Coming to a strange town and trying to get at least a superficial handle on its music scene in a very short time is not quite as complicated as it may initially appear. In much the same way that you expect to see the same fast-food restaurants line the roads of every city in the country, local music tends to exhibit certain characteristics that don't vary all that much from one ZIP code to the next. It is, in a way, a comforting notion. There are few things in life a person can truly count on, beyond death, taxes and the fact that selections from The Wall are being broadcast from untold thousands of American classic-rock radio stations at all times. So whether it's Portland or Pittsburgh or Phoenix, it's a pretty safe bet that on any given night a person can locate a Grateful Dead cover band playing for crowds of the dreadlocked faithful, or a metal throw-back hair band in Spandex, or some skinny kids in Ramones shirts playing three-chord garage rock in a broken-down bar with beer on the floor.
Of course, the names and the players vary from city to city, but always there are formulas, unseen forces assuring that certain requirements are met. Perhaps somewhere in the nation's bylaws it is written that, as well as a park and a library and a school system, every American city must fulfill a certain quota of ska groups, jam bands, swing orchestras and sensitive singer/songwriter types donning berets and acoustic guitars. Or perhaps it was beamed down from the heavens, ushered in on a solar wind: "Let there be light, and punk bands of the old and new school, and emo bands, alt-country acts, and rock-and-roll bars with wood-paneled walls and stopped-up toilets. And oh, yes, let there be creatures of the field." After an initial inventory of Denver's musical stock, it's clear that this mile-high municipality is no exception.
Three weeks into my tenure here, I've experienced some things that, as a Phoenix emigree, I'm not exactly accustomed to: Victorian architecture, rain, parallel parking, Sunday bans on off-sale alcohol, multi-culturalism, squirrels. What I have yet to encounter are many surprises on the stages of the city's bars, clubs and concert halls.
Which is not to say that I haven't enjoyed what I've sampled from the local platter. In fact, at many a show I've been moved to engage in what's known as "rocking out," if in my own subtle way. The town is spilling over with competent to great players creating passable to excellent music in the midst of a scene that exhibits an admirable level of sportsmanship and support. Which is why the overall predictability of the output is somewhat disappointing. From an outsider's perspective, it's like watching apes sit around and pull insects from one another's fur, content to have missed the evolutionary window leading to something more advanced and dangerous.
That said, here's a quick run-down of three recent live performances. In their own way, each of these bands provides a clear example of what I'm talking about. In my pokings and probings into the musical goings-on in Denver, they've been repeatedly cited as among those capable of invigorating Denver's music scene, of turning the cowtown into a rock-and-roll city to be reckoned with. I remain unconvinced.
I'll start at the top, with the crowned princes (and princess) of the Denver hierarchy: the much-revered Apples in Stereo. Robert Schneider and company make for an unquestionably compelling band, and like their Elephant Six contemporaries, their coupling of straightforward songwriting and sincere lyrics with strange sonic textures and multi-instrumentation is a bright light in the world of indie pop, and it's often spot-on. Yet while their ideas are clearly articulated on recordings, the band doesn't seem to have fully worked out the problem of how to create the same overall effect in a live setting, as evidenced by a recent show at the Bluebird Theater. While well-played and tight, the set went from interesting to bland, as songs from their latest EP, Her Wallpaper Reverie, were indistinguishable from older material; song number six began to sound a heck of a lot like song number seven, which recalled song number four--and so on. Whether it was a bad sound mix or some bad mojo, I can't exactly guess, but my first live encounter with Denver's darlings was, for the most part, underwhelming.
Similarly afflicted by the same-ol'-same-ol' virus were relative newcomers Hemi Cuda, a three-piece made up of former members of the Hectics and Self-Service. Make no mistake: The girls can rock, banging out power chords and fast-action three-minute songs while harmonizing about boys and cars. The band's drummer isn't half-bad, either. After seeing them twice, it's clear everyone in this band has talent and perhaps the potential to develop into something unique, but for now they're overly loyal or limited to the more generic elements of the punk-rock canon. Hemi Cuda's coordinated wardrobes, superhero poses and playful onstage banter makes them a fun band to watch, even to cut the rug to if you're into that kind of thing. But that old familiar feeling is certain to strike, and those looking to have their minds blown are advised to look elsewhere.
A recent Friday night performance from Slim Cessna's Auto Club brought a houseful to the 15th Street Tavern, that bastion of loud, loud music where the chances are more than good that one's foot will be chemically adhered to the floor. The evening proved to be a redemptive one for the world of alt-country, as Slim and his boys played their songs about the old familiar characters (Jesus, the Devil, that whole lot) with the vigor of a Southern minister performing a river baptism. In his cowboy hat and hellfire-red cowboy shirt, Cessna's stage persona is at once diabolical and angelic, a combination that at times borders on the theatrical. The band's flawless original tunes aim to save and steal your soul with a humorous self-awareness; Slim at one point promised the Tavern crowd, "This is my last song about Satan." It wasn't. Renditions of some traditional country standards can only be the result of a sincere love and study of the genre, and their musicianship outweighs the shtick factor of their live act. I know ol' Slim's been playin' round these parts for many, many years, and though the alt-country revolution may be losing steam nationally, his band is still relevant. It's made a decision to dwell squarely, though creatively, within the confines of a well-established form, without aspiring to lead some kind of revolution. By doing so, the bandmembers meet their goals and exceed expectations, which is a satisfying proposition.
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Glimpses of other locals revealed more good music, if not breakthroughs to bold new worlds. The Pin-Downs, complete with a live simulated sex act at the helm of the stage, provided fun punk with a clear pop sensibility and a take-no-shit attitude that earned them the respect of the crowd. (See Hemi-Cuda, above.) King Rat made a lot of noise, most of it angry, and assaulted the audience with a fierce and somewhat discordant take on, you guessed it, punk. (See new-school punk, listed above.) Judge Roughneck was a hit at the LoDo Music Fest, which likely had as much to do with the proximity of the Capt. Morgan liquor tent than anything else. Whatever the case, the band played clean and well-executed ska and dance hall, which sent more than one booty a-shakin' and my mouth a-yawnin'. (See ska groups, listed above.) Dressy Bessy, opening for the Apples at the Bluebird, is excellent at writing sometimes perfect pop songs and delivering them. Singer/guitarist Tammee Ealon is so darn cute on stage that she functions like a cherry on top of the Bessies' already sugary dish. Enjoyable, tight, promising, but perhaps best taken in small doses by those with a saccharine intolerance. (See indie pop, above.) Damn it all that Sizewell is disbanded (lead singer Chris Shary reportedly moved to Arizona to attend graduate school), since that band's frenzied live set, with its strange time changes and disembodied melodies, was among the most unique performances I've witnessed in Denver. Shary is a fierce live performer and an unconventional vocalist, with Ian MacKaye undertones; Denver's crop of interesting frontmen is less plentiful following his departure.
At the time of this writing, with the weekend looming, I'm divining a list of bands to see as soon as possible, bands whose reputations give me hope of stumbling across some strange and lovely surprises in the folds of the Denver scene: the Czars, the LaDonnas, Perry Weisman 3, Hamster Theater, Kalamath Bros., Abdomen, the Hate Fuck Trio, Opie Gone Bad. Denver is a big city with lots of interesting juxtapositions. As any stroll down East Colfax or through the downtown library will quickly reveal, the oxygen-deprived citizenry can sometimes engage in behaviors bordering on the bizarre and unpredictable. As Westword's new Backbeat editor, I truly look forward to the moment when Denver's music first strikes me in the same way.