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Backwash

Local musicians learn to play ball in a town that prefers sports to songs.

Working musicians might be the only subsection of Denver society that's actually quite pleased that the Detroit Red Wings scored seven goals against the Colorado Avalanche in game seven last Friday -- effectively quelling hometown dreams of hosting that large, silver spitoon-looking Cup thing two years in a row.

As any gigging artist knows, hockey games have a vaporizing effect on concert audiences, as even otherwise devoted music fans seek out televisions and jalapeño poppers, rather than stages and singers, during puck-dropping season. The games also tend to thin the crowds at plain old bars: For the past couple of months, the proprietors of the happily televisionless Skylark Lounge on South Broadway have refused to give in and air the damn game already; as a result, they've watched patronage dwindle to the swill-devoted few on nights when the sticks come out.

Many acts that do find themselves in front of sporting crowds are often required to sandwich their performances in between the action. Last Friday night at Fadó, for example, Marty Jones and the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys and Cabaret Diosa -- two groups that generally draw sizable crowds to their Denver shows -- had to limit their on-stage time to non-gaming intervals before and after the Avs played, as well as the fifteen-minute breaks between periods. The two bands, playing at a benefit for the First Descents charity that was planned months ago, at times found themselves competing with the din of an unreasonably large big-screen television and the dispirited musings of disappointed fans. And though the Poor Boys' washtub-bass thumping and Cabaret's big-band mambo music weren't the kind of play-by-play the Fadó crowd was looking for, listeners eventually warmed up to the music -- but only when it became clear that Roy et al. had very little game that evening.

This scenario is a familiar one in Denver, a town that spends millions on sports facilities yet expects local musicians to play its many outdoor festivals, concerts and civic celebrations for free. The People's Fair, which took place in Civic Center Park during the two days following the Avs' defeat, is one of many springtime events at which local acts perform gratis, with the ever-elusive "exposure" their only reward. (Fortunately, some establishments that offer live music are showing signs of "getting it": Dazzle, at 980 Lincoln Street, recently began imposing a $5 musicians' fee on the evenings it presents live jazz -- a practice that should be put into place at all restaurants where musicians play in a corner while their audiences down martinis and scarf arugula salad.)

Most people who pursue music professionally seem to accept their lot in life. And that means understanding that sometimes you're going to play for only a handful of humans who are likely to be related to you by blood or be paid employees of the venue -- or both. Backwash recently sent questionnaires to the sixty artists nominated for this year's Westword Music Showcase, and one of the fifteen queries included was this: "What's the smallest number of people you've ever played for?" Nominees' answers were sadly similar: Most replied that they'd played to audiences that included only a bartender or two, or a sympathetic sister and brother-in-law, or no one at all. "Hey, it happens," says sweet-voiced chanteuse Liz Clark. So much for the glamour and prestige of the artistic life. (You can find the rest of the bands' responses, as well as a full schedule for the Westword Music Showcase, set for the 1900 block of Market Street on June 9, in a special guide tucked into the center of this issue.)

The morning after the Red Wings gave the Avs a good plucking, a friend posed an outrageous question: What if, in light of the Avs' loss, local TV news programs shifted the six or eight minutes allotted to sports coverage in each thirty-minute broadcast to local art and music? What if locals, desperate for some leisure-time activity to fill the hockey-puck-shaped hole in their hearts, chartered buses to shows at Herman's Hideaway rather than games at the Pepsi Center? We both knew it was unlikely -- but it was fun to imagine, just for a moment, a town that celebrated its creative class and not just its athletes. That would be a victory, indeed.

In the meantime, however, musicians must continue to work in order to make sense -- not to mention a career -- out of their craft. On Saturday, June 8, and Sunday, June 9, Westword -- in conjunction with the University of Colorado at Denver and the Colorado Music Association -- will present an event that could help equip them to do just that. Music Lowdown 2002 is a chance to consort with and learn from more than thirty music-industry experts from around the state and the nation. Walk-up registration is available on Saturday morning; you can also register by phone at 303-672-1262 through Friday, June 7. Admission is $60 ($40 for CMA members).

Like planetary alignments, such events don't happen all the time. Go, team!


Mary Beth Abella has been a busy lady lately. In addition to organizing the upwardly mobile Colorado Women in Music Committee, a part of the CMA, the talented songwriter has been planning Venus Fest -- a marathon of live music that places special emphasis on bearers of the X chromosome. Venus Fest unfolds at the Soiled Dove on Wednesday, June 12, featuring performances by Marcy Baruch,opera singer/songwriter/jokester Christy Wessler, Liz Clark, Wendy Woo and Victoria Woodworth. (Baruch, Clark and Woo are all nominated in the Singer/Songwriter category of the Westword Music Showcase; Baruch and Clark are newbie nominees this year, while Woo is a veritable veteran.) Seattle's Holly Figueroa, a songwriter who founded Indiegrrl Records and the companion www.Indiegrrl.com Web site, will perform, as will Abella herself. We can't guarantee that either Frankie Avalon or Bananarama will be in attendance at Venus Fest, but you should be.

 
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