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On page 88 of this issue, you'll find the first ballot for the 1998 edition of the Westword Music Awards Showcase, which takes place at seven venues in lower downtown on Sunday, September 20. (Duplicate ballots are scheduled to appear in each issue through September 17, when our Showcase guide will be published.) As usual, the list of nominees selected by our panel of nearly sixty experts from the Denver-Boulder music community is a strong one, and there's plenty of new blood on hand; well over twenty acts are being honored for the first time. Many longtime favorites are present as well--but the overall top vote-getter, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, is not. The reason is predictable: In a year already overstuffed with band breakups, the Auto Club has become the latest victim.

According to Cessna, the members of the band (which also included pedal-steel guitarist Glen Taylor, multi-instrumentalist Frank Hauser Jr., drummer Jon Killough and banjoist/bassist John Rumley) decided against playing a heavily hyped last show. Instead, they chose to check out after wrapping up a pair of previously booked turns in Breckenridge on August 7 and 8. The gigs themselves weren't exactly triumphs, Cessna concedes: "Friday was bullshit. We wound up playing for two bartenders and two people who came up to see us from Denver. And Saturday we played some outdoor festival kind of thing that was just as ridiculous. They paid us a lot of money, but the whole thing was really a waste of time." However, he adds, "we had a nice time up there, at least--and it was nice to be able to go out with everybody still being friends. For me, it was almost kind of a relief."

The Auto Club revved up for the first time over four years ago, when Cessna, a veteran of the Denver Gentlemen, decided to found a project of his own. It rapidly became one of Colorado's favorite live acts, but not everyone was charmed by the outfit's rambunctious take on vintage country; non-believers dismissed the style as a grating novelty. Cessna insists that such widely varied responses were actually a source of inspiration. "That made it exciting for us," he claims. "It was nice to know that we could create a reaction no matter what we did. We obviously love country, but we had a different take on it than most others. It was something that we knew was good and that people in Denver knew was good but that a lot of other people didn't necessarily want to deal with."

Included among the last group were the attendees at the Association for Independent Music convention held here in May. The Auto Club won the right to perform before these visiting dignitaries at a Museum of Natural History shindig alongside Tim Ryan, a signee to the Warner Western imprint, but the same audience that gave a rousing reception to Ryan left in droves shortly into Cessna's set. Still, Cessna says that such experiences weren't a factor in the dissolution of the band. "The last couple of months have been kind of difficult for me as far as the amount of work that we've been doing and the fact that vacation time was being used for band things. And then, when I'd come home, I'd have to do more band things. I just needed a break, and I needed to spend some time with my kids"--Amelia, eight, and George, six. Cessna initially envisioned a few months' hiatus from the Auto Club rather than a divorce. But, he says, "the more I thought about it, the more I thought that when I was ready to play again, that maybe I'd want to play something different."

At this point, the players don't have firm plans for the future, but Cessna expects that all of them will return to the stage in the near future. "I'm definitely not quitting," he says. "It won't be long before I'll be back at the Lion's Lair singing country songs." In the meantime, he has a lot of fond memories to look back on, including two fine CDs (1996's Slim Cessna's Auto Club and American Country Music Changed Her Life, a live disc issued in June) and a slew of great concerts. "We opened for Johnny Cash in Las Vegas, and we got to spend a couple of weeks in Paris," Cessna recalls. "It's been a wonderful time."

Careers in music are all about timing. Take the Verve, which headlined at Mammoth Gardens on August 11. The band, fronted by Rolling Stone cover boy Richard Ashcroft, has been big in Britain for several years, but it was going nowhere in the colonies until last year's impressive platter Urban Hymns. The album's first single, "Bitter Sweet Symphony," suffered through a troubled gestation period on the way to the marketplace. A dispute over a string motif sampled from a Sixties-era album of orchestrally rendered Rolling Stones ditties resulted in the track being credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Then, out of something very much like spite, the Stones' handlers sold "Symphony" to Nike for use in a series of TV spots. The Verve objected to the move, but it proved exceedingly beneficial to the quintet; the popularity of the commercial helped turn the song into a smash. In a sense, this makes it a cousin to the New Seekers' "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)" and Paul Anka's "Times of Your Life," which were adapted from ads for Coca-Cola and Kodak. But "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is something these precursors were not: good.

Given this breakthrough, a tour of the States would have seemed like a natural next step. But instead of hopping on the first Concorde bound for America as soon as the single charted, the group decided not to make a swing through the hinterlands until the second half of summer. This delay proved fatal: While Urban Hymns offerings other than "Bitter Sweet Symphony" got airplay, none of them came close to matching their predecessor's huge popularity. Hence, sales for the band's concerts were slow--so slow that promoters in many parts of the country were forced to move the shows to smaller venues. (The Verve's Denver-area appearance was originally slated to take place at Red Rocks.) Faced with the prospect of diminishing returns, the tour's opening act, Massive Attack, decided to abandon ship in order to line up headlining dates of its own; the Massive ones will hit the Ogden Theatre on September 22. To further compound problems, Verve guitarist Nick McCabe, whose return to the group for Urban Hymns after years spent out of the fold had much to do with the disc's quality, chose not to join his mates on the road. Disaster seemed imminent.

With these troubles as a backdrop, the Verve limped into a far-from-full Mammoth Gardens with something to prove--but with seemingly little interest in doing so. The concert was slated to begin at 8 p.m. but didn't get under way until nearly ninety minutes later; during the interim, underlings played music and flashed photos of the Ververs on two screens placed behind the instruments on stage. The slide show provided attendees with the evening's best view of the supporting musicians: When the McCabe-less band finally appeared (supplemented by a pedal-steel player and a guest percussionist), the spotlight immediately went to Ashcroft, and it seldom left him for the rest of the night. Ashcroft certainly acted the part of the star, posing like a male model heavily into heroin chic, but his failure to interact with his fellow musicians made him come across as narcissistic. Worse, the absence of McCabe left the music feeling far less intriguing and complex than it did on Hymns. "Sonnet" and others came off as nicely melodic, but they were so similar in mood, tempo and structure that the result was torpor. I yawned a few seconds into "Lucky Man," then found myself practically unable to stop for the next ten minutes. Picking up a corresponding vibe from the throng, Ashcroft introduced "One Day" by mumbling, "Maybe you'd rather I say 'Bitter Sweet Symphony.'" When the title didn't receive the tumultuous ovation he seemed to be expecting, he asked, "Or does anyone give a fuck?"

The situation improved with "Come On," the first number in which Ashcroft and his helpers picked up the pace and played off one another. But this juicy psychedelic excursion turned out to be not the beginning of something fresher but an excuse for the performers to leave after only an hour of music. Moments later, Ashcroft came back alone for a couple of solo acoustic ditties, after which he announced, "It's blow-the-fucking-roof-off time. This is something you'll tell your grandkids about." Wrong: The concluding rendition of "Symphony" was seriously off-kilter--a poignant elegy transformed into a Stone Roses-type celebration. As Ashcroft waved his fist and did the Jagger rooster strut in a room that was at least one-third empty, I couldn't help but feel that he'd waited a little too long for this moment. I wondered: Years from now, will he be sitting in his dingy little flat musing about how his life might have turned out had he started that U.S. tour six months earlier?

In the July 9 issue of this column, I contrasted the disappearance of the Market Street Lounge and Seven South's romance with dance music with Grandma's Area 39, which had recently made a renewed commitment to featuring original rock. But financial realities have forced Wendy Wikstrand, who took over Area 39 (at 3900 Pecos Street) in April, to make changes as well. An August 15 bash featuring Sick, Insane Core Productions, Corruption, Quiet Room and others was the venue's rock swan song. A new manager has already been hired with an eye toward reopening on August 28 as what Wikstrand describes as "a Mexican-music bar. He'll book more salsa and ethnic stuff, and hopefully I'll be able to kick back and make some money for once."

Wikstrand feels strongly that the space won't survive unless its format is altered--and since a previous incarnation of the club did well for years by appealing to the Hispanic population in northwest Denver, she may be right. But she remains frustrated that she was unable to make Area 39 into a rock bastion. After all, she's done her best to hype area rockers for years; she once put out The Adventures of Grandma Dynamite, a comic that centered on Colorado musicians, and oversaw the Granny Awards, a local-band contest that took place at various locales, including Cricket on the Hill. But after purchasing Area 39 from Haylar Garcia, whose rock-and-roll credits include Johnson, she was unable to convince enough patrons to take the less-than-ten-minute drive from LoDo to the club. "We wanted to keep going," she says, "but we weren't getting the support from either the bands or the fans that we needed to stay afloat.

"There are a lot of new bands coming out, and they're great," she adds, with increasing passion. "They don't care what slot they're playing. They just want to play. But some of the older bands, or newly formed bands with old members in them, need to lose the attitude, lose the ego. Some of them even told people not to come to our club--and when they do something like that, they're not helping themselves or anyone else. Denver's too small for petty things like that. There's a lot of talent and a lot of good people, and if they could form some kind of alliance instead of acting like big babies, something good could happen here. But a choice few are ruining it for everyone else."

Over the past couple of months, anyone who's wanted to buy a drink at the Ogden Theatre has been ushered to the bar upstairs and then not allowed to come downstairs again except to leave. It's an insane system--call it Drinker's Prison--that has angered plenty of music lovers lately. But Chris Swank of nobody in particular presents, which owns the Ogden, reveals that the situation is not long for this world. "The reason we had to do that was because the people at Excise and Licenses came around to all the venues in town and said that you couldn't mix all-ages and over-21 sections anymore," he says. "But we couldn't split the floor like we do at the Bluebird because the Ogden's bathrooms are all on one side." In other words, the people placed on the no-bathrooms side of the theater would have to cross their legs until the show was over. To solve this problem, the folks at the Ogden are building new bathrooms on the side of the building currently lacking them. "It should be done in a couple of weeks," Swank promises. "And it can't be soon enough for me. This has been a real pain in the butt."

Literally.

--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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