By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
Low Estate, the scorching second album by 16 Horsepower, is reaching retailers in the United States this week, but it's already a success beyond these shores. Says the band's leader, singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist David Eugene Edwards, "It's been out in Europe for five months or so, and it's doing really well--better than the first one by far. I think we've already sold over 40,000 copies."
This marketing strategy, first reported in the guide to the third annual Westword Music Awards Showcase in our September 18, 1997, issue, is a tacit acknowledgment by A&M Records, the band's label, that 16 Horsepower's notably intense variation on Americana is thus far being accepted most readily by listeners outside America. Edwards experienced this for himself during a year-end jaunt through the Old Country. "We toured there for seven weeks, which was our longest trip yet," he says. "We played six nights a week, pretty much in a different place each night. We did nine shows in France, seven shows in Holland, ten shows in Germany, a couple shows in Austria, a couple shows in Denmark, and shows in Sweden, Switzerland and England."
The groundwork for such mass acceptance was laid by 16 Horsepower's well-reviewed A&M debut, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes, which did extremely modest business in the U.S. but found a sizable audience overseas. Edwards isn't sure why Europeans have embraced the group, but he's got some theories. "Most of those countries, the people there really like country music, Western music," he comments. "They love Western movies, too. It's a romantic type of thing for them. And I think the religious aspect of our music has a really big appeal, even though most of the countries that we've gone to are not really all that religious, or the religions that they have are kind of bleak and oppressive--the Catholic Church or whatever. A lot of the people who've come to hear us, their view of Christianity or religion in general is either really negative, or they don't think about it at all. But for some reason, they're interested in the way I bring it to them."
Thus far, the critical reception to Low Estate, produced by PJ Harvey associate John Parish, has been equally strong, as well it should be. The current lineup--which finds longtimer Jean-yves Tola supplemented by relative newcomer Pascal Humbert and former Denver Gentlemen leader Jeffrey-Paul--provides Edwards with a richer palette, and he takes full advantage of it. The music is more varied than that on Sackcloth, but without sacrificing the berserk drive and passion that's Edwards's stock-in-trade. "That's just the way it is for me, especially live," he explains. "In the first place, I don't feel that comfortable on stage, so to sing and play the way that I do is difficult, and it takes a lot of energy and a lot of concentration. There's just no way to go into it lightly.
"Everybody's been positive about the new record," he continues. "People have told me that they think it's a good second record, and most of them have said they think it's better than the first one. And some people have thought it was even gloomier than the first one." After a chuckle, he adds, "If that's possible."
True enough, Low Estate won't inspire any Hanson comparisons. The music is extremely dark--and since this descriptive is viewed in some music-industry quarters as synonymous with "inaccessible," Edwards knows that he and his fellows have some preconceptions to overcome. "We gave the record to the radio department at A&M, and they were like, 'We have nothing to work with,'" he reports. "The first single is 'For Heaven's Sake,' and they want us to remix it to make it more radio-ready--which we have no problem with, just as long as they let us do it. I'm not going to do anything that would make us look stupid, but I'd give remixing a try. Even though I don't think it's going to work anyhow."
Doubters are most apt to become converts to the 16 Horsepower cause if they catch the quartet in person--and folks from sea to shining sea will get plenty of opportunity to do so over the next several months. Edwards and company begin their tour with a February 15 stop at the Boulder Theater for an E-Town broadcast. Then there'll be a headlining tour of the East, the Midwest and the West Coast (with a possible stop-off in Denver in late March), followed by a pairing with Morphine that will keep the musicians motoring through the hinterlands for several more weeks. After that, it's back to Europe, where the going, strangely, is easier. As Edwards notes, "We love America, and we love to tour America, but it's also a bit like starting over here in a way. It's funny, but it's not so much of a struggle over there as it is here."
The moves and counter-moves involving Universal Entertainment, Bill Graham Presents and veteran promoter and manager Chuck Morris have caused yours truly to spill plenty of ink in this space of late (see the January 8 and 22 Feedbacks for details). But there's another major player in the Denver concert-promotions business who's also in transition: Bill Bass, whose streak of more than seventeen consecutive years of putting on shows in the area makes him (with the semi-retirement of Barry Fey) the scene's reigning veteran. Bass recently announced that he was closing down Small Axe, his promotions firm of several years, in favor of opening Bill Bass Concerts, prompting rumors that Small Axe had gone bankrupt. He denies this but concedes that finances played a large part in the switchover.