HANDS UP

The music made by the eclectic quintet Laughing Hands can't be confused with that of most other Denver-area groups: Its folk-meets-worldbeat sound is like an exceedingly enjoyable course in ethnomusicology. But string bassist Tim Cross, who's been part of the band since its inception over five years ago, points out another distinction: "One of our most unique aspects is that we are all pretty old."

After a laugh, Cross adds, "No, seriously, we combine things in unusual ways. We play lots of different kinds of styles. We also have a dynamic range--we can go from really gentle, quite slow rhythms to real rock-and-roll jams."

That's as good a description as any of the appeal of Laughing Hands (Cross, guitarist Steve Mullins, mandolinist/Steve's brother Brian Mullins, guitarist Ed Rudman and percussionist Ed Contreas). When the musicians sit down to talk, their conversation may seem esoteric: During a recent get-together at the Trident Cafe, they sipped cups of creamy Indian chai and nibbled flaky French pastries while debating whether their next composition should derive from Bulgarian or Greek sources. But in performance, the players put on an exciting and accessible show often highlighted by special guests; for instance, a concert at the Longmont Performing Arts Center this fall included the gyrations of a sultry Spanish dancer. "In the future we will be going after the three-ring-circus effect," Cross pledges. "Next we'll add more dancers, then films, then fireworks. And then we'll just have to borrow those big inflatable dolls from the Stones."

The Mullins brothers were raised in Garnett, Kansas, and, Brian says, "somehow we washed up on the Front Range." He adds, "Our mother was very musical. We played in marching bands in high school, but neither one of us played stringed instruments until we were adults."

"I was always fond of both folk and rock," interjects Steve, who cites David Grisman, Cat Stevens, James Taylor and even Kansas as early favorites. "But when I got to college, I was introduced to Norman Blake and that kind of quasi-bluegrass folk music--and I also heard the mandolin for the first time, and I loved the sound of it."

The pair subsequently broadened their musical knowledge by traveling to Eastern Europe and Latin America. South-of-the-border sounds continue to enchant Steve, a University of Colorado Ph.D. candidate presently completing a dissertation on Venezuelan music. "All this exposure to different musical cultures has undoubtedly influenced the band," he notes.

Other musical inspirations strike closer to home. "I'm not as eclectic as these guys," admits Rudman, who spends his free time painting, teaching guitar and encouraging his twelve-year-old daughter, Anna, who's already adept at piano, trumpet and guitar. "My influences stretch back to the days of listening to the Dead practice in Golden Gate Park and catching Janis Joplin and the Doors at the Fillmore for three bucks."

As for Cross, who first picked up the bass at age 26, he notes, "When I started playing I wanted to learn jazz, and then I met Brian and Steve, and they started playing me all these David Grisman records and kept trying to get me interested in his music. And it worked." But, he goes on, "in the last few years I've been trying to get my classical chops together. And this year I'm playing with the Longmont Symphony." Contreas also has a side project, accompanying the folk duo Chris & Maggie.

On paper, these various styles might seem incompatible, but they all come together on Laughing Hands' self-titled CD, to be issued this month (a release party is set for November 17 on the mezzanine in the Hotel Boulderado). The fifteen-track, all-instrumental disc opens with "La Luna Segunda," a flamenco/fusion spree inspired by the music of Sturz and Faroh. Later, the band's penchant for Latin American styles is further explored in a piece called "A la Playa," an "anthem to sand and water" that evokes Brian's visit to the sandy beaches of the Isla de San Andres in the Caribbean. And the funky "Orangoutango" nods to Brazilian jazz composer Hermeto Pascoal and Argentine tango expert Astor Piazolla.

While the Hands occasionally ponder the possibility of adding vocals to their pieces, they've resisted doing so thus far. And that's good, since the offerings--featuring the sounds of the ehru, dobro, slide guitar and fretted electric bass--speak quite eloquently in their present form.

Pinning down that form remains difficult, and that's just the way Steve likes it. "Basically, the whole idea of combining bluegrass and American folk styles with world music, jazz and rock excites us," he states. "But it's really hard to define what we do, because we do a whole lot of different things."

Future presentations are bound to be just as intriguing: Even now, the band is planning to add an instrument called the saz (a discovery Steve and Brian stumbled upon while "jamming with the Turks") to its already impressive musical arsenal. Also on the agenda is a more prominent presence on the Denver club scene.

"One of our best shows was at the Bug Theatre in Denver," Cross recalls. "The club gave us a Monday night booking, and no one was there except the soundman and two other people. And we played our asses off. It's nice when people show up, but it's not essential.

 
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