Denver's Big Mike is not a man wanting for confidence. In describing the sort-of rebirth of his best-known band, Phantasmorgasm, he declares, "On a pompous, pretentious note, it's my intention to reclaim Denver from the dregs--from how dismal the scene around here has become." He declines to elaborate on this assertion beyond stating, "That's what I have to say to everybody who's going to try and get in our way."
Such provocations might sound hollow coming from most people, but not for Big Mike, who's made some of the most consistently adventurous music heard in these parts this decade. Aside from Phantasmorgasm, which ripped up the club scene for several exciting years, he's fronted Cactus Marco and Acoustifuxx and has promoted other intriguing aggregations via his N.O.A. label. He's been relatively quiet of late; his most public appearances have been with Space Is the Place, a loose collective of experimentalists who appear regularly as part of Seven South's Wednesday music series. But behind the scenes, Big Mike has been cooking up his most ambitious scheme yet--a 150-song opus that he plans to present on seven concurrently released CDs.
Although Phantasmorgasm is the name under which these discs will be issued, the personnel will vary from platter to platter. Among the contributors, who will appear in different configurations from track to track, are multi-instrumentalists Tom Sublett and Tim Edwards (Windowpane, Trio Fungus), Bob Tiernan (Windowpane, Cactus Marco) and Johnny Kattt (Acoustifuxx, Filty McNasty); drummers Kevin Smith (a heavyweight on the Denver jazz scene), Ravi (Acoustifuxx, Filty McNasty), Matt Homan (Trio Fungus, Book of Runes) and Kenny Ortiz (Phantasmorgasm, D-Town Brown and Tribhanga, whose disc was reviewed in this column last week); saxophonist Brett Sexton (Trio Fungus, Psychodelic Zombiez); and vocalists Johnny O (Rhythmic Insurrection and Loudmouth, another Big Mike combo) and Jahnavi DeFrancis (Tribhanga). The last of the seven long-players will compile older songs by Phantasmorgasm, Cactus Marco and Acoustifuxx; the rest will be loaded with all new material.
According to Big Mike, he came up with his latest concept because "I was tired of trying to make regular albums--by which I mean the art form that the Beatles perfected. So I decided to try a new format--one that's definitely influenced by the jazz movements of the early Seventies and by electronic music, which I've been into for a long time. And I wanted to play with all of the cats in town who I really respect and admire."
Since Big Mike is still in the process of assembling this massive piece, the only clue as to what it will sound like is 1 2 3 7 12 25, a cassette that contains the music from the initial volume. (It's available for $3 from C.O.M. Records, P.O. Box 12521, Denver 80212.) According to Big Mike, the tape is not "indicative of the project as a whole. It's only a beginning point." But what's clear from the recording is that it's an attempt to stretch into new areas rather than simply revisit previous Phantasmorgasm styles. For the most part, Big Mike (the only musician on the cassette) eschews vocals in favor of samples from sources such as Pulp Fiction and instrumental passages that borrow from dub, funk, electronica and rock. Some pieces are more successful than others, but the album as a whole deserves praise as a subtle, moody collection that evades categorization as a matter of course.
The thus-far unreleased material will feature "as much variation as you can possibly imagine," Big Mike says. "There's no emphasis on a particular genre. We'll be whipping it all out. I like to describe it as 'pure music,' which is what I've always been about. And I think it's wonderful that so many talented people are helping me."
At this point, Big Mike has not announced a release date for the package, but those interested in getting a taste of what's to come will be able to do so at the first Phantasmorgasm gigs in several years. On Wednesday, April 16, at Seven South, the group will consist of Big Mike, Tiernan, Sexton, Sublett and Ortiz; on Wednesday, May 21, at Cricket on the Hill, Big Mike will be joined by Sexton, Homan and Kattt; and on Wednesday, June 4, he'll be in the company of Smith, Edwards and vibist Rick Winegarden. "It's going to be hard for people to get a handle on this much eclecticism," Big Mike concedes, "but that's the point of the project. This might sound rather lofty, but we're trying to document that at the end of the twentieth century, there were still people who cared about music as art. There are very few innovations going on now; it's a very bleak period. So we're trying to show people in the future that some musicians wanted to do more. We're trying to create a new aesthetic."
Flash back, if you will, to our March 14, 1996, issue, when we profiled singer-songwriter Rebecca Blasband in an article entitled "The Unreal World." At the time, Blasband, who had been living in Denver about a year, had a deal with Warner-Chappell publishing, which had financed a five-song demo called The Rebecca Blasband. But what fame she had at that point was based almost entirely upon her status as a cast member during the inaugural season of MTV's The Real World. As she told it, she'd been trying to overcome her reputation as "bitchy" Becky for years--and she hoped a record deal would be the key to doing so.
Well, she got one. A couple of weeks back, Mercury Records released Rapt, Blasband's major-label bow. The CD, which features a guest spot by Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano, includes the cream of her EP--"Silver Room," "Down in the Underground" and "Alfred"--as well as a slew of additional cuts that establish her as a worthy vocalist and tunesmith. The production, by Femmes veteran Warren Bruleigh, is not quite as refreshingly spare as on the previous offering; Rapt occasionally feels a bit too much like an entry in the Alanis Morissette sweepstakes. But overall, the CD is a promising debut. Whether it's good enough to get Blasband (who now lives in New York) out of the shadow of The Real World is another question--but Mercury seems to be doing its best to help. The program is not mentioned either on the disc's liner or in Blasband's biography. I won't tell if you won't.
The Denver Women's Chorus will present Ouro Boros, an oratorio by Kay Gardner that aims to celebrate women from birth to death, on June 7 and 8 at Pomona High School in Westminster. By that time, the organization hopes to have assembled between 100 and 150 female vocalists of every conceivable age and background for the production. If you're interested in participating, call Terri Atkins, the Chorus's publicity chair, at 274-4177. Rehearsals begin April 27.
No rehearsals required. On Thursday, April 10, the Ben Folds Five return to the Seventies at the Bluebird Theater; the Garden Weasels dig up Genuine at Herman's Hideaway; and Shudder to Think shudders to think at the Fox Theatre, with Pond and Skeleton Key. On Friday, April 11, Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave, whose new CD, Road Novel, has just been released by Denver-based Bohemia Beat Records, travels to the Mercury Cafe; and Greeley's Isabelle Haze plays selections from its new, self-titled CD at Soapy Smith's. On Saturday, April 12, Rick Cummings presents music for string quartet and electric guitar at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; Ken Field, a member of Boston's Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, headlines at the Bug Theater; Stanley Milton's Mean Streak wails at the Skyline Cafe; Freak Hungre chows down at Quixote's True Blue; Terry Bozzio holds a clinic at Rupp's Drums; and Westword contributor John Jesitus does Marlon Brando impressions at Stella's. And on Sunday, April 13, Arc Light throws a CD-release party at the Boulder Broker.
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Finally, John Castellano's one-man quest to get Rush to play in Denver (noted in our March 20 issue) has paid off: Geddy Lee and buddies will be at Fiddler's Green on May 22. Inexplicably, tickets are not $21.12.