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Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the opening act at the Van Halen show on July 16 at Fiddler's Green, set the tenor for the evening early on. A student at the School of Hot Licks whose flowing blond hair gives him the look of a lost Hanson brother, Shepherd can play, and play well; his technical command of the guitar is impressive. But if his fifty minutes in the spotlight featured even a nanosecond of originality, I must have missed it. Lead singer Noah Hunt's throaty warbling and enthusiastic Oh, yeahs were awesome--and stereotypical (if you ever decide to put together a Foghat cover band, call him first), and Shepherd's fretboard showboating never strayed from the tried and true. His version of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," for example, was a clone job of which Dolly the Sheep would heartily approve; the only times Shepherd strayed from the composition's blueprint were when he threw in quotes from other Hendrix tunes.

The throng at Fiddler's (sizable, but far short of a sellout) heartily approved of Shepherd's impressions--and why not? There were quite a few thirtyish/fortyish women present, many of whom insisted upon wearing halter tops and the like several years after it was strictly advisable, but the crowd was dominated by dudes who'd been on board the Van Halen bandwagon since the days when David Lee Roth was first making egomania safe for the masses. In other words, it was the classic rock demographic, and all its members wanted was to hear the old songs done the way they remembered them.

They almost got their wish--but not quite. Eddie Van Halen took the stage against a wall of growling guitar, and within seconds it was clear that he and his longtime cohorts, drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, weren't rusty. A lot of aging performers allow the tempos of tunes from their back catalogue to flag when reproducing them live; it's as if they fear that rendering the numbers at their original speeds will be too much for their graying fan base. But not these guys: Popular faves like "Dance the Night Away" and "Why Can't This Be Love" rocketed out of the gates, and they maintained their pace all the way to the finish line. Moreover, Eddie was supremely animated, hopping around with the enthusiasm of an alcoholic at a beer-tasting festival, and both Alex and Anthony matched his exuberance. Perhaps it was simply that they were enjoying the opportunity to dip into smashes from the Roth era, which Roth's first replacement, Sammy Hagar, refused to do. But whatever the reason, they seemed legitimately happy to be on the boards again.

The problem, however, was that the singer with them wasn't Roth or even Hagar, but Gary Cherone. The former frontman for Extreme, a decent but largely forgotten proto-metal combo, Cherone isn't talentless; he's capable of hitting more notes than Roth ever could, and he's no more histrionic than Hagar--and considerably less of a blowhard. But he had absolutely zero chemistry with his new cohorts. Visuals had something to do with it: Whereas the three Van Halen vets were clad in appropriate bar-band attire, Cherone wore a black suit coat that made him look like a Melrose Place character whose plot lines you never bother to follow. A wiry, diminutive wood sprite of a fellow, he worked hard to earn some attention, prancing and leaping and throwing himself to the floor on a regular basis. But these efforts came across more as desperation than inspiration, and because his fellow musicians treated him like someone to be tolerated or ignored rather than embraced, the audience took much the same attitude. Cherone wasn't entirely blameless in this regard: His banter never went beyond "How ya doin', Colorado?" cliches, and while his voice was reminiscent of Hagar's, it was even more colorless, if that's possible. When he asked the ticket-buyers to sing along with one ditty, a man behind me shouted out, "We'll sound a lot better than you!"

The complaints lessened when warhorses like "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" were trotted out; the band was so tight that Cherone's weak-ass approximations of Diamond Dave weren't so glaring. ("Right Now," a Pepsi spot from the Hagar period, didn't fare nearly as well. With its pre-taped keyboards, it sounded like something by Mannheim Steamroller.) Also arresting was Eddie's solo spot, a mini-"Eruption" in which he displayed his mastery of harmonics and overtones. But the slew of tunes from Van Halen 3, the group's first disc with Cherone, was flatter than Kate Moss, and Cherone was far too much of a lightweight to either push or challenge Eddie in the ways his predecessors had. Eddie's undeniably the man now, and Van Halen is less fun and interesting because of it. Change isn't always good, you know.

Of course, Van Halen boosters are different than they used to be, too. I was seated near the front of Fiddler's second reserved section, and I was stunned to discover that most people near me wanted to sit through the concert. In fact, when one man dared to stand up, he was jeered mercilessly by the twenty folks behind him. When he finally sat down, in the midst of an interminable drum solo, his critics responded with the biggest cheer of the night. That, my friends, is rock and roll, old style.

Local reviews: Get 'em while they're hot.
Thanks to co-producer/engineer Bob Ferbrache, Making H Sounds from BlastOff Heads sounds cheap in all the right ways. The guitar tone is edgy but clean, the rhythm section is sloppy but effective, and the generally strong melodies are never lost in the mayhem. As a result, the trio of Hendrick, Morrison and McDermott proves to be good company, tossing out catchy/punky noisemakers like "Waxed," "BlastOff Heads' Theme Song" and the aptly named "Toetapper" with ease. Nonetheless, they've clearly got their hands full: Why else start the disc with "Something to Jerk for Now" and end it with "Something to Jerk for Later"? Pump it up, gentlemen (Greazy Chicken Records, P.O. Box 2525, Evergreen, CO 80437). Abdomen's Weird to See is another first-rate offering from longtime scenester Mike Jourgensen and mates. The group is getting more tuneful and accessible with each passing year, and the production, which on previous discs could be something of an obstacle, serves the songs rather than obscuring them. That's not to say that the musicians have lost their ambition: "Combattement" moves through myriad styles during its eight-minutes-plus span, and "Act New" incorporates what sound like electro-percussion touches to the usual lo-fi alterna-ingredients. It'll take some time for you to discover all the secrets contained in Weird to See, but you won't mind spending it (available in area CD stores).

The Quiet Room makes metal the old-fashioned way: The vocals of Chad Castor sail into the stratosphere, the guitars of Jason Boudreau and George Glasco duel in the expected manner, the rhythms provided by bassist Josh Luebbers and drummer Mike Rice are piston-precise, and the keyboards of Jeff Janeczko sweeten the sound until all traces of spontaneity are gone. Introspect, the act's third CD, combines these elements with lyrics like "Drained of all dignity/The masses soon repress/Relying on the future will mean/Learning from the past" (from "Altered Past") to come up with music you'll swear you heard before--like at a Dokken concert in 1987. There's still an audience for this stuff, as demonstrated by Quiet Room's connections; the disc appears on New Jersey-based Dominion Records, and Florida's U.R.I. Entertainment Group represents the musicians worldwide. But this is one flashback yours truly would like to avoid in the future (The Quiet Room, P.O. Box 100742, Denver, CO 80250). Dave Delacroix's 21st Century is an improvement over its predecessor, the underproduced, overly modest Sirens. Not everything here is a gem ("World on My Side" and "Wicked Kind of Love" are mighty pedestrian), but "Dawn Patrol," "Days of Rock & Roll" and the title song are spritely pop rock distinguished by Delacroix's reliable tenor and good playing from sidemen such as Pete Nalty and Mike Elkerton. A decent listen (available in area CD stores).

The three men behind Fallen From Grace were never able to find a vocalist who met with their approval, so they decided to do without one--and the choice turns out to have been a wise one. Their self-titled CD draws from metal and goth, among other styles, but because there's no screecher to get in the way of the bombast, the music attains a drama that might otherwise escape it. "The Lovers," "The Hanged Witch" and the five other soundscapes collected on the disc are symphonic rock of the sort practiced by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which means that subtlety is not a consideration. But Fallen From Grace is eminently listenable and quite unlike most of the hard rock being made in the area. Who'da thunk it? (Fallen From Grace, P.O. Box 2602, Denver 80201)

It doesn't seem quite right to refer to the sound quality of the demo by Vena Cava; given the amount of audible tape hiss on it, "quality" is something of a misnomer. As near as I can tell, the music is a jazzier variant on the style employed by so many of the group's Boulder-based peers: "Scatman," for instance, pairs gymnastic vocals with a vaguely Latin melody. And the words? "I'm a starchild/You're a moonbeam" (from "Starchild") are pretty typical. Still, Vena Cava is a bit more interesting than the typical practitioner of the style--or at least I think it is (Georgina King, 959 Marine Street, Apt. C, Boulder 80302). Nearly as lousy from an audiophile's standpoint is SOB, a demo from the Sean Owens Band; the four songs on it sound as if they were captured using a condenser microphone on a children's tape player. By listening closely, I was able to discover that "Sometimes," "Cats & Dogs," "Without You" and "Country 22" are competent blues rock decorated by occasional Neil Young-like solos courtesy of guitarist Doug Norman. The result is unlikely to startle anyone who's been in a bar at any time during the past thirty years (Ty-Ko Productions, P.O. 19785, Denver, CO 80219).

A trio of releases from the Synergy Music imprint testifies to the high standards of label owner Michael Fitts. World Without Cars brings together pianist Art Lande and saxophonist/ flutist Mark Miller for a wide-ranging sonic exploration. Some of the pieces are evocative fragments ("Nella," "Penance III"), while others, like the wonderfully scattershot "Osmogulosis Pleontis" and "Sous L'Ombre," which recalls the work of Keith Jarrett, are broad and bold. A virtuosic pair who aren't above sharing their gifts. On Trios Time, the Dave Corbus Trio, made up of guitarist Corbus, bassist Mark Simon and drummer Mike Whited, follows a more familiar path. The thirteen songs on hand were penned by members of the jazz elite, and many of them, including John Coltrane's "Naima" and Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," have been covered to death. Fortunately, the players run through the selections like the pros they are, making Trios Time a pleasant visit to a predictable locale. Finally, the Pleasure Dance, a 1994 offering by Aubrey Carton that Synergy has reissued, is the sort of album that evokes disparate reactions. But with only a few exceptions (like the opener, "Amorous Love"), I find the mating of Carton's cleverly meandering poeticisms with the jazzy support of guitarist Khabu Doug Young, bassist Dwight Kilian and the aforementioned Lande and Miller to be lively and charming. Shows what I know (available in area CD stores).

On "From the Same Fire," the opening track of the CD Welcome Home, singer-songwriter Rebecca Folsom sounds as straight-backed and earnest as Joan Baez. However, that's followed immediately by "Pretty Song," a bluesy effort in which Folsom's voice sounds so different (rougher, more persuasive) that it's hard to believe she sang both tunes. The rest of the long-player seesaws between these extremes, with "Welcome Home," "Rose in the Water" and "Every Junkie" utilizing the former style, and "Will of a Woman," "Don't You Worry" and "Woman's Truth" embracing the latter. To these ears, the aggressive Folsom is the better one, but the instrumental backing throughout is first-rate. You'll probably like half of this--but only you can decide which half (Sunshine Productions, 5657 Sunshine Canyon, Boulder, CO 80302). The Donny Scott Group's latest four-song demo finds the band in familiar territory. Despite its moniker, "Zydeco Zebra" is energetic blues rock, as is a cover of Tab Benoit's "Downtown," and although "Holding Out" and "Want Too Much" turn down the heat a notch or two, they don't venture too far into other genres. The offerings are competently played but not exactly brimming with surprises. For fans of the same old thing only (contact Arlene Hattori, 12143 Melody Dr., #303, Westminster, CO 80234).

The Swallow Hill Music Association presents its seventh annual Folkathon this week. On Friday, July 24, a Folkathon '98 kick-off concert at Cameron Church, 1600 S. Pearl, features the Heavenly Echoes, Mollie O'Brien, Rich Moore, Colcannon and other special guests. The following day, the event begins in earnest, with a wide variety of artists filling two stages and three tents on and around the Music Hall grounds (at 1905 S. Pearl) starting at 10 a.m. and continuing into the early evening. The bill includes John Magnie, Celeste Krenz, Chris Daniels and the Kings, Roz Brown and a full slate of children's entertainers. Call 777-1003 for ticket information and a complete rundown of activities.

And now, as a special bonus, two more items about recordings with local ties. Eric Richter, late of Christie Front Drive, is now based in New York, but he's making a return visit to Colorado on Friday, July 25, at Double Entendre Records, 120 Broadway, in the company of his latest group, Antarctica. No doubt the combo will be selling its new, self-titled EP, recently issued by Phila-delphia's File 13 imprint. The three songs on the disc--"Drown the Days," "Full Crescent Crusade" and "Closetful of Churches"--are moody dreams/drones that build to dramatic climaxes with the assistance of echoey vocals and crashing guitars. You'd be well-advised to pick up one for your very own. Call 744-9314 for more details. Also of note is Full Tank, Vol. 1, a wild compilation of independent alt-country acts from across the nation that features two of Denver's finest, the Foggy Mountain Fuckers and Slim Cessna's Auto Club. The Fuckers check in with "Always Country," a jaunty, tongue-in-cheek ditty that finds the players asking for "a Bible and a good-hearted woman," while Slim and company offer up "That's Why I'm Unhappy," perhaps the most joyful tribute to misery ever recorded. To get a copy of the CD, contact Jackass Records, P.O. Box 30488, Santa Barbara, CA 93130.

Finally, Jessie L. Wise recently sent quite an interesting letter my way. It begins, "I am a musician currently sentenced to death, and I recently completed a ten-work tape of alternative (soft) jazz under the pseudonym 'WiseGuy' for a fallen brother musician who was executed a couple of years ago. I would like to offer this music as a 'collector's' gift for a donation of $10 or more to my legal defense fund." If that sounds like your brand of easy listening, write to Jessie L. Wise CP86 5A32, Potosi Correctional Center, Route 2, Box 2222, Mineral Point, MO 63660.

But please don't marry him, all right? I'm not trying to play matchmaker here. On Thursday, July 23, the Hot Tomatoes stew at the Mercury Cafe. On Friday, July 24, Yo, Flaco! celebrates the release of its self-titled debut disc at Herman's Hideaway, and Youth Brigade, Pinhead Circus and Four Letter Word tear up the Raven. On Saturday, July 25, Wailer B & Axiom stage a funky reggae party at the Moon Time in Nederland; Dressy Bessy, profiled in these pages last week, joins the Apples and the Push Kings at the 15th Street Tavern; American Horse, featuring former members of Jackopierce, gallops at the Fox Theatre; Cindy Williams drops by the Vartan Jazz Club; Opie Gone Bad and Sherri Jackson team up at the Bluebird Theater; and Grandma's Area 39 hosts the semi-finals of its battle-of-the-bands contest. On Sunday, July 26, Senegal native Baaba Maal plays selections from his just-released (and extremely enjoyable) album, Nomad Soul, at the Boulder Theater for an E-Town that co-stars Skatalites founder Ernest Ranglin and the aforementioned Mollie O'Brien (Maal also appears the previous evening at the Fox). On Monday, July 27, Assorted Jelly Beans are on display at the Snake Pit. And on Wednesday, July 29, bluesman W.C. Clark bars none at Brendan's. Clark bars--get it? If so, please accept my apology.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.

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