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The great Seattle explosion of the early '90s did much to reinforce the belief that geography can be an important factor in furthering a music scene. In the Emerald City, it seemed that the concentrated mix of rainy days, heroin and disgruntled people (many of them on heroin) was conducive to an angst- and anger-filled sound, a sonic anecdote to the frustration of the environment. So many hours forced indoors apparently gave birth to grunge -- a genre with varying degrees of worth that many Seattleites have tried like wet dogs to shake off ever since.
The same principle might account for the plethora of jammy, roving, instrumental-groove acts populating the Front Range. Maybe the origin of the meandering musical tendency has roots in a particularly bad winter, when every mandolin strummer or electric guitarist in the state was forced inside for weeks at a time. Today, whatever the atmospheric conditions, many local musicians are content to spend long nights poking at the embers of creative inspiration.
Leftover Salmon is one of the genre's best-known local practitioners. A typical Salmon concert runs well over three hours, while fans, weaned on unapologetically listless Phil Leshian space jams, simply ride the sonic wave -- whether it breaks on the beach or carries them out to sea without a life preserver. And though Boulder is the unofficial state capitol of Jamland, "Michigan Mike" Torpie has aligned Nederland, the slightly more northerly town, with the style. Last month Torpie celebrated the 200th installment of his weekly Nederland Acid Jazz series with a set that paired celebrated local players, including guitarist Ross Martin, drummer Dave Watts and sax blower Ian Duncan, for a wholly improvisational instrumental vibefest.
Since their inception at the Wolf Tongue Brewery in July 1996, the Nederland Acid Jams have operated as anything-goes affairs in which players from different bands -- who often have never met or played with each other -- perform unrehearsed music for roughly two hours. And though the term "acid jazz" is usually associated with DJ/trip-hop culture, Torpie's variety has more to do with slightly psychedelic, spontaneous extensions of organic, traditional jazz. There aren't any turntables at his events, but there are large bands with lots of instruments, as many as nine players flailing away on everything from harmonica to congas. And though Nederland is more of a sleepy mountain town than a nightlife mecca -- known for its traditional bluegrass and the quiet offerings of the Acoustic Coffeehouse -- Torpie contends the town comes alive like Brigadoon for the Monday-night jams, which consistently pack the Wolf Tongue.
"A lot of it's my fault," Torpie says of Nederland's relatively newfound affinity for the hard-to-define jazz experiments. "I've worked really hard for five years or so, and I have to say that there is definitely a scene here that maybe people wouldn't expect. There is a lot of diversity in this town, but the Acid Jams are a big, big part of what's going on here."
Torpie is qualified to provide an assessment of the musical goings-on in Nederland: His company, Michigan Mike Presents, is responsible for booking and promoting shows for the brewery, and he organizes the annual Nederland Music and Arts Festival, which is tentatively slated for August 5 and 6. So while he's involved with bringing a variety of sounds to the town -- African bands, rockabilly and blues acts, among others -- the Acid Jams are the project he's clearly most excited about. His Web site (www.michiganmike.presents) includes a detailed archive listing of each and every player who's participated over the years and on what nights. (The list, incidentally, includes players from the String Cheese Incident, HairyApesBMX, Leftover Salmon and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, as well as Tony Furtado and even Stanley Jordan, who sat in for "an incredible evening that no one wanted to end" in June 1997 during an night off in his touring schedule.) Audio archives of many of the jams can also be streamed or downloaded into the computer of anyone who's interested. They're clean, careful recordings that capture the ebb and flow of jamhood. You can't hear the audience members dancing, but it's a good bet that had there been a video capture, all sorts of twirls and tantricism would be present.
"Oh, yeah," Torpie says. "Usually by the second set, everyone's getting down. And I think it's because everyone just has such a good time at these things. They're great social as well as musical events. I think it's exciting to a lot of people, because we're getting these incredible players from all sorts of bands, and they're just coming up with stuff off the top of their heads, which is incredible to watch."
Yet the Acid Jams are a little too successful to simply be considered a labor of love. Torpie's a musichead, yes, but he's also a businessman. And he recently recognized an opportunity to expand the scope of the Acid Jams when he began hosting Tuesday-night events at the Mellow Mushroom in Boulder. The response so far, he says, has been promising. Perhaps if Torpie continues his musical imperialism, it won't be long before Colorado is forever stamped as the center of the Jam Band universe. The punks and purists should consider organizing their own rebel armies.