By Noah Hubbell
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Talking to the founding members of the Fox Street All Stars about the genesis of the band is tough. It takes patience. "Everything in this band has been a very gradual process of trickling down into the next thing," explains drummer Eric Low. "It's kind of gone from zero original tunes to one in there, to two, to five."
That slow progress comes up again when Low and guitarists Jonathan "Skippy" Huvard and James Dumm try to pin down the exact moment that the group formally came into being — when they started making original music, that is. The band's roots can be traced back to the University of Colorado, where the guys first started jamming together as music students in the early 2000s, and it leads to a house on Fox Street in Denver — hence the act's name — approximately five years ago. Even so, there's really no set moment the guys can pinpoint.
But if the history of the Fox Street All Stars feels more like a circle than a straight line, so does the band's sound — a blend of rock, funk, country and vintage R&B resulting as much from the members' combined years of shuffling between groups as from its early years as a cover band (a go-to wedding crew that at one point had dozens and dozens of other artists' songs built into its repertoire). Their hybrid sound also reflects friendships with a slew of musical mentors, including members of Kinetix, the New Mastersounds and the Motet.
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"Doing things real gradually has been to our advantage," Dumm maintains. "In the genre of music that we're doing, I feel like it's rare that things happen overnight.... In the real world, it's long-term."
Still, the deliberate approach seems to be paying off at a rapid pace. The Fox Street All Stars have been touring constantly in the past two years, playing hundreds of shows across the country and supporting kindred acts such as Little Feat, Galactic and Trombone Shorty. Last year, the band signed with new management, a move that's helped to further national exposure. And for the past five months, the All Stars have been touring regularly with saxophonist Mirco Altenbach.
As the bandmembers prepare to release their sophomore album — Tough Talk, engineered and mixed by Josh Fairman at Scanhope Sound in Morrison — they say they've grown up since their first appearances at Herb's bar five years ago. "We used to dress up in old-school gear — fedoras and ties and suits," Huvard recalls. "We'd hire a whole horn section, or get backup singers. We'd try to swindle a drink deal so we could get all our friends to come. That's what really started to get the band name known around town."
And that wasn't the only gimmick they concocted. Perhaps nodding to their time as a cover band, the All Stars would offer versions of well-known rock standards and obscure tunes that figured high on the group's list of favorites. Versions of Raconteurs songs, for example, would come up alongside takes on old tunes by R&B giants Howard Tate and the Mighty Hannibal. "It wasn't that we'd been playing for very long," Huvard points out. "It was that we knew a shitload of songs, and we would make a big event about it."
That strategy started to change as the band finalized a lineup that included Chris Speasmaker on piano and organ and Dave Solzberg, a veteran of the Denver music scene, on bass. "We started hiring Dave in the cover band," Low recalls. "He's the most talented one in the band.... He's got way more experience than us. Whenever we're listening to music, he'll say, 'Oh, I've played with that guy." Solzberg's knowledge and experience (he's a good fifteen years older than the rest of the guys) has helped the group truly start to capitalize on its growing network of peers and collaborators.
That's not to say that the All Stars' younger members didn't come with their own contacts. Dumm and Low, both Colorado natives, had already started to sow the seeds for an impressive musical network as young players. As a teenager, for example, Dumm studied guitar with current Megadeth lead guitarist Chris Broderick. "He used to teach at a studio down on Mineral or Belleview," Dumm remembers. "We're talking about from age twelve to fifteen. But in between now and then, I've studied everything from reggae to country to classical and jazz."
That diverse background helped Dumm earn a spot as one of the first teachers at the Dog House Music, a rock-and-roll camp and rehearsal facility in Lafayette. The position led to an introduction to Solzberg, who was also one of the first instructors at the camp. Solzberg, a veteran in the local music scene who has a master's degree in jazz, offered the first connection to seasoned pros like Leftover Salmon's Bill McKay, who played on both of the All Stars' albums.
"He's been in a lot of bands," says Huvard of McKay. "He's played with some of the best people ever," a list of legends ranging from Bloodkin to founding Meters member Leo Nocentelli. Making those kinds of links helped the All Stars bridge the gap between being a casual cover band and being an original act worthy of its own attention. Their repertoire of original material grew slowly: Putting enough songs together for their debut album, 2010's Welcom to Mighty Pleasin, was a study in patience. The group started assembling the record in 2008, and finished it a full two years later.
Welcom reveals a different stage in the band's development, they say. Each original tune was more of an individual statement by different bandmembers, resulting in more of a combination of different voices than a collaborative chorus. "It's very reflective of what we were doing," Huvard explains. "We had to fill a full show, so we were still learning all this music. If we spent six months doing hard funk, we'd have funk original tunes. If we learned a bunch of country, we'd have country shuffles," he offers, adding, "I think it's just a symbol of us working it out."
Tough Talk, they insist, offers a more unified sound, as well as a dynamic that's less informed by the latest string of gigs. The band's continued affinity for cover songs is evident from the two that are on here, a version of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" and a take on the Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show."
But the record also offers decidedly singular tunes, like "Too Good," "What I Know" and "If I'm Wrong," bluesy, driving numbers that incorporate hints of country and R&B. A full roster of guest players including McKay, Joe Tatton, John Macy and the Black Swan Singers help round out that rich sound. Such songs speak of a rich palette, a musical vocabulary built up from plenty of live shows and talented friends.
"I like the idea of creating a sound that runs with the New Orleans funk thing, but with a Denver side to it," Low states. "We put some rock and roll, we put some country into it."
The Fox Street All Stars no longer don the suits and play the same cover tunes that they did five years ago, and there have been too many changes to count, too many adjustments and evolutions that came from untold days, weeks and months on the road. Still, the bandmembers are able to point to constants that have remained through the band's various lineups and myriad friendships. "The way that you keep moving forward is if you love what you do," Dumm concludes. "You start to learn that it takes work and smart decisions."