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It's just after 7 p.m. on a soggy Friday night, and I'm sitting at a table on a flagstone patio outside of Shooting Star Cafe, enjoying a brief reprieve from the rain and waiting for the members of Uncle Zant to finish setting up their gear. I'm also thumbing through a copy of Chuck Klosterman's latest memoir, Killing Yourself to Live, which seems appropriate right now, since I'm chain-smoking Camel Wides like they're going out of style. Fact is, a week after the statewide smoking ban went into effect, they kind of are. And this patio outside an awesome converted Victorian bungalow at 2637 West 26th Avenue is one of the last bastions of vice, a smoker-friendly safe haven where a black-lunged toker like me can listen to live music while burning through a pack of coffin nails.
But I didn't come here for the smokes. A few months ago, I met this guy at a party who told me about these underground shows he'd been putting together featuring such artists as the Subdudes' John Magnie -- in his northwest Denver house! I gave the guy my number but never heard from him, and I've been trying to track him -- and his shows -- down ever since. So when I heard from Dickie Rapp that Uncle Zant had a weekly gig at Shooting Star, playing on the back porch of a Victorian house in north Denver, I was intrigued. Could this be one of those phantom concerts?
As I later learn from a member of Uncle Zant, it's not. But she knows all about that enterprise, and fills me in: The guy's name is Dwight Mark, and his events, billed as the Highland House Concert Series (www.denverhouseconcerts.com), are on hiatus until September. So while this show at Shooting Star isn't exactly what I was looking for, it turns out to be exactly what I need.
As Rapp and his bandmates -- his wife, violinist Sophia Pippiringos; guitarists and vocalists Phyllis Brock and Jack Douglas; bassist Nancy Thompson -- finish cramming themselves onto a wooden porch that's barely big enough to contain the musicians and their practice amps, it looks like these folks are finally ready to, well, get their folk on. Before things get going, though, Rapp comes over and says hello, then introduces me to Douglas, who seems slightly unnerved by my presence.
"We're not exactly ready for Broadway," he points out with a laugh.
And that's okay. I have no expectations and am ready for anything. Aside from a brief conversation I had earlier this afternoon with Rapp -- who was reticent to describe what his group does as "bluegrass," despite the fact that his banjo plays a prominent role in the music -- I know nothing about the band.
A few minutes later, as low-hanging thunderclouds continue to roll in from the south, Uncle Zant proceeds to bring down the house -- which consists of me and a friend of Rapp's named Poppie, who's seated at a table just a few feet from mine. Douglas and Brock trade vocals on the first couple of tunes; Douglas's gravelly voice, which recalls Tom Waits, is nicely contrasted by Brock's serene croon. The traditional folk arrangements are supplemented by Douglas's harmonica runs and the playing of Rapp and Pippiringos, which all add an understated depth to the material. The result is a sound that leans more toward Americana and less toward straight-up folk, and I dig it.
Before long, sheets of rain start pounding the patio and we retreat inside, leaving the cigarettes behind. I'm bummed; Uncle Zant has only played a handful of songs. But the next thing I know, the musicians gather in a semi-circle in the living room, next to the coffee counter, and start performing acoustically, interspersing their original material with cuts such as "Jesus Christ," by Woody Guthrie.
"We're not really a cover band," says Douglas. "But I find it my patriotic duty to play a Woody Guthrie song."
Forty minutes or so later, the performance comes to a close. The musicians head back outside to pack up their equipment. As we smoke and share stories on the porch, I can't help but feel like I've stumbled upon some lost tribe. There's just something so pure and unadulterated about this whole effort. While the act's music won't change the world, it's certainly changed my life, if only for a few hours -- transporting me back to a time when music wasn't about myspace and marketing strategies, but about sharing your music with people simply for the love of it.
That's what Uncle Zant is for this group of friends: a labor of love. The outfit came together when the RV driven by Brock and Douglas broke down in front of Rapp and Pippiringos's home. The latter couple invited Brock and Douglas, who had just returned from recording sessions for Brock's album in Nashville with Celeste Krenz and Bob Tyler, to park in the driveway and live there until they were able to get the vehicle road-ready again.
The four became fast friends and started playing together informally in the back yard. Before long, they began playing out as Uncle Zant, which is how they ended up at Shooting Star Cafe. Over a year ago, Pippiringos convinced her friend Mara Norman, who owns the coffeehouse (it's based in the original home of La Loma and went through several incarnations -- as a Chinese restaurant, an Indonesian restaurant, a wacky continental restaurant), to open the shop on Friday nights. As part of the deal, Pippiringos played barista while the rest of the band performed.