Here Comes the Judge

Judge Roughneck on the insult that turned it into a band.

Never underestimate the power of a bad review. Judge Roughneck, widely regarded as Denver's premier ska ensemble, is living proof. Before winding up on the receiving end of a particularly vituperative slam, the act was a hobby--a cover band that Byron Shaw, former leader of the Jonez, saw as an entertaining way to work off steam while putting together his first solo album. Afterward, the band became Shaw's primary focus, a hardworking sextet with a stack of original songs, a new CD and enough ambition to keep it driving into the future.

Sit down with the Judges (bassist Kyle Jones, trumpeter Rolf Reitzig, saxophonist Jon Hegel, guitarist Chris Reidy, drummer Scott Seiver and Shaw on vocals, percussion and melodica) and it doesn't take long for the topic of their most negative critique to surface. "It was in the Hooligan," Jones says, referring to the late Denver-based 'zine. "They didn't like anything about us. They called us a 'moneymaking scheme,' which was ridiculous."

"Doctors study for years to be able to practice medicine," Shaw comments. "And no one asks them to do it for free. Well, musicians study just as hard at their craft. They deserve some compensation. But I guess this guy at the Hooligan disagreed--and he dogged us for being a cover band, too."

"I don't see them dogging the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for being a cover band," interjects Reitzig.

As the other players burst into laughter, Jones says, "I think you can tell we've had this conversation before."

"And," Shaw concedes, "it gets us a little defensive."
No doubt: Judge Roughneck's first disc is called Rude One's Money Making Scheme. But while this pointed reference is clearly an act of good-natured revenge, it's also an acknowledgment that the Hooligan's rebuke had an effect on the band.

"That review set a path for us," Reitzig claims.
"We saw it as a challenge," Hegel says. "On one level, it was a realization for us. But what came out of it was good."

Shaw agrees. In his view, the notice spurred him to get back into the original-music arena at a time when he needed a shove in that direction. By his own admission, he was made a bit gun-shy by his experience with the Jonez, a band that was formed in 1986. By the end of the Eighties, the act, which specialized in a vibrant blend of reggae, ska and rock, was among Denver's most acclaimed combos, and a trip to Austin's South by Southwest festival in 1991 led to, as Shaw puts it, "a lot of labels blowing smoke up our asses." Rumors that the Jonez were on the brink of inking that coveted music-biz contract continued to circulate for years, but somehow they never became fact. By the end of 1994, the musicians finally decided to raise the white flag; as John T., the Jonez's bassist and background vocalist, told Westword at the time, "I kept reading in the paper how we were about to get signed. But I guess no one at the record companies ever read those articles."

Following the Jonez's last gig, on New Year's Eve, members John T., Tim Miller and Mike Psycho were quickly snapped up by other bands, including Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass and Chaos Theory. Shaw, however, resisted joining an established group. He opted instead to focus his attentions on a solo album he planned to make at a studio owned by Jones, a onetime part of Street Choir (an outfit that also included Hegel) and the late, lamented funk mob Thumposaurus Wrecks. But mere weeks later, he began getting the itch to return to the stage again.

"I started making calls in January," he says, "although it wasn't a serious thing at all. It was just supposed to be a cover band playing ska: the English Beat, the Specials--the music I grew up listening to. That's why I called Rolf. He's a rude boy from way back. He even has a rude-boy tattoo."

"Want to see it?" Rolf asks.
The rest of Judge Roughneck's first lineup was assembled just as casually. Before long, Shaw had gotten commitments from local players such as drummer Kenny James, a man who has played with more Colorado bands than any other living human. "I got a call, too," Jones remembers. "Byron called up and said, 'Hey, you want to make $50 a night playing ska?' And I said, 'Sure, cool, that sounds interesting.'"

"Chris and Kyle were battling over the guitar position for a while," Shaw says. "I originally wanted Kyle to play guitar, but Chris was so persistent. He was calling me ten times a day. So we ended up with Kyle on bass and Chris on guitar."

"Which is kind of funny," Reidy remarks, "because neither of us really knew that much about ska when we started. I'd been playing guitar with Wretched Refuge"--among the noisiest, hardest-rocking Denver bands of the Nineties. "I don't think I'd even heard ska before."

"But that didn't matter," Shaw declares. "I just wanted cats who could play, and I knew that they could. The same thing with Jon--he didn't even audition."

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