FaceMan's First Waltz at the Bluebird, 2/4/11
It was only one of many chaotic scenes in a four-hour show that featured almost forty different musicians. Members of the Knew and the Outfit crowded onto the Bluebird stage Friday, sharing space with the show's headline trio, FaceMan. As the guest musicians hurried to tune instruments and check sound levels, FaceMan's eponymous frontman took the brief pause between tunes as a chance to sum up the spirit of the show.
"It's sort of like an iPod Shuffle up here," FaceMan, aka Steve, joked from his seated spot on a pedestal in the center of the stage.
His assessment wasn't far off. While the show ostensibly served as a CD release performance for FaceMan's debut, self-titled album, its scope and size made it something much more significant. FaceMan took the title of the show from the Band's famous farewell performance, "The Last Waltz," and Friday's performance boasted the same type of rare celebration, the same degree of unabashed joy in performance.
Indeed, the evening had the feel of a rare showcase, an ambitious collaboration that eloquently highlighted the depth and breadth Denver's homegrown musical talent. While FaceMan used the forum to debut tunes from its ten-song album, the setlist was dizzying in its diversity. Guest players shuffled back and forth on stage, offering expansive, energetic versions of tunes from their respective repertoires.
K Buzz and the Brassheads opened the evening, playing brass-heavy, marching-band versions of pop standards like Paul Simon's "Kodachrome" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" near the theater's bar. The Construct, a Fort Collins-based duo, played a straightforward set in the pit before FaceMan started the program in earnest, offering stark songs composed of looped guitar lines, explosive drum accompaniment and driving vocals. From there, FaceMan took the stage, joined by the seemingly endless procession of guest musicians. Older songs by the Knew, the Boulder Acoustic Society and the Vitamins took on a new urgency and dynamism. Medicine Man delivered blues-based harmonica flights side by side with driving, punk-informed vocals from Chadzilla, a guest from Slim Cessna's Auto Club. Martin Gilmore offered acoustic anthems that had roots in Woody Guthrie's dust-bowl ballads, as well as a cover of the American standard "Down In the Willow Garden."
FaceMan acted as the glue for all of the different artists and varying styles. Backed by drummer Ryan Elwood and bassist David Thomas Bailey, the musical mad scientist at the center of the ensemble known simply as FaceMan (or Steve), became the evening's emcee, introducing guests and praising the local scene. Between playing energetic backup for versions of tunes from the evening's cavalcade of local guest stars, FaceMan offered up their signature, stirring brand of folk. Songs like "CookieMonster" and "DarkestDay" fused heartfelt seriousness and Dada abandon, a combination of earnestness and silliness that summed up the feel of the entire evening.
The band's signature piece of stagecraft was another anchor for the evening. James Ronner's massive sculpture of a twisted face sat at the right of the stage for the entire show, serving as a visual anchor for a program of separate styles and different genres. A small screen in one of the eyes of the sculpture bore a constant stream of stock film footage, imagery that also appeared on a larger, wider screen at the back of the room. For all the chaos and changes that occurred on stage during the four-hour showcase, such touches helped add a degree of constancy.
The overall sense of theme was deeper than the stagecraft or the carefully tailored film footage. Through all the different styles, through the sudden shifts in genre and musical approach, the show had a continuous feel. All of the music on display had shared ties in the Denver scene; every artist on stage was part of a common community. The effect made for an impressive four hours.
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Personal bias: Martin Gillmore's emotive version of the murder ballad "Down in the Willow Garden" was one of the evening's most affecting covers.
Random detail: FaceMan played a beautiful Epiphone signed by Joe Pass at one point in the show.
By the way: Vitamins' tunes are even more forceful when played by a large ensemble.
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