Tom Ross: The best things in life are free, or so sang a famous musician |

Tom Ross: The best things in life are free, or so sang a famous musician

— If you witnessed any of the free summer concerts performed on the Routt County Courthouse lawn in the mid-1990s by Leon Russell, Bela Fleck or David "Dawg" Grisman, consider yourself an official member of the Steamboat Springs Free Summer Concert Series Fan Club.

In the early years, when Joe Kboudi and John Waldman put on the shows with just a small core of volunteers, the free concerts took place on a stage that backed up to Sixth Street. And the community quickly latched onto the events with a crowd that sometimes overflowed into one lane of Lincoln Avenue.

The concert series' web page includes a convenient history page for aging baby boomers whose memories of past concerts are beginning to run together.

Leon Russell parked his tour bus on Sixth Street in 1994 and emerged to dazzle the Steamboat crowd as the sun sank behind Sleeping Giant. I can't find a record of it, but I believe it was also 1994 when Sheryl Crow understandably canceled her free show in Steamboat because David Letterman's staff had called to offer her an appearance on "Late Night." Correct me if you remember that story better than I.

Fleck performed a set of space jazz on his banjo in 1995, and Grisman, the mandolin virtuoso who used to pick with Jerry Garcia in the band Old and In the Way, showed up in Steamboat in 1996.

The free concert series hosted its Cinco de Mayo fundraiser at Sweetwater Grill on Sunday night and, naturally, there was some great live rock music by Throwdown. It was a chance to reminisce about concerts past, and I was reminded how great shows — especially free shows — can be associated with other events in a person's life or in the life of a community.

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Michael Franti and Spearhead played a free show at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area in 2006, which just happened to coincide closely with the end of the Rainbow Family of Light's gathering up north in Big Red Park. There had been tension between the Rainbow Family and some U.S. Forest Service officials during the week. However, Franti's music was a good fit for the Rainbow crowd, and when a big natural rainbow popped out over Headwall during the concert, it was bliss-out city.

I won't forget Susan Tedeschi's first Steamboat show at Howelsen Hill in August 2001. A buddy and I had just returned to our families from a backpacking trip in the Wind River Range, and it felt really good to be back in the 'Boat.

Of course, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch (unless the Colorado Rockies score seven or more runs), there is no such thing as a free concert.

Concert series board chairman Coleman Cook reminded me Sunday night that they spend a little more than $60,000 each year to sign the performers, and they can't spend more than $25,000 on any single band.

The Free Summer Concert Series does more than entertain visitors and hard-working locals alike. Over the years, it has helped to collect $22,000 in cash and 24,000 pounds of food for LIFT-UP of Routt County.

If you missed Sunday night's benefit, you can still reach out and make a modest contribution at, either with a PayPal account or a credit card.

I may want to increase my own contribution to keeping the music free — I learned in the midst of writing this column Monday that my name was pulled Sunday night for a very nice door prize.

It was either Frank Sinatra or Luther Vandross who sang, "The best things in life are free."

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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