Lead singers are often noted for their "stage presence"--but Dave Desch of Denver's Dead City Radio takes the concept to extremes.
On slower DCR songs, Desch looks and sounds similar to Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk; his slightly shrill voice can seem soft and melodic without losing its intensity. But this resemblance doesn't hold up for very long. A few songs into most sets, the person Desch most resembles is Charles Manson.
"I think that's how I work out my anger--through music," Desch says. "I get really upset, excited and very emotional on stage."
The reaction to Desch's delivery is similar to that provoked by a sudden outburst from a caged lion at a zoo: Gawkers take a couple of steps back, just to be safe. Not that Desch scares many listeners away. On the contrary, fans at the group's shows often have a hard time taking their eyes off him long enough to order a beer.
Named in deference to the William S. Burroughs poem of the same title, Dead City Radio flexes more muscle than melody, relying mainly on a combination of raw, linear guitar riffs and power-chord choruses. It's a good formula for capturing the disenchantment and bitterness that weave their way through DCR songs, which touch on topics such as incest and child abuse.
According to Desch, "Our songwriting is just a reflection of my life and whatever's going on in my head." But he doesn't deny his fondness for dark themes. He points out that "even most of the songs that sound upbeat, if you listen really closely, scream `Not!'"
Still, the sets put together by Desch and his bandmates (guitarists Mark Pruisner and Jimmy Giachetti and drummer Doug Stormont) aren't as one-dimensional as that comment implies. The players enjoy shocking crowds with the occasional left-field cover (say, an Irish drinking tune by the Clancy Brothers) or with country-and-Western originals like the catchy "Dilbert."
"Everybody, somewhere in them, likes country--but is afraid to like country because it isn't fashionable," Desch claims. "But if you do it kind of goofy, then everybody's like, `Whooooeeee!' and all the redneck comes out of them.
"We had a gig in Steamboat last year and played `Sweet Transvestite' [from The Rocky Horror Picture Show], and all we got was a roomful of stares," he continues. "They just didn't understand us out there. Then we pulled out `Dilbert' and they all went wild. It was kind of like a Blues Brothers thing, where we kept playing it over and over."
"We're also working on some Fifties `Earth Angel' kind of music right now," adds Pruisner. "And a new country song called `Fat Girl' that's going to be a big one."
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Even if this prediction doesn't come true, DCR's self-titled debut CD, released this year, has already received considerable airplay on area radio outlets. "We just sent out CDs to all the local stations, and for a while we were getting played once or twice a week," Giachetti reports. Indeed, three of the band's tamer songs--"Killing Me," "Shades of Grey" and "If"--have been featured on KBCO, while the poppy Generation X tribute `Slacker' has earned airplay on KBPI and KTCL. "We just sent them CDs, and next thing you know, we're all millionaires," Desch declares, laughing.
Unfortunately, the CD (recorded last fall with previous drummer Scott Turnridge) doesn't capture the quartet at its best, in part because the DCR sound is still developing. In comparison to the recording's relatively mild stylings, the band's current live shows are marked by a stronger, tighter approach and a considerably higher energy output.
The musicians are hoping to interest record companies in financing their next CD, and if recent invitations to appear on the same bill as several groups located in Seattle and San Francisco are any indication, the band has as good a chance as any. In the meantime, the act is working on expanding its set list. But don't expect the new material to be brimming with optimism.
"I've been trying to write happier songs," Desch admits. "But it's not working out.