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Backwash

Don't call her a folkie: Mary Beth Abella.
Scott D. Smith

There was just too much rain in Seattle for Scott Kerr.

"I always thought that gray, cloudy days were my favorite," says Kerr, the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for Yellow Second. "After being out there for a while, I realized that there were a lot of things I missed about Denver, including the sun."

But this meteorological revelation only partly explains why Kerr decided to pack his bags and his guitar case and return to Colorado after spending three years in the Emerald City, where he formed Yellow Second in 1999 and released a full-length album, June One, the next year. Kerr's sojourn in the Pacific Northwest followed his resignation from a longstanding post with Five Iron Frenzy, a local outfit most often summarized as a "ska-punk Christian" act. With that project, Kerr had grown somewhat accustomed to life as a self-sustaining artist: FIF's success on the road, particularly within the Christian-music community, enabled him to collect a paycheck and concentrate on music full-time. But Seattle -- a city saturated with musicians, many of them still devoted to the now-fetid grunge genre -- was a different experience for him. Although the band gigged steadily and received good notices for June One, it didn't generate the kind of response Kerr had enjoyed in his FIF days. He soon discovered that even truly talented songwriters can have a heck of a time getting anyone to pay attention to them.

"I don't pretend to know what's cool," he says. "When I think about what's going on in music right now, it just confuses me. There are so many bands out there making great music, writing perfect pop songs for the radio -- like Superdrag and Supergrass -- that never get played. Even though I believe our music is good enough, it just doesn't seem to matter in terms of what gets into the mainstream.

"I had to come to a point where I accepted that I can't expect to make a living with a band," he adds. "I thought, 'Well, If I'm going to do it as a hobby, it may as well be in a city I love.'"

And so he came back to Denver.

The funny thing is, when the newly vamped Yellow Second began performing for Front Range audiences -- beginning with a slot opening up for FIF at Fort Collins's Aggie Theater in July -- those audiences paid attention. And with good reason. Now composed of Kerr and locals Nathan Marcy (bass), Josh Hemingway (guitar, keyboards) and Five Iron's Andrew Verdecchio, Yellow Second has refined a solid live show that highlights Kerr's dynamic, smart and poptastic songwriting. And good news for agoraphobes: This week brings the release of Still Small, a twelve-track gem on the New Jersey indie Urban Achiever Records that's already compelled area music scribes to raise their pens in praise ("Local Playlist," October 17).

Yellow Second boasts a heavy British influence, which makes sense considering that England has birthed the world's finest pop songwriters, from Lennon and McCartney to Costello and Yorke. But there's also a decidedly Stateside sensibility at work. Weezer comparisons are common and apt: Kerr might be Denver's Rivers Cuomo, without the ironic wardrobe and too-clever lyrics. Whereas Kerr's writing for FIF was spastic, skronking and sunny, his Yellow Second aesthetic is tuneful and cerebral, melodic and hook-and-sinker catchy.

In fact, much of Yellow Second's early work was conceived during Kerr's FIF days as a non-ska-centric creative outlet. "There was a certain discontentment in writing for Five Iron," he says. "There was a frustration of feeling like I had to make everything fit within the punk/ska format. I would write songs that I really liked and then have to be like, 'Okay, what do I have to do with it to make it work for this band?' I'd have to go back and add some trumpets, or speed it up. It got a little tiring."

The absence of horns and the lack of dancehall time signatures aren't the only major differences between the two projects. While the Iron players share a devotion to Christianity -- and incorporate it, however tastefully, into their music -- Yellow Second is a wholly non-religious affair, concerned more with matters of the heart and head than with the spirit. Born a Christian, Kerr says he began to question his beliefs years ago and lost his faith in religion altogether back in 1998.

"I compare it to the idea of the enthusiasm of the convert," he says. "I was kind of going through the inverse of that. Christianity had always been the most important thing in my life, so it was a little shocking for everyone when I announced that I didn't believe in it anymore. I couldn't, in good conscience, continue playing in a band and espousing something I regarded as false."

So Kerr left FIF, distanced himself from its message, and sought to create something that revolved purely around music rather around than a particular philosophy. Although he remains friends with FIF members, he says there are times when his past involvement with the band complicates his present life: Christian artists often are simply dismissed by secular artists and audiences, even when they move on from the world of biblically inspired music.

"That association is always there," he says. "People will find out that I was in Five Iron and immediately make the association with Christianity. I thought about putting it up on our Web site: 'Yellow Second is not a Christian band.' I don't want my worldview to become part of the music. Basically, it's all just rock and roll. That's the message. And besides, no one likes to be proselytized to."

Maybe not. But Yellow Second may soon have a few converts of its own, especially after it celebrates the release of Still Small on Tuesday, November 12, with a free, headlining appearance at Cricket on the Hill. Kerr and company also perform Sunday, November 17, at Boulder's Club 156, with Rx Bandits. Let us all bow our heads.


Mary Beth Abella is finally ready to release her damn CD, already. After almost a year of liquidating her bank account, feuding with a family member and trying to keep track of an ever-revolving cast of backing musicians -- she went through three drummers, for starters -- What Happened to the Girls? will be unveiled during a CD-release performance at the Lion's Lair on Saturday, November 9. This notion makes the songwriter happy, yes. But most of all, it seems to make her feel...relieved.

"You spend so much time working on something like this, arranging the songs and trying different things," she says. "I would get to the point sometimes where I would just have to say, 'Is this my project? Because if it is, I need to be able to do things the way that I want to.' When you write a song, it's your baby. You almost can't stand the idea of someone coming along and telling you what to do with your baby, or touching it."

The CD's production closely paired Mary Beth with John, the multi-instrumentalist/producer brother who's another product of the highly musical Abella household, where each child was required to learn at least two instruments. Mary Beth chose piano and cello, while John, she says, played "everything." That early indoctrination pays off on What Happened to the Girls?, on which John mans acoustic and electric guitar, bass, piano, organ, tambourine and shakers; Mary Beth handles vocals and acoustic guitar and wrote each of the album's twelve songs. And while the old adage dictates that you can pick your producers, if not your parents and siblings, Mary Beth chose to keep the affair in the family -- a decision that she said ultimately worked but nearly drove everyone nuts.

"We would be up at Colorado Sound doing the mixing, and John and I would just scream at each other," she says. "I'd yell that they were my songs and he should shut up. He'd yell at me for singing a certain way or trying to change an arrangement. He calls it 'bleeding a performance' out of me. It was ridiculous. I'd get upset and expect some sympathy from the guys at the studio. Instead they were like, 'No, that's good. You've got someone who cares enough to push you.'

"John is an amazingly talented musician," she continues. "He was the first one to really encourage me to continue with my songwriting and to start a band -- not just to play out solo acoustic or whatever. I trust him. He has a vision that, in some ways, is bigger than my own."

Maybe, but Mary Beth has demonstrated that her brother isn't the only Abella child with musical foresight. The founder and director of the Colorado Women in Music Committee -- a tributary of the Colorado Music Association -- she's staked a local claim for female artists while simultaneously bucking stereotypes about chick rock. Though she can sometimes be found behind the microphone at one of CWIM's acoustic-music showcases, she's now most comfortable in a more electric habitat, backed by a band and issuing something slightly more raucous than folksy singer-songwriter fare. Mary Beth, who is among the 25 artists vying for a title in the Post-News Battle of the Bands competition, is very much a girl with a guitar; it's just that she more resembles Polly Jean Harvey and Patti Smith than Joan Baez or Edie Brickell.

"When I first started playing with a band, people would still ask me to do solo gigs all the time," she says. "I really tried to move away from that, because I felt like I'd been branded, to some degree. Women have to do so much just to be taken seriously: It's difficult for anyone to find an audience or get gigs or anything else, but it is harder for women. I felt that it was important for me to not get tied down to what people thought of as women's music."

And she's succeeded. What Happened to the Girls? is an edgy, shape-shifting and wholly modern collection that includes brazen, arty tunes ("Just Like Me," "Your Skin") alongside more understated and emotional songs ("Leave You Behind," "Last Night") and never gives in to sentimentality or shmaltz. Vocally, Mary Beth can recall everyone from Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon to the aforementioned Harvey. But as a songwriter, she feels more closely aligned with Jeff Buckley, Grant Lee Philips and Lisa Germano, artists who draw strength from simplicity but occasionally like to rock, too.

"Before I started playing out, I just spent a lot of time writing songs," she says. "That's what I love doing more than anything else. More than performing; definitely more than recording. As a woman who writes music, you do have to sort of find a way through that glass ceiling, because there aren't that many role models, at least proportionally to male musicians. People might be surprised when you come up with something that is actually good."

Those people should prepare themselves in advance for Mary Beth's CD-release party, during which she's promised to raffle off a date with John, among other things. The lineup for the show is a fine cross-strata sample of local sounds. Singer/slinger, Americana enthusiast and stageside comedienne Victoria Woodworth opens the evening with an acoustic set that's likely to include rustically inspired originals as well as covers you're not likely to hear outside of a Nashville revival. An eminently likable performer with a down-to-earth stage persona and wiseacre streak, Woodworth's got the kind of voice you want to write movies for -- and she comes highly recommended. And performing after Mary Beth -- probably around the time she'll sidle up to the bar for a well-deserved cocktail -- is Tinker's Punishment, the Denver four-piece that celebrates the release of its own debut, Zero Summer, on Friday, November 8, at the Gothic Theatre (see page 95 for a review).

Whatever has happened to the girls, we like it.


Backwash was saddened to learn of the passing of Tom Honer, a longtime local-music supporter and songwriter who died of a heart attack on October 18. Last week Honer, who was fifty, was memorialized in two consecutive open-mike nights at Dub's Pub and the Paradox, two South Broadway bars where he'd performed in the past. Most recently, he appeared as one half of Burnside and Honer with friend Bill Burnside.

"I think Tom would have liked the gatherings, but they weren't exactly what you would call festive," says Burnside. "There are a lot of people who were just really shocked by what happened."

Burnside says that Honer, who had been confined to a wheelchair for nearly 25 years after being shot when he was nineteen, knew more songs than anyone he'd ever met.

"Tom could play anything. It was crazy. And he also had a real talent for arrangement and composition," Burnside adds. "Tom was a very unique personality. There was a little bit of ego but a lot of heart and goodness. It was kind of like you either loved him or hated him. All his life, he'd pretty much outlived the odds. Most people who went through what he did didn't make it. Maybe that made him stronger and made him who he was."