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Judging by what he's seen and heard from his local and national contemporaries, Tony Achilles, a 25-year-old singer/guitarist with the Denver folk-rock quartet Sweetwater Well, says, "Everybody's into being depressed."
But while other Generation Xers appear convinced that pain sells, Achilles and his bandmates--guitarist/vocalist David Jackson, drummer Chris Helvey and bassist Molly Bowers--make no apologies for their upbeat approach. As you might expect from song titles such as "Big Round World" and "Circle of Life" (an original composition rather than a cover of the song from Disney's The Lion King), Sweetwater Well produces feel-good music that is intended to set even the most rhythmically impaired toes tapping.
The group's earliest days, however, were far from harmonious. Band founders Achilles and Jackson first met about four years ago when the latter was dating the former's younger sister. Recalls Achilles, "He came into my house and I hated him."
The pair overcame their antipathy through their discovery of mutual musical interests. Soon they were plying their craft at area open stages under the name Sugarloaf--the same moniker used by a Seventies-era Denver four-piece that produced the classic-rock staples "Green-Eyed Lady" and "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You." It was only upon receiving a word of friendly advice from Bob Yeazel, once a fourth of the original Sugarloaf, that Achilles and Jackson discovered the appellation already had been taken.
Unfortunately, the early efforts of the band, rechristened Sweetwater Well, struck some listeners as less than agreeable. For example, Bowers--once aligned with the local avant-garde noisemeisters in Tiger Beat--recalls seeing a show that was "horrible." During the date, she recalls, the band not only muffed an Indigo Girls cover but stopped midstream to go back and correct the gaffe. Apprehensive when she joined the combo this summer, Bowers happily reports her astonishment over the progress made by Achilles, Jackson and Helvey (the last joined over a year ago) since she'd seen them last.
These days Sweetwater Well is a popular draw at local rock clubs, and with good reason. Over and above the often intertwining vocal lines that are the focus of their presentation, the musicians exude a positive vibe that is every bit as infectious as the hyped-up hoedown beats anchored by Helvey and Bowers. Although Achilles and Jackson's vocal stylings and strumming patterns sometimes suggest that they have drunk too deeply from the inspiration of their early idols (the aforementioned Indigos), Sweetwater Well's adherence to almost monotonously bouncy tempos may have less to do with their lack of imagination than with the tastes of Denver-area bar crowds.
The act presently relies almost exclusively on acoustic guitars to handle both rhythm and lead functions. In part because these instruments occasionally get lost in the mix (particularly when the band is in the hands of an inexperienced or inattentive sound person), the quartet recently purchased a Peavey Impact electric guitar and plans to add its first guitar amplifier and special-effects pedals as soon as funds permit.
When that will be the case isn't clear right now; as Achilles admits, "Our business skills are fairly limited." He adds that the amount of time the players pour into their music is paying artistic dividends, but it leaves them comparatively few opportunities to go out and pitch club bookers. Still, any area outfit that can boast a 600-person mailing list, as Sweetwater Well possesses, must be doing something right.
In recent months the group has recorded the first of what they hope will be a handful of songs destined for its debut CD. To bankroll the remainder of the project, the musicians are gigging at an increased rate even as they continue to hold down day jobs in various food-service outlets in and around the city. This fall Sweetwater Well's members played their first out-of-town shows; they say that audiences in Vail and Austin, Texas, responded favorably to their acoustic-rock anthems.
Not that every Sweetwater Well song is sunny. The performers also have been known to address such subjects as suicide and twentysomething angst in their work--but when they do so, they tend to do so with tongues planted firmly in cheek. Rather than ignoring the world's problems, then, the group exhibits a musical outlook that could best be described as positive yet realistic. This attribute is accentuated by its live show, which is far more intense than is common for a largely unplugged band. Sweetwater Well may not make as much racket as its down-at-the-mouth peers, but as Achilles points out, "We break a lot of strings."