Keys to the Kingdom

So its lead singer has long hair, its grabbiest instrumentalist is a female violin player, its CD sports a secret bonus track and its live shows attract dozens of flannel-adorned air guitarists. Does that mean Boulder's Sponge Kingdom is just another hippie band?

Not so fast. Beneath the exterior of a seemingly typical combo lurks a true kingdom--six musicians (vocalist Bob Haldeman, guitarist Robert Stephan, bassist George Wagner, violinist Jessica Vanden Hogen, percussionist Timothy Jacoby and drummer Courtlandt Barnes) who can't be summed up by cliches even if their cheerful quotes often employ them. Neither can a Sponge Kingdom crowd be stereotyped; the mix of under-thirties and over-forties makes the band's shows anything but Boulder-predictable. "Our audience continues to surprise us," Barnes admits. As for the music itself, he says, "Call it what you want to call it. We hope it always changes."

Although the players now call Boulder home, Sponge Kingdom exudes a Wisconsin flavor: Haldeman, Stephan, Jacoby and Vanden Hogen all hail from the land of cheese. According to Haldeman, "I've known Timmy since we were five, and Steph since we were fourteen. But I was into the lyric and singing part of it way before I picked up a guitar and thought to form a band."

When asked about the band's birth, Vanden Hogen jokes, "It's all Bob's fault." This comment is based in truth: In 1993, Haldeman and Stephan, who write most of the Kingdom's material, got together to play the Denver-Boulder coffeehouse circuit. Before long, Jacoby and Vanden Hogen were brought aboard, with Barnes and Wagner following in 1994. Since then, the six have focused on originals, although they still sprinkle their sets with covers by everyone from the Police to Phish. "We don't try to sound like these bands," Haldeman notes. "That's not the point. Covers get people up. We throw them in to revive the dance floor."

These familiar tunes give the musicians a chance to shine. The instrumental jam--a Boulder staple--defines the band as a genuine team; interwoven solos and a fondness for a shared spotlight make it difficult for fans to single out one member for praise. With one exception, that is.

Vanden Hogen gives the group its layers--melodically and visually, she's the main draw. She's a pre-school teacher by day, but she now considers music her top priority. Even so, she reveals that she nearly put her violin on the shelf for good while attending college.

"I was the only non-music major in orchestra," she recalls. "Everyone was like, 'Why are you here?' And I was like, 'Because I love to play music.' Nobody understood that. It was such a competition with them." Since that time, she's grown more comfortable with her talent, and her confidence is infectious. Whether they're dancing as she bows her strings or resting in synch to her chin-on-fiddle pauses, most fans become one with her rhythms.

"I used to be really mellow," Vanden Hogen concedes. "I would lean into the microphone and try to play any slow song with long notes. I didn't know how to improvise then. But one day it just came to me, and I was electrified." Her contributions to the Kingdom now represent "the reason I came out here--to continue playing, whether personally or professionally."

If you need proof that Vanden Hogen's faith in the band's music is well-placed, Sponge Kingdom's self-titled CD provides it. On songs such as "She Sent Me Flowers," "A Mile Closer to the Moon" and "P.O.M.," Haldeman emerges as an all-around vocalist whose perfect pitch and vibrato serve as a tonic to poetic lyrics that provide a nice break from the usual I'm-going-to-hit-you-over-the-head-with-how-I-feel wordplay that's so common on today's radio. His resonance gives every syllable a mellow, tangy bite. The tracks, meanwhile, are a diverse lot, colored by funky guitar breaks and hard-rock riffing.

These qualities have helped land the band a number of high-profile projects. Sponge Kingdom is set to appear on More Than Mountains, a two-disc compilation of cuts by 22 Colorado acts to be released by W.A.R.?, the former label of the Boulder-gone-national Samples; proceeds will benefit the Colorado Conservation Fund, an organization dedicated to preserving the state's open space. In addition, the sextet played at Atlanta's Centennial Park during this year's Olympics. It was a dream gig--except for the fact that an explosive device killed one person and injured many others only hours after the outfit left the stage.

"The security was unbelievable," Haldeman says about the show. "I couldn't imagine it being any harder to get in. If you set down your duffel bag anywhere, a couple of plainclothes people would walk up to you in a matter of seconds asking, 'Is this your bag?' Everyone was ripping on the security after the bomb went off, but what they didn't tell you was that they had already found and dismantled three bombs before that one."

Prior to the blast, Haldeman remarks, the Atlanta show was "wonderful. We met Shannon Miller and a bunch of athletes from around the world." The performers gave away their CD by the dozens "because it's a thrill to think about Sponge Kingdom being played in Nigeria." The bandmates had already left the park by the time of the explosion, but because Wagner and Jacoby were unaccounted for until noon the following day, no one was able to rest easy. "They were out drinking and didn't call," Haldeman explains. "We were pissed."

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