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It's nearing eleven o'clock on Monday, Open Stage Blues night at the Atrium Bar and Grill. In the corner, five musicians -- mostly middle-aged white guys with borderline mullets and let's-get-down looks on their faces -- run through a clumsy reading of "Thunder and Lightning." After they finish, they pass the microphone to the only other person who seems to want it, a scruffy younger man sporting jailhouse tattoos and a Cleveland Indians jersey who launches into a funky, a cappella ballad that he appears to be making up on the spot.
It is both godawful and hard to ignore, although some of the dozen people in the audience do their best. They stir their drinks, admire the bar's collection of beer signs, cross their legs. Oblivious, the guy sings on.
At a small table to the right of the stage, Philip Hamon III sits grinning like an eight-year-old, digging it. He taps his foot to an imperceptible beat. He sways slightly from side to side. When, at last, the song reaches its end, Hamon claps -- vigorously.
"Hey, that guy was pretty good!" he says.
A minute or two later, the blues band returns to the stage and kicks into a familiar funk riff. A big, fat bass thumps while the vocalist barks out little words like "Hey!" and "Ow!" As Hamon recognizes the tune, he is suddenly overcome with glee.
"You've got to come see my special 'Brick House' lights," he says, standing up and moving behind a large and unruly lighting rig -- a mass of wire and metal, shelving parts, hose clamps, colored gels, scoop lights and lots of tin -- that he starts to manipulate through a series of manual switches. It's an unsophisticated but functional bit of circuitry that Hamon designed and built himself about six years ago; on the side of the metallic box that houses the switchboard are carefully lined words in capital letters: PHIL THE DENVER FAN. LIGHT SHOWS OF AMERICA. A moment later, the stage pulses with primary colors. When the band reaches the song's chorus ("She's naugh-ty, naughty! Ow!"), the lights flicker in imperfect time with its rhythm. The guitarist steps forward to take a solo, and he is awash in a haze of blue halogen; the drummer takes a turn, framed by green.
"A lot of light men around town, they just pick one color and leave it on. But I figure, if you're going to do it at all, you may as well make it look great," Hamon says. "Usually, if it's a slow song, I don't do the flashing. But if it's a rocking song, I flash real fast. I do the light shows for the bands, to help them look good. So I do the light show however they like it."
Many of the bands that regularly toil in venues such as Herman's Hideaway, Cricket on the Hill and Seven South have done so beneath the flashing glow of Hamon's handmade rig. These days, Phil the Fan has more gigs in a week than many working musicians see in a month, sometimes lighting up to fifteen bands. And though he's never studied or played music -- beyond the rudimentary piano lessons that many American children are subjected to at one point or another -- Hamon is one of the most recognizable, enduring and unlikely fixtures in local music.
"Some musicians have told me that I'm kind of like an extra member of the band," Hamon says. "But me and the soundman, we're just production people. It's the band that's the star. I know that I am a good light man. But I only do it because I like to have fun, and I love the bands and the music."
He takes a big swig of Diet Coke and thinks things over.
"What it comes down to is that I'm just a party guy," he says. "I've got rock and roll running through my blood."
Phil the Fan opens a door into the nondescript hallway of a Pennsylvania Street condominium complex. "Welcome to the best apartment in Denver," he says. About three steps inside Hamon's lair, his boast is borne out: This is the kind of kitschy environment that neighboring Capitol Hill hipsters try to cultivate through years of thrift-store shopping. Skeletons leer from window moldings and hang from beams. Jeweled sombreros and baseball caps line the kitchen cupboards. A sign in the center of the living room invites visitors to Party Naked. In one corner, a structure made of wood and colored yarn stands higher than a sixth-grade boy -- naively rendered, but intricate, artful.
If rock and roll isn't actually running through Phil the Fan's blood, it's definitely sharing his apartment. For more than twenty years, Hamon, now 48, has watched the local rock scene, an amorphous culture whose only real constant is change. He's seen bands come and go as precisely and predictably as fashion; nightclubs open only to be razed to make room for parking garages and sports bars; entire genres fade from memory like so many drunken, stageside conversations. He was a regular at now long-gone places like the Rainbow Music Hall, Bamboo Gardens, the Broadway and Quigley's; he was a fan of phantom punk and heavy-metal groups such as the Rok Tots, Helen Killer, Mau Mau 55 and Madhouse. From a distance, he's observed promoters and politics. ("Back then," he remembers, "it was hard to put on those fun shows because Barry Fey would find a way to shut everything down. If he was still around, I wouldn't be able to do my light show, that's for sure.") And along the way, he's collected a few souvenirs.