Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

Local experts offer reasons why so many of Denver's biggest bands are vanishing.

Indeed, Hamala had been through this pattern before. As bassist for the Jonez, another Denver act that locals fully expected to go national, he reached tremendous highs (like a rousing jaunt through South America) and dispiriting lows. "The worst was on one of our last tours," he recalled. "We had arranged with this guy to get us a motor home to travel in, but when we showed up, all he had was a semi. It's illegal to ride in the backs of those, but we didn't have any choice. So we put couches in there and rode around in it for a month, getting nauseous and claustrophobic, because there weren't any windows. Once, the drummer totally freaked out, wanting to get out of there, and we couldn't stop for fear of getting busted. We had to sneak in and out of it at gas stations. It was miserable."

Despite such travails, locals were still taken aback by the Jonez's early-Nineties separation. After all, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, who only a brief time earlier had been at approximately the same level of popularity as Hamala and his cohorts, had beaten the odds and were playing to big crowds all over the U.S. But the Monsters are exceptions to the rule, as Doug Kauffman, head of the promotions firm called nobody in particular presents, understands all too well. "There were some really great bands here in the early Eighties, like the Aviators and the Young Weasels--but none of them made it, and I don't know why," he says. "Maybe it was because they were kind of weird, but that was a weird era in music anyhow. And then there were the Kamikaze Klones. Now there's a band that should have gotten signed, but they never did. It was a real mystery. And it's not the only one."

Since the dawn of the rock-and-roll era, only a handful of Colorado-based musicians have made a sizable impact beyond the state. The late John Denver came to define the region for many outsiders via folk-oriented sing-along smashes such as "Rocky Mountain High" and "Sunshine on My Shoulder," the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band used country and folk to reach a mainstream audience, Firefall was a fairly large part of the country-rock landscape for a few years, and Sugarloaf scored a pair of Seventies hits that still get heavy play on oldies stations: "Green-Eyed Lady" and "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You." Other area groups made quirkier contributions. The Astronauts, a Sixties surf band from Boulder, and Lothar and the Hand People, a psychedelic-era combo whose music was recently sampled by the Chemical Brothers, are remembered fondly by aficionados of the obscure. And there is no shortage of locals who continue to sing the praises of guitarist Tommy Bolin, who played with Zephyr, the James Gang and Deep Purple and was on the cusp of a prominent solo career when he died after consuming a lethal combination of heroin, cocaine, Valium and alcohol in 1976.

Barry Fey, who managed Bolin for a time while building his concert-promotions empire, is convinced that the guitarist would have become a superstar had he lived. But he never thought highly of most other homegrown Denver talent. "The local band scene has always been the same here," he said during a January interview. "It was such a great, great concert market, but nothing ever came out of Denver like it did in Boston or Seattle. Most local bands never really made it. You had Tommy, you had Firefall, and now you have Big Head Todd. But there was never any explosion." When asked for an explanation for the failure of Colorado bands to break through, he laughed as he said, "Maybe they had no talent."

Many other observers disagree. They cite current bands like the Apples (known outside of Denver as the Apples in Stereo) and 16 Horsepower, who are easily the most critically acclaimed bands to emerge from the area during the Nineties. But the reams of positive clippings that these groups have garnered in national music mags such as Rolling Stone haven't led to fame and fortune. The Apples, who were recently scooped up by Sire Records, have clusters of fans throughout the country, but even in Colorado they can't regularly lure a theater's worth of boosters to their shows. As for 16 Horsepower, an A&M Records signee, the group is more successful in Europe than it is in Colorado, where radio airplay has remained elusive. Earlier this decade, a handful of commercial stations played local music on occasion, but that's no longer the case. Ariel Hyatt, the founder of Boulder-based Ariel Booking and Publicity, says, "I don't even bother calling stations in Denver and Boulder anymore--I feel like it's a complete waste of time. And when a publicist, the type of person who never gives up, says something like that, it's definitely a bad sign."

Such neglect isn't universal: Music by nationally recognized Colorado groups that appeal to fans of the so-called neo-hippie genre gets the occasional spin in Boulder. But national programmers haven't followed suit. Leftover Salmon and Fool's Progress, formerly Acoustic Junction, both have major-label contracts, with Hollywood Records and Capricorn Records, respectively, but neither has been able to conquer the world of radio or video, as their modest album sales demonstrate. Big Head Todd, on Revolution Records, and the Samples, on the Boulder-based W.A.R.? imprint, do better; their CDs regularly reach six-figure sales totals. But like Leftover Salmon and Fool's Progress, they are seldom heard on radio stations outside Colorado despite almost nonstop touring. They are prized by live audiences, but they have thus far been unable to capture the hearts and minds of the masses.

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