It's somewhat awkward for Backwash -- a shy and humble scribe -- to point out that this week's most notable happening is one orchestrated by this very paper. The Westword Music Showcase will take place in six LoDo locations on Thursday night, providing a chance for you to soak up local sounds like UV rays. Considering that the showcase begins at 3 p.m. and ends after 1 a.m., we suggest you inform your boss that you might be a few minutes late on Friday morning.
That said, this year's ballot of showcase nominees reflects a couple of truths about local music. Several names remain from years past, while others are completely new. The changes may reflect the evolving tastes and exposure levels of our nominating committee, but they also indicate, for better or worse, the ebb and flow of Denver's scene. Bands come (Sarina Simoom, Pure Drama and Apostle are among the newbies); bands go (the Hate Fuck Trio, the Geds, Fat Mama, Hamster Theatre, Judge Roughneck, Sista D -- all nominees last year -- are, for varying reasons, absent from this year's list); and bands remain (Otis Taylor, David Booker, the Kalamath Brothers and Slim Cessna's Auto Club are among the showcase's repeat offenders). Of course, our showcase is not the only barometer of the area's musical climate, but it's a pretty good one. When Backwash first landed in Denver and tried to assemble a composite of the scene, the Westword Music Awards Showcase compilation CDs (first released in 1995) were a good starting point. The discs provided clear examples of the ways in which local bands and musicians have a higher turnover rate than fry cooks at Burger King. Of those who were included in 1995, only Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Hazel Miller and the Hillbilly Hellcats are familiar names today; in 1996, those three were joined by a meager slew of still-current others like Sherri Jackson, the Hate Fuck Trio, Ron Miles, Brethren Fast and Jux County. The rest? Who knows.
Lots of stereotypes surround musicians. They are often portrayed as directionless, flaky, self-obsessed, drug-addled or difficult. But even those who fit the description also work their asses off. It's an often thankless profession that inspires some to continue and sucks the life out of others. At any given moment, in Denver or Anytown, four things are usually happening simultaneously: Some acts are finding that their persistence is showing signs of reward; some brave souls are just getting started and trying to find an audience; some musicians are giving up on the business, while some are giving up on everything; and some are still working, just like always.
Exhibit A: 16 Horsepower
In the past couple of years, 16 Horsepower has been around the music-industry block more times than an Arista Records coke dealer. After Low Estate in 1998, its third release for A&M records, the band was dropped when the company became a main course in the Seagram/ Universal Music Group label gobblethon. The unceremonious turn of events found bandleader David Eugene Edwards, drummer Jean-Yves Tola and bassist Pascal Humbert without an American outlet for their work. No matter: The band, which has always enjoyed a strong European audience, signed with Glitterhouse, a European imprint, and released its latest, Secret South (recorded in Colorado with Bob Ferbrache) to the Old World countries last month. For stateside Horsepower fans, it seemed the only way to snatch a copy of the recording was to import it or wait for one of the band's rare local appearances and hope Edwards and company had discs in tow. Last week, however, Razor & Tie Entertainment -- the New York-based label that represents the Continental Drifters and Marshall Crenshaw -- announced it has signed the 'powered ones and that Secret South is being readied for domestic release in September.
Exhibit B: Ike Dog
Isaac Barajas isn't on the Westword Music Showcase ballot, nor is he a member of the nominating committee that selects the acts who are. But inside a tiny store on Denver's northwest side called Isaac's CDs and Tapes, which he's operated since 1995, Barajas is working to elevate the status of local music in general; specifically, he'd like to help bring local Latin hip-hop artists into the light. Area hip-hop heads often complain about club owners' resistance to the genre, which is based on the fear that rap shows require heightened security measures or extra insurance. It's a stereotype Barajas confronts dead on: As rapper Ike Dog and a member of the Mile High Bomben crew, Barajas is among a handful of homegrown Latin MCs for whom hip-hop is still very much a G-thing. His own full-length CD, which will be released this month, bears the delicate title of F*** This World (a CD-release party will be held May 7 at Carissa's Bar & Grill on 128th and Lowell). Many of the locally produced hip-hop albums his store carries (a number of them produced by Barajas himself as president of Ike Dog Records) have provocative titles like "Don't Fuck With Denver" (from Mile High Bomben -- its cover shows three men flipping off the camera and clinking together bottles of malt liquor).
Yet even if some folks might question -- or fear -- Barajas's inventory, there's no denying that his promotional efforts are impressive. Barajas's store carries more than thirty local releases, including singles and full-lengths from Hydro Bass and A-Trues and showcase nominees Apostle, Nyke Loc and Dez. In the next month, Barajas will have to make room on the shelves for a handful of new ones, including recordings from solo MCs Angel Cruz, Spookie T, Lucky Chuchiano and the D-Side Locos.
So if Denver doesn't support hip-hop and rap, how has Barajas stayed in business for five years? He'll tell you it's a combination of niche marketing and sheer force of will.
"I've always carried local music in addition to national, independent releases," he says. "My store is known for locals. They come in to look for locals, and they know that this is the spot.
"We work so hard, and it just feels like it's time for someone to break out," he adds. "I don't care so much if it's me or my bands, but somebody. There's just not enough going on here, not enough support. But I don't want to stop."
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Exhibit C: Johnny Briggs
Friends of Johnny Briggs packed into the Lion's Lair on Saturday, April 1, for a live show by the Derailers, the hard-driving hardcore outfit in which Briggs served as guitarist for eight months. It wasn't unusual for the Derailers and their fans to gather at the Lair -- Briggs and his bandmates were regulars at the club -- but on this night, the show had a special, solemn meaning. Briggs committed suicide on Saturday, March 25, at the age of thirty, after what friends describe as a long battle with alcoholism and depression. The gig was a wake of sorts, a chance for friends to say goodbye, with Briggs in attendance -- symbolically, at least. His bandmates hung his photograph on his guitar amp, where it remained throughout the night. Briggs was a longtime member of the area hardcore scene who played with a number of bands, including Hell's Half-Acre, and friends characterize him as a person to whom music meant the world. That's probably why his family thought it appropriate to bury him with his guitar.
Fifteen-year-old pianist A.J. Salas celebrates the release of his self-produced recording, 88 Reasons, on Sunday, May 7, at Angie's Place, 8525 W. Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, with Mary Flower and A.J.'s Little Big Band. And on Saturday, May 6, United Dope Front, mamaSutra and Manatee Junction will convert the Gothic Theatre into an underwater extravaganza. Organizers promise that the combined use of props, lighting and video footage of oceanic occurrences will have audiences swimming in funky vibes. Also on May 6, 16 Horsepower alumnus Jeffrey-Paul offers another rare glimpse of his new performance and sexy project Hoitoitoi on at the Raven. And, oh, yes, did we mention the thirty bands that will be performing downtown on Thursday, May 4? I believe we did.