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In Boulder's neohippie scene, there's a thin line between playing original music and merely regurgitating a popular sound. However, the members of Aquarian Voodoo have found a way to skirt this problem--by doing both at once.
The performers (lead singer/guitarist Chris Leonard, mandolinist/harmonica player Bill Browning, guitarist Chris Melia, drummer Gary Fleming and bassist Mike Tomassoni) admittedly perform arrangements reminiscent of such hippie faves as the Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic and God Street Wine, but they blend them with snippets of reggae, funk and blues as well. "I think we sound a lot like the Allmans playing a Meters song with a mandolin and a harmonica sitting in," claims Leonard, a Boulder-scene veteran. "We've had a positive reaction to all our original material, which is heartening."
"The crowds react better to our original stuff than they do to any covers we do," Melia agrees. "We've had a lot of people of many persuasions and musical tastes like us because we throw a little bit of everything in there."
"It might sound familiar at first, but then the mandolin jumps out at you," Tomassoni says. "All I know is, it works."
The band got together this winter following the disintegration of Slick Nickel, which featured Fleming, Tomassoni, vocalist Travis Stinson and guitarist Paul Kleutz (the latter pair went on to found Durt). A classified ad seeking musicians led to a grueling series of auditions--"A cattle call for the general public is bound to produce mutants of all kinds," Browning reports. The prize of the bunch was Melia, a self-described "ex-blues snob" who had just left the New Orleans blues scene for Colorado.
The combination of Melia's well-honed guitar craftsmanship, Browning's feverish mandolin and harmonica skills and Leonard's gritty Southern vocals is deployed throughout Voodoo originals and occasional cover songs that range, according to Leonard, "from ZZ Top to Doctor John to Robert Palmer. Whatever's fun and obscure, we'll cover." It's a mix that's proved popular with twentysomethings and older rock listeners who still venture out into Boulder's musical marketplace. "There's only a handful of available venues left in Boulder," Leonard points out. "The scene has kind of a tattered, faded glory now. It also seems like we're fighting against a disco revival every night."
The Aquarians have had better luck drawing crowds in Denver--after a rough start, that is.
"The first time we played at the 1800 Club in Denver, we kicked the fire alarm while we were setting up the P.A.," Tomassoni recalls. "In that place, it's like anyone can just lean against the wall and set the thing off."
"I prefer the kind of alarm where it's like `Break glass, pull lever, twist to the left and then beat your head against it to get it to go off,'" Fleming says.
"That was probably one of our low points," Melia concedes. After noting that the four firemen who responded to the alarm constituted their entire audience that night, he says, "They had their full fire gear on--air tanks, masks, the works. Then we tried to get a few extra bucks out of them, and they were like, `You guys are the ones who got us sent here in the first place.' And that was the end of that."
Perseverance and day jobs have sustained Aquarian Voodoo to this point--their current "trades of the month" include machinist, painter, landscaper and Harley-Davidson repair man. Not surprisingly, the players are looking foward to the day when they'll be full-time musicians without the distraction of nine-to-five commitments. "Ultimately, we'd like to be a tour band and spend most of our time on the road building a grassroots following," Melia confirms.
These goals were achieved, at least temporarily, in early August; Aquarian Voodoo played dates between southern Oregon and San Diego. Now that they're back, they plan to record their first CD, which should be available in time for you to include it on your Christmas list. "Our songs are always changing and growing," Leonard adds. "Right now we're using audience reaction as a gauge of how well we're doing."
As long as there are Allman Brothers fans, they'll do just fine.