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It's a cold Saturday night in Arvada, the kind of frosty evening that keeps all but the most die-hard live music fans at home. But inside Mr. B's Roadhouse -- a neighborhood temple of sports, rock and roll and drinking culture -- a handful of music patrons and barflies have braved the elements for a sonic fix. When Trace Christensen, tonight's main attraction, peels off the opening guitar riff to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy," he turns what looked to be a quiet night on its ear. As bass, drums and guitars roar out of the speakers framing the stage, the folks in front smile in appreciation. Christensen (who plays under the abbreviated "Trace" moniker) sings the song in a clear but soulful voice while running through some dead-on Stevie Ray maneuvers on his guitar. A few bars later he unleashes a thermal, 36-bar solo over the competent rhythm section supporting his playing.
As local cover acts go, Christensen's is better than most. It's also far stranger: The "band" he plays with is a Frankenstein-like creation that exists only on the DAT tapes that spin in his soundboard -- homemade creations on which he plays every note. He shares the stage not with fellow players, but with a stockpile of gear: keyboards, electric drum pads, racks of guitar effects, and a collection of pedals, stompboxes, switches and cables.
"I'm the loudest, rowdiest one-man show going," Christensen tells his small yet appreciative audience as "Pride and Joy" ends. Over the next hour, he blazes through a set of familiar classics, aided by his prerecorded rock: a pair of Santana cuts, Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" (complete with live talk-box effect), Vaughan's "If the House Is Rockin'," Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" (during which he accompanies himself on twelve-string acoustic) and an original tune that sounds like some lost late-'80s power ballad. He also rips through Lynyrd Skynyrd's "I Know a Little" (ably handling both sides of the band's Steve Gaines/Gary Rossington dueling-guitar segment) and a complex Joe Satriani cover. He closes the set with a full-length cover of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," during which he plays live percussion, keyboards and electric guitar over a near-perfect taped re-creation of the classic stoner opus. The set is both impressive and bizarre, a mixture of guitar-whiz glory and basement-studio geekdom gone mad.
"I get guys every week who come up and make comments -- you know, 'What the hell is this karaoke act?'" Christensen says, settling into a break between sets. "But I tell them, 'You go home and learn how to play every instrument you hear on all these songs, then record all the parts and get a P.A. and get these gigs. You try that and then come and talk to me.' See, there's a huge difference between what I do and karaoke, and what I'd be doing if I were in a band. Who in a band has to learn every part on every instrument on every song they play?"
It's doubtful many players in town can answer "me" to that question. Christensen says he spends up to forty hours learning, playing and recording each of the 200 songs now stashed in his digital repertoire. His catalogue of pop-metal and classic and contemporary rock tunes also give his Berklee School of Music chops a vicious workout, both on tape and on stage. But Christensen -- who has been playing full-time for three decades -- says his efforts are worth it, partly because it frees him from one of the pitfalls of being in a successful band, which is having to work with other bandmembers.
"I've given my whole life to doing this, for thirty years," Christensen says, "and it seemed like all I could do was hook up with people who aren't as committed as I am. And as soon as a break comes along, someone can't tour, they can't do it. And I've had to count on flaky people that don't work hard, that have drug or alcohol problems. This whole approach was born of necessity. I just decided I wasn't going to ever have to start all over again or have someone knock me back to zero."
Two years into his oddball solo gig, Christensen's modus operandi is paying off. He currently plays eight to twelve times a month and earns enough dough to pay his bills with music as his only job. He's also garnered a loyal following in bars that typically book live groups and smaller rooms that welcome his one-man-band act.
"You hear 'one-man band,'" says Carissa Stauffer, owner of Carissa's Bar and Grill in Broomfield, "and you think, 'Oh, my God, it's some guy with tambourines on his knees and a bass drum on his back.' But people are very impressed by Trace because he's got so much talent and what he does is so unusual." Stauffer has been booking Christensen for a year now, even though her venue typically books more traditional bands. She says her crowds have had no problem getting past his technology-aided routine, and he's now one of her most popular acts. "It's nice to get five headbangers on stage," she adds, "but with Trace, I only have to rely on one person. And he's not loud and obnoxious."