Ducking into Lulu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs carries you out of temporal continuity and into the retro chic 1970s, with Valentine’s Day red upholstery, wood paneling and an eclectic collection of mirrors and frames.
Since opening in July 2019, Lulu’s has brought both a fresh surge of live music and a vintage-casual watering hole to the Pikes Peak region. Lulu’s owner, Marc Benning, has drawn on his own rich, noteworthy music career to create a sonic escape and significant stop for touring bands.
“We have the population in Colorado Springs. People shouldn’t have to drive to Denver for great shows,” he says. “Our mission is to activate the community to experience the arts here.”
It’s fitting that Benning chose a location with a rich musical history of its own. Though the building on Manitou Avenue has gone through various businesses, it once hosted pop culture’s greats. For decades, it was the Red Room, hosting artists such as Ray Charles and B.B. King.
“When you’re in [Lulu’s], you feel the character and the history,” says bartender Bree Chadwick. “You’re enjoying music here, knowing that those past musicians, like Aretha Franklin, have before us.”
“The vibe and energy is unique,” adds bartender Brandon Allen. “I haven’t worked in a place quite like it.”
To coincide with the evocative atmosphere, Lulu’s hosts listening parties, playing vinyl records front to back when no live performances are scheduled. Miles Davis was a recent listen. “The atmosphere follows a path of reinventing history, like modern with a vintage feel,” Chadwick says.
“You can depart from the busyness of the day,” Benning says. “Low lights, no TV, vinyls—it’s a getaway.”
It was a getaway of sorts that brought Benning to the Pikes Peak region in the ’90s—or more specifically, a Hideaway. Benning’s uncle was Linn Phillips, an accomplished guitarist in Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids and the owner of Hideaway Studios until his passing in 1996. Benning came out to manage the locally-based recording studio, which has hosted the likes of My Morning Jacket. Now with Lulu’s, he has created a space where music artists and appreciative fans can intimately interact.
“It’s a simple recipe,” Benning says. “Good sound, a comfortable space, warm hospitality … basic elements.”
Lulu’s stage is separated from the tavern, so guests who come for a drink aren’t blown out by a show they didn’t expect—and vice versa, performers don’t have to deal with a disinterested, rowdy bar crowd.
The venue has played host to local Colorado artists, including Jade Vases and Spirettes, and nationally touring acts, like American rock band Cracker and songwriter Cass McCombs. “I love the talent coming through,” Allen says. “I’ve met some very impressive musicians.”
“Cracker has played thousands of shows,” Benning says. “And their guitarist told me it was one of his favorite stages.”
“The atmosphere is top-notch,” praises Nina de Freitas, vocalist of Nina and the Hold Tight. “Lulu’s made us feel valued as artists.”
“Its character and history provide the opportunity to create an experience,” adds Reggie Thompson, drummer of We Are Not a Glum Lot. “I was impressed with their sound system … it was easy to enjoy the moment and connect with the audience.”
With the same care and attention, Lulu’s bar builds on classic cocktails for patrons, aiming to strike a balance with its atmosphere. Chadwick is a fan of their Old-Fashioned, which she says they batch to keep it simple and quick. “Lulu’s is in between,” she says. “It’s classy but has a laid-back vibe, and it’s the same with the people that come in.”
The approach extends to the kitchen too. Do a handful of things consistently well with no frills, but stay inclusively on trend with the likes of vegan options.
“People come for our grilled cheese,” Allen says, “not because it’s vegan, because it’s very good.”
So is the music.
Upcoming Shows at Lulu’s Downstairs
Find the complete concert schedule at lulusdownstairs.com.