This past weekend, I made a joke on Twitter that the hardest part of attending the UMS isn't trying to see as many bands as you can fit into your schedule, but actually getting from one venue to another without running into (and talking to) 2,500 people along the way. As big as the music community is across Colorado, it gets smaller the more you zoom in on specific genres and cliques of musicians — but with the state's rock-and-roll-dominant scene highlighted annually by the UMS, the musicians number in the hundreds. At most editions of this annual fest, I catch sets by my friends and the dozens of projects they play in; it's part of the fun. Filling my days with sets by bands made up of people I know well always feels like a celebration of our little groups.
This year, I decided it was time to take the exact opposite route: I worked to catch as many shows as I could by acts I had never seen before. Although I slipped in a few favorite bands I just couldn’t stay away from – like Church Fire and longtime loves STRFKR – for the most part, I spent UMS 2015 seeing things that were new and different. This meant experiencing performances by artists fresher to the scene – but also seeing bands who had been at it for quite a while and were overdue in my book.
I started my UMS new-bands experience with a Friday early-evening set from In the Whale, a well-known, hardworking band I am embarrassed to say I haven’t seen play until this past weekend. Being on the main stage before the sun goes down as a local act isn’t easy — you’re competing with the hordes of chatty fest-goers seemingly more interested in talking. But Eric Riley and Nate Valdez gave In the Whale’s set a valiant effort, pushing fans to clap along even as the rain began to sprinkle. The duo played its wild, minimal rock for an audience that turned quickly and enthusiastically their way. In fact, they worked against my own theory that when a person on a stage with a microphone is telling me what to do, I usually want to do the opposite: I found myself clapping along and getting into the raucous set, listening to every command from In the Whale and enjoying the ride.
I then wandered into the sauna that was 3 Kings – a venue that proved to have some of the best lineups of the fest – to catch Dudebabes. A local supergroup of sorts that broke up last year, the Dudebabes reappeared just for the UMS, and the packed stage area was proof that the quintet had plenty of anxious fans awaiting the return. At first I passed it off as a silly garage-rock joke in drag. But I quickly found myself laughing at the butt-slapping-through-fishnets-only antics, and the band’s cover of “Faith” was worth it. Taking a sarcastic stab at anything in George Michael’s catalogue is almost too easy, but Dudebabes did it with the irreverence of a good fart joke.
I continued my itinerary-less trek and headed back up South Broadway, hoping a performance from inside one of the many stops on this never-ending tour would sound so good that I would just have to walk in and check it out. That’s exactly what happened: The Venus Cruz-led What Young Men Do was throwing down at the Hornet. When I heard Cruz wail from inside the bar as I stood on the street, I knew I had to go in and watch. Cruz has one of the best voices in the city, and hearing it layered on top of a group of excellent players — and two full drum kits — brought her to the next level. Frankly, Venus Cruz could be singing into a hairbrush about nothing and I would pay to listen.
Next up was a long and arduous journey to Moe’s Original BBQ for Low Body. The venue isn’t the most conducive to captivating an audience, and it doesn't have the usual benefit of foot traffic, since it’s one of the UMS's most distant locations, so seeing a band there has to be an intentional plan. Low Body was a recommendation from Fez Garcia, my friend, former bandmate and current member of Tjutjuna, and he was right. The heavily bass-line-driven, shoegazy style was totally worth it: The trio reminded me of Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins in the warmest and fuzziest way. Guitarist and singer Julien Brier acknowledged the awkwardness of playing to a restaurant full of people mostly interested in their baked beans by name-checking all of the famous acts that had performed at Moe’s Original BBQ in the past, like David Bowie, Mumford & Sons and, of course, Ricky Martin.
I rounded out my night back at 3 Kings for the Yawpers, an act I have admittedly avoided because the name just isn’t something that sounds like a band that would be up my alley. Turns out I was right, but it didn’t matter: The Yawpers turned that sweat lodge of a venue into a floor-stomping, throwback honky-tonk, and I watched from the sidelines as the crowd hung on Nate Cook's every word. I left respecting the trio of master showmen for putting on one of those shows that feels like a one-of-a-kind experience.
Saturday I didn’t head out until the sun started to go down, but Imanaged to catch a great set from Mac Welch, aka Frugal Father, who had recently moved to Oakland but came back to be a part of the UMS. He was like this great hybrid of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and Beck; equal parts humor and humility, Welch's combination of electronic composition and passionate vocals was only enhanced by his yacht-rock appearance.
Later I made a point to catch Shady Elders’ set back at 3 Kings. This band has long been a scene staple, and I’ve always enjoyed its recordings, but never managed to see the act live (that I could remember, anyway). Wonderful and mesmerizing, the quartet’s grounded rock sound was pulled along by lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Fox Rodemich's powerful vocal sways. It was another long overdue and necessary sighting of a local band that has been putting in the work for years.
After watching STRFKR for a bit and running into dozens of friends, I made it back to 3 Kings for the L.A.-based Beginners – drummer Jason Walker was a major player in Denver for many years, working with the Gamits, Angels Never Answer and the New Rome, to name a few. This was one of the best sets I saw throughout all of this year's UMS. Beginners bassist and lead singer Samantha Barbera had the crowd captivated from the first song. Her energy was everywhere, shaking her hands at the crowd and teetering on the monitor one minute, slamming her mallet into a floor tom the next, always moving and always singing.
I grabbed the perfect ending to UMS 2015 with my second experience of being pulled off the street by the sounds (and fog-machine smoke) coming from inside a venue. This time, Emerald Siam pulled me into Eslinger Gallery. Headed up by Kurt Ottaway — a Denver legend who’s been making amazing music for decades with the likes of Twice Wilted, Overcasters and the Tarmints and used to run DIY warehouse/home The Tarshack — the band was expectedly heavy and totally captivating. Psychedelic in that dark and not-contrived way, Emerald Siam showed that no matter what Ottaway does as a musician, there’s no way it won’t be good. Emerald Siam's smokescreen of sonic gloom was a chilling and masterful last set of the fest for me.
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The UMS always reminds me just how big Denver’s music scene really is. Hundreds of acts play the fest each year, and with each edition, I emerge a fan of at least three new performers and bands. And connecting acts young and old to new fans in the Colorado community is what it’s all about, right?
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies