Nick Forster has brought an array of exceptional music to the Front Range as the founder of Boulder’s non-profit eTown, a venue that offers live concert radio tapings, insightful interviews and it even hosts a recording studio space for artists to lay down tracks at its solar-powered Spruce Street hall.
Forster has also graced stages across the nation as a member of the internationally acclaimed bluegrass band Hot Rize, which was formed in 1978. His latest creative endeavor, Hippy Bluegrass Church, delivers an hour-and-a-half set that’s filled with anecdotal stories, poetry and plenty of toe-taping, foot-stomping jams.
Since its inaugural show on Feb. 24, Hippy Bluegrass Church has already attracted a loyal following — and it’s one that keeps growing. The concert series will move from eTown Hall and hold its fourth installment Sunday at Boulder Theater, due to the high ticket demand of previous sold-out shows, where a number of patrons didn’t seem to mind the standing-room only view.
“Anytime you start something, it’s a hunch or a guess or a feeling that launches the project,” said Forster, who, along with his wife Helen Forster, launched eTown in 1991. “So many people have been so passionate about their experiences at Hippy Bluegrass Church.”
Inspired by folk music legend and social activist Pete Seeger’s famous sing-alongs, Forster created the event to unite citizens of Boulder and provide them with an accessible outlet to celebrate, reflect and praise the subtle joys of the everyday.
From John Lennon’s “Imagine” to the highly-popular 1929 hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” the repertoire performed at Hippy Bluegrass Church is about as varied as the crowd. Just like at a traditional church service, lyrics are projected on a screen allowing attendees to belt out songs right along with musicians. A collective sea of voices pairs beautifully with the emotive plucks of mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass and dobro.
“There’s no obvious precedent for something like this, but it’s also ancient,” said Forster. “People have always sought out community and joined in song.”
While much of the song selection is rooted in the Christian tradition, religion isn’t at the forefront of this evolving series. The fact that Forster is running a series with “church” in the name is surprisingly fitting due to the fact that he is an ordained reverend — a title he obtained after the city originally said the building that now houses eTown Hall had to be used as a place of worship.
Although he’s only officiated one wedding, it proved to be a notable one — the intimate ceremonial union of iconic musician Lou Reed and avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson in a Boulder backyard.
For Forster, who has played hundreds of shows at Boulder Theater, a venue he has also as hosted many eTown events, moving Sunday’s Hippy Bluegrass Church to his old stomping grounds made perfect sense. While no word yet on whether Boulder Theater will be the permanent future home of the series, Forster is excited to see how many people fill the 850-capacity venue.
Not unlike the warm sets of eTown, Hippy Bluegrass Church envelopes attendees in an all-encompassing production where community reigns supreme and stories are shared. Pulpit preaching is swapped out for “guilt-free gospel” and heavy crowd participation — allowing attendees to connect freely over song, which, according to Forster, is needed now more than ever.
“We’re in the midst of this polarizing time,” said Forster. “As I travel around, it’s not like it used to be. It used to not be that hard to find common ground. People feel like they are on one side or the other.”
This summer, Forster will bring Hippy Bluegrass Church to Lyons’ RockyGrass for a Sunday morning gospel set that festival-goers are sure to remember on July 28. While the series has only been performed within Boulder so far, it’s Forster’s hope to eventually expand this soulful set to cities like New York, Nashville and Los Angeles.
“It could grow, certainly,” said Forster, “It’s the sort of thing I want to do in other communities. There’s power in numbers. There’s power in songs.”
Joining Forster this Sunday will be powerhouse singer Madelyn Woodley, who grew up in a musical family on a farm in Rosemark, Tenn. Over the course of her career, she’s played with notable blues and gospel greats, including her famous cousin Bobby “Blue” Bland. In January, she founded the Longmont-based Colorado Heritage Community Choir — a group of 30-45 singers of different styles, ethnicities and ages.
“The message of our music is encouragement, unity, hope and love,” said Woodley. “I’m excited to learn more about the Hippy Bluegrass Church and what it means. I am also excited to present a music genre that may be new to some, but nevertheless one where I know we will connect.”
“Attendees can, without a doubt, expect to be inspired, uplifted and encouraged,” said Woodley. “Some familiar songs people can look forward to singing with me are ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘This Little Light Of Mine,’ ‘Lean On Me,’ and ‘Hold On (Change Is Coming),’ to name a few.”
Also at Sunday’s show will be John Long, a Delta blues musician who will provide swampy riffs, slide guitar and harmonic howls paired with whiskey-tinged vocals. Originally from St. Louis, Miss., Long, whose tone is akin to legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, is consistently praised for his authentic sound.
“Both Johnny and Madelyn have lived rich, full lives and bring that to their music,” said Forster, who plans to invite more special guests to further enhance his Hippy Bluegrass Church.
Hippy Bluegrass Church will foster nostalgia for former church-goers who miss the practice of collectively singing in a big crowd and will resonate with music fans looking to cap their morning off with feel-good tunes.
“It’s a chance to put down the phone and get away from the news feed, there’s value just in that,” said Forster. “When you show up at Hippy Bluegrass Church, it’s a bit of a declaration of ‘This is who I am.’ You’ll make friends.”
If you go
What: Nick Forster’s Hippy Bluegrass ChurchWhen: 10 a.m. SundayWhere: Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., BoulderCost: $10, children under 10 freeMore info: bouldertheater.com/event/1855152-nick-forsters-hippy-bluegrass-boulder/