successful. We’re trying to build a family and home for people here.”
With family at its heart, The Lariat is finally waking up from its long and sullen slumber.
As rumors started spreading that The Lariat was going to be open before Labor Day, Buena Vista started to buzz as the heartbeat slowly started pumping again.
After announcing their grand reopening of May 13, 2022, Johnson and his partners decided to do an unannounced soft opening on May 5, just to test the waters. By early afternoon on May 5, friends old and new saddled up to the bar, shot pool, ordered food and drinks, and relaxed on the back patio as if The Lariat had never closed its doors. To Johnson, his partners, and his team it felt surreal.
“It felt like we died and gone to Heaven. Everyone was so happy and gracious”, Johnson said with elation.
Moving forward, Johnson and his partners are more determined than ever to remind Buena Vista that The Lariat is here to stay.
Grant summed it up best. “We are home there. We would probably just play there every weekend.”
This is your chance to see Grant Farm’s celebrated reunion as they kick off a weekend celebration at one of their oldest and most familiar stomping grounds, The Lariat. To purchase tickets for Grant Farm, and Leadville Cherokee/Chain Station, visit The Lariat’s website (https://thelariatbv.com/). Tickets are $10 for Grant Farm and $15 for Leadville Cherokee/Chain Station. They are expected to go fast.