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Backwash

Coming to a strange town and trying to get at least a superficial handle on its music scene in a very short time is not quite as complicated as it may initially appear. In much the same way that you expect to see the same fast-food restaurants line the roads of every city in the country, local music tends to exhibit certain characteristics that don't vary all that much from one ZIP code to the next. It is, in a way, a comforting notion. There are few things in life a person can truly count on, beyond death, taxes and the fact that selections from The Wall are being broadcast from untold thousands of American classic-rock radio stations at all times. So whether it's Portland or Pittsburgh or Phoenix, it's a pretty safe bet that on any given night a person can locate a Grateful Dead cover band playing for crowds of the dreadlocked faithful, or a metal throw-back hair band in Spandex, or some skinny kids in Ramones shirts playing three-chord garage rock in a broken-down bar with beer on the floor.

Of course, the names and the players vary from city to city, but always there are formulas, unseen forces assuring that certain requirements are met. Perhaps somewhere in the nation's bylaws it is written that, as well as a park and a library and a school system, every American city must fulfill a certain quota of ska groups, jam bands, swing orchestras and sensitive singer/songwriter types donning berets and acoustic guitars. Or perhaps it was beamed down from the heavens, ushered in on a solar wind: "Let there be light, and punk bands of the old and new school, and emo bands, alt-country acts, and rock-and-roll bars with wood-paneled walls and stopped-up toilets. And oh, yes, let there be creatures of the field." After an initial inventory of Denver's musical stock, it's clear that this mile-high municipality is no exception.

Three weeks into my tenure here, I've experienced some things that, as a Phoenix emigree, I'm not exactly accustomed to: Victorian architecture, rain, parallel parking, Sunday bans on off-sale alcohol, multi-culturalism, squirrels. What I have yet to encounter are many surprises on the stages of the city's bars, clubs and concert halls.

Which is not to say that I haven't enjoyed what I've sampled from the local platter. In fact, at many a show I've been moved to engage in what's known as "rocking out," if in my own subtle way. The town is spilling over with competent to great players creating passable to excellent music in the midst of a scene that exhibits an admirable level of sportsmanship and support. Which is why the overall predictability of the output is somewhat disappointing. From an outsider's perspective, it's like watching apes sit around and pull insects from one another's fur, content to have missed the evolutionary window leading to something more advanced and dangerous.

That said, here's a quick run-down of three recent live performances. In their own way, each of these bands provides a clear example of what I'm talking about. In my pokings and probings into the musical goings-on in Denver, they've been repeatedly cited as among those capable of invigorating Denver's music scene, of turning the cowtown into a rock-and-roll city to be reckoned with. I remain unconvinced.

I'll start at the top, with the crowned princes (and princess) of the Denver hierarchy: the much-revered Apples in Stereo. Robert Schneider and company make for an unquestionably compelling band, and like their Elephant Six contemporaries, their coupling of straightforward songwriting and sincere lyrics with strange sonic textures and multi-instrumentation is a bright light in the world of indie pop, and it's often spot-on. Yet while their ideas are clearly articulated on recordings, the band doesn't seem to have fully worked out the problem of how to create the same overall effect in a live setting, as evidenced by a recent show at the Bluebird Theater. While well-played and tight, the set went from interesting to bland, as songs from their latest EP, Her Wallpaper Reverie, were indistinguishable from older material; song number six began to sound a heck of a lot like song number seven, which recalled song number four--and so on. Whether it was a bad sound mix or some bad mojo, I can't exactly guess, but my first live encounter with Denver's darlings was, for the most part, underwhelming.

Similarly afflicted by the same-ol'-same-ol' virus were relative newcomers Hemi Cuda, a three-piece made up of former members of the Hectics and Self-Service. Make no mistake: The girls can rock, banging out power chords and fast-action three-minute songs while harmonizing about boys and cars. The band's drummer isn't half-bad, either. After seeing them twice, it's clear everyone in this band has talent and perhaps the potential to develop into something unique, but for now they're overly loyal or limited to the more generic elements of the punk-rock canon. Hemi Cuda's coordinated wardrobes, superhero poses and playful onstage banter makes them a fun band to watch, even to cut the rug to if you're into that kind of thing. But that old familiar feeling is certain to strike, and those looking to have their minds blown are advised to look elsewhere.

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