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Making Progress

Dave Kerman thinks prog rock is good business.

Although most mainstream rock fans don't know anything about Dave Kerman, the drummer is a household name in at least a few places. For the passionate international cult that champions Rock in Opposition, a musical movement dedicated to promoting truly progressive sounds, he's a key figure, thanks to his work with acts such as Thinking Plague and 5uu's, his own combo. Yet when it comes to running ReR USA, the recently launched Denver-based distribution arm of London's ReR/Recommended Records, his experience as a percussionist was not as valuable as another item on his resumé.

"I worked a day job managing a Mail Boxes Etc. at Broadway and Alameda to fund my musical efforts," Kerman says. "That gave me a background in business that I really hadn't had, which turned out to be good when it came time to start this company."

He's made a lot of headway in the few months since he returned to Denver, where he lived intermittently during the '90s. (In recent years, he's also resided in France, Slovenia, Italy and Belgium.) Already, ReR USA has an office on South Broadway, and its website, www.rerusa.com, is fully functional. In addition, Kerman is gearing up to introduce a new Recommended Records label, also called ReR USA, with the re-release later this year of a handful of discs the London branch put out in the '80s. Among the first four is an effort by Venus Handcuffs, co-starring former Thinking Plaguers Suzanne Lewis and Bob Drake. "I think it's important to put out some of these missing links," Kerman notes. "I don't believe anyone else will reissue them."

He plays guitar, too: ReR's Dave Kerman.
James Glader
He plays guitar, too: ReR's Dave Kerman.

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Featuring Chris Cutler, Thomas Dimuzio, Hamster Theatre and Janet Feder, 8 p.m. Friday, April 16, Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, 2637 Welton Street, $20, 303-297-1772

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Steering clear of the albums would make perfect sense from a strictly commercial standpoint. Even the best-known acts in ReR's rarefied catalogue -- the Art Bears, guitarist Fred Frith -- have failed to excite more than a tiny percentage of the mass public, if only because they'd rather rattle brainpans than conform to expectations. Any pop DJ who gave them airplay would surely be escorted from his station at gunpoint before the final note played, which helps explain why even Thinking Plague leader Mike Johnson has doubts about the wisdom of Kerman's mission.

"He's certain there's no money to be made in this music," Kerman concedes. "He thinks the school is too small and the fan base is too far spread out. But I don't agree. I believe that if marketed correctly, things could change."

To give himself the best chance of achieving his entrepreneurial goals, Kerman has temporarily sacrificed his drumming. Fortunately, his past couple of years have been prolific from a studio standpoint; he contributed to three discs on Cuneiform Records, a like-minded Massachusetts imprint. Abandonship, from 2002, is credited to Dave Kerman/5uu's and features ten compositions filled with challenging time signatures, quirky instrumentation and Deborah Perry's expressionistic singing. Perry and Kerman also turn up on the latest Thinking Plague platter, 2003's intriguing A History of Madness. And earlier this year, Kerman anchored the self-titled offering by Ahvak, an adventurous sextet from Israel -- yet another nation where he once dwelled. He stuck around for several years prior to his Denver return and holds dual American and Israeli citizenship.

Kerman's time in Israel gave him more of an insight into that country -- and the Middle Eastern conflict as a whole -- than he could have gleaned from a thousand media reports. He came to think of Israel as "a magnifying glass, or an amplifier. If something's good there, it's absolutely great. If it's bad, it's hideously terrible. But in the midst of everything, the Israelis and the Palestinians I knew managed to keep their spirits up. There's a certain joie de vivre there that exceeds the misgivings they may have for each other, and there's always hope for peace."

Such optimism is remarkable, given events like the suicide bombing of a restaurant owned by Israeli Arabs that was located across the street from Kerman's house. He wasn't hurt, but a fourteen-year old girl died in the blast, and approximately twenty others were wounded. Contrary to impressions created by the nightly news, however, such horrific incidents weren't a part of everyday life when he was there. "I'm one of the few Israelis who's personally witnessed the violence," he says. "Most just see it on TV." Indeed, he spent the majority of his time in Israel happily working with the Batsheva Dance Company, a state-sponsored troupe, and recording Abandonship and Ahvak. In his opinion, the discs wouldn't be as strong had they been recorded elsewhere: "The heightened sense of emotion was great for writing and performing music."

Few of Kerman's boyhood friends and acquaintances in Torrance, California, where he grew up, would have guessed that a music career was in his future. For his first public performance -- a talent contest he entered in 1969, at age ten -- he and a combo that included future 5uu's co-conspirator Chuck Turner deconstructed Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." When they inserted what he calls "a free-improv freakout section" into the tune, "half the people there were nonplussed, and the other half were completely scared," he says. The competition's first prize went to "a bunch of girls a year older than us who lip-synched and danced to the Jackson 5's 'ABC.'"

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