There was agony and ecstasy at the third annual Westword Music Awards Showcase. And I should know: Of the 41 sets offered up by a like number of acts at various LoDo nightspots on Sunday, September 21, I caught 37 of them.

Being a glass-is-half-empty kinda guy, I was distressed when, after a week's worth of gorgeous late-summer weather, the weekend in question dawned cloudy, clammy and drab. Worse, the skies refused to clear. Late Sunday afternoon, lower downtown resembled a scene from The Hound of the Baskervilles; each time I rounded a corner, I expected a killer canine to lunge for my jugular, his fangs bared, his jowls aglow.

In short, I was afraid that people would hunker down next to their radiators in their cozy homes rather than confronting the elements, even if it was to experience some of Colorado's best music--and for the first hour of the Showcase (6 to 7 p.m.), my fears seemed to be justified. Stewart Lewis, the evening's first act, faced a packed house at McCormick's Fish House & Bar, Chaos Theory entertained a wild, boisterous crowd at Rock Island, and Tony Furtado, accompanied by a crack band and guest tabla expert Ty Burhoe, played brilliantly before a modest-sized assembly at the Skybox at Jackson's Sports Rock. But nGoMa dished out its intelligent hip-hop to a disappointingly small gathering at the Blake Street Baseball Club, and the members of Conjunto Colores, one of Denver's longest-lasting, most accomplished collectives, practically outnumbered the audience at the beginning of its stirring turn at the Great Room at Wazoo's. I'm told that by the end of Conjunto's time in the spotlight, the club was beginning to fill up, but by then, I was already looking for a gun to put in my mouth.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the weapons department at Wal-Mart: People started showing up. Hundreds of them, and then thousands. By the end of the night--which weather-wise turned out to be surprisingly pleasant--a bracing number of music lovers had learned firsthand that local artists can be just as entertaining as the national kind.

Examples, anecdotes and the like:
Last year at McCormick's, musicians appeared in a separate area just off the restaurant, in the Oxford Hotel. This time around, however, the stage was placed just a few feet from the bar. As a result, there wasn't a whole lot of elbow room for the performers. This wasn't a huge problem for Stanley Milton, who led his group, the Mean Streak, through a rousing blues workout, but it proved challenging for Electric Summer, a four-piece whose hyperkinetic lunacy threatened to shake the Fish House off its foundation. Lead vocalist Toshihiro Yuda, who left his shirt at home and wore his trousers so low that a gentle breeze could have sent them cascading to the floor, leapt about as energetically as if he were being electrocuted, and bassist Takakumi Toyoshima nearly put the neck of his bass through a window on at least three occasions. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

A block away, at Comedy Sports at the Wynkoop Brewing Co., things went from strange to stranger. The Foggy Mountain Fuckers all seemed to have a considerable buzz on, but their not-quite-all-there demeanor only added to the allure of their unhinged take on outlaw country. They were followed by Space Team Electra, a group that seems to grow more confident with time. Myshel Prasad was at her mesmerizing best, but the low ceiling and dark lighting at Comedy Sports seemed to accentuate the contributions of guitarist Bill Kunkel, bassist Greg Fowkes and drummer Kit Peltzel, whose music rolled out in enormous, all-encompassing waves. Boss 302, the outfit scheduled to succeed Space Team, would have provided an intriguing contrast, but the musicians canceled at well past the last minute. (According to the band's Tony Weissenberg, lead singer Rich Groskopf was struck on Sunday by a recurring back ailment that left one of his legs completely numb. "He might have been able to just stand there," he allows. "But that's not the kind of a show we do--and it didn't seem like we should take a chance with something like that.") To the rescue came Showcase nominee Baggs Patrick, who raced from emceeing an open stage at Cricket on the Hill to the Wynkoop in order to fill out the bill. Boss 302 fans were a bit taken aback when they arrived to see their faves only to find Patrick and his band belting out the loopy "Wet, Sloppy Kisses," but Patrick didn't mind. Because of him, the show went on.

The Blake Street Baseball Club had an ultra-eclectic lineup that left some attendees exuberant and others scratching their heads. Universo Dos put on a polished blend of romantic ballads and rousing Latin pop that not many wrist-banders bothered to check out (it was their loss), but Skull Flux, a combo that finally seems to be finding its own identity, reinforced the loyalty of a cadre of true believers; the Hillbilly Hellcats, supplemented by the propulsive pounding of new drummer Tim Theis, got a throng up and dancing; Marty Jones proved that he's more than just a writer by headlining a musical revival meeting alongside his band, the Pork Boilin' Po' Boys; and Judge Roughneck closed the joint in style with its ska-flavored originals. Next door, at the Sports Column, Pete Nalty and the Jinns reminded Denverites that good music never goes out of style; Lonesome Dan Kase enthralled listeners with his authentic solo country blues; Beth Quist went into the mystic while delivering her Eastern-flavored compositions; and the Minders produced happy pop that managed to engage your intellect even as it moved your feet. As for Slim Cessna, I'm inclined to slag him for blowing my cover and identifying me from the stage, but I have to admit that even without a drummer, his group, the Auto Club, remains one of Denver's treasures.

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