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Prior to Beck Hansen's May 22 appearance at Red Rocks, I had seen him give two of the worst performances of all time--the first in April 1994 at Boulder's Ground Zero, the second in July 1995 at Fiddler's Green as part of that year's Lollapalooza festival. These shows were dreadful in different ways: During the first date he seemed perversely determined not to provide anyone with a good time and succeeded beyond practically anyone's expectations; during the second he maundered through a mostly acoustic set so lacking in passion or dynamics that it left the several thousand people who suffered through it looking like victims of the Andromeda Strain by the time he finally, blessedly departed. In my review of Lollapalooza, I casually dismissed Beck as being "already a trivia question"--and at that point in his development, such a conclusion seemed eminently logical.

As time has proved, I was wrong. In 1996 Beck released Odelay, which even a doubter like yours truly was able to immediately recognize as a first-rate album. Then, last October, Beck headlined Mammoth Gardens, and Westword contributor Amy Kiser, who attended the date, reported to me afterward that Mr. Hansen was "really good." Given these unexpected turns, I decided to give the diminutive singer-songwriter one last chance by attending his Red Rocks debut even though the show was being opened by the Cardigans, arguably the lamest pop sensation to strike these shores since Frete. And it turned out to be a good decision. Because of a ticket snafu, I missed all but one song by the Cardigans--talk about dodging a bullet. Better yet, Beck didn't suck: He was, to coin a phrase, "really good."

The contrast between Beck's earlier appearances and his most recent was obvious from the get-go. Whereas he had previously scorned the image of an entertainer, this time he embraced it with satirical gusto. The seven members of his back-up band, mainly clad in vintage suits, preceded the star of the show to the stage a la the soul revues of the Sixties. A James Brown-like introduction later, Beck bolted into the spotlight clad in duds straight out of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. By the time he'd launched into "Devil's Haircut," from Odelay, he had already done more dancing, jumping, fist-waving and choreographed movement than in his first two Denver-area appearances combined. And that was only the first song.

No one was more aware of the contrast between Beck's twerpy-white-boy appearance and his hip-hop affectations than the man himself. The popping-and-locking, the promises to "rock your party" and "rock your orgy" (belted out in the middle of an impromptu bit rapped in part to the melody of "Jingle Bells") and the continuous exhortations to "my freaks" might have seemed like offensive caricatures of the rhythm-and-blues world were it not for Beck's sense of fun and his willingness to put the needle to himself. In short, he knew how ridiculous he looked doing b-boy robot moves (imagine David Spade as a dancer in a Toni Braxton video and you'll get the idea), but he was having such a good time that he couldn't stop himself. The corrosiveness that gave his early gigs such a bitter aftertaste was gone as well, replaced by a newfound understanding that giving people what they wanted was fine as long as it was delivered with a twist.

On occasion, the old Beck surfaced: For example, he followed up a fairly straight version of "Loser," his sonic albatross, with the snippy comment "Whoomp--there it fucking is." Moreover, he hasn't yet found a way to comfortably interweave his folkie material into a songlist currently dominated by danceable groovers. He attempted to create a transition by having the entire band accompany him on a version of "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)," from 1994's Mellow Gold, but the somnambulant ditty still stopped the show's momentum in its tracks. Beck followed with solo versions of "Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)" and "Asshole" (a cut covered by, of all people, Tom Petty), and while he played them well, they would have sounded better in a coffeehouse than in an amphitheater. The only tune in this segment that got the crowd going was a variation on "One Foot in the Grave," a bluesy holler that found Beck energetically huffing into a harmonica. In the midst of it, one concertgoer near me declared, in a somewhat surprised tone, "Hey, he's talented."

Well, yeah--and he's canny as well. The renditions of songs like "Hotwax," "The New Pollution," "Jack-Ass" and "Where It's At" were not as musically complex as the ones on Odelay, but by streamlining them to some degree, Beck and his assistants were able to put them over without entirely denuding them--a genuine accomplishment. So, too, was the way in which Beck managed to keep his sometimes sarcastic sense of humor from toppling into bitterness. When his drummer played a riff reminiscent of the one that kicks off "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," he said, "Uh-oh--intimations of U2." But rather than slam the four lads from Ireland (which is, after all, my job), he made a joke that cut himself as deeply as it did them. "Don't worry," he pledged good-naturedly. "We'll refrain from any flag-waving or gymnastics."  

Instead, Beck came out for his encore wearing a black, rhinestone-studded cowboy suit and a hat as big as all outdoors. And when the audience laughed at the mere sight of him, he seemed pleased--and why not? That was his goal all along. Three years into his quizzical career, Beck Hansen is learning to enjoy making his fans happy. And that's excellent news for everyone.

Confused about the nature of comedy? Let Greg Cassidy, program director for KALC-FM/105.9 (Alice), clue you in.

Cassidy responded to Westword after I called to ask him about a promo on Alice that our Web czar, Chris LaMorte, had heard (I got a chance to check it out later that same day). In the spot, which hyped a contest called the "Alice 106 $1,000 Climb for Cash," a naive chap (described by Cassidy as a "redneck") stumbles into Cheesman Park for a "wienie roast," only to discover a pair of stock gay characters whose minds definitely are not on barbecuing. The commercial includes the sound of a zipper and the line, "There's nothing like a twelve-inch wienie between the buns to put a spring in your step." It concludes with the protagonist finally figuring out the actual intentions of the men; as he flees, the suitor with the most exaggerated voice cries, "Come back! Come back!"

Might this skit strike some folks as a tad, say, homophobic? Or at least offensive in a general way? Cassidy scoffs at the suggestion. After pointing out that Alice has received no complaints about the ad--and noting that the station has a sizable and extremely loyal gay audience--he says, "Our listeners understand the edge of the radio station. And when you're in the business of entertaining, you're going to be dancing on the edges. There are a lot of other stations that don't entertain. They play their little records and they shut up. But our focus is to entertain the audience and make them laugh. And when you start analyzing comedy, there's a problem in the world. You're not allowed to laugh anymore, I guess. Look at thousands of comedians, be they politically correct or politically incorrect, and you'll realize that comedy's not done to hurt anybody. You just take a perspective on life and then you move on."

In addition, Cassidy chided me for defending gays while callously overlooking the possibility that rednecks might be bothered by their portrayal, too. Hence, I apologize to all you rednecks--or, should I say, you educationally and culturally challenged Caucasian trailer dwellers--and urge anyone in this demographic group to phone the folks at Alice in order to express your righteous indignation. You'll be glad you did.

The summer festival season is upon us--but because these spectacles involve more than the average number of acts (and more than the average number of egos), they seldom run smoothly. A case in point is the Mile High Music Festival, which KBCO-FM/97.3 planned to present June 15 at Fiddler's Green. The folks in charge pulled off what appeared to be a major coup when longtime Who frontman Pete Townshend agreed to headline the bash. But after acts such as Joe Walsh and the BoDeans committed to play supporting roles at Fiddler's, Townshend backed out. As a result, the entire show has been canceled; refunds are available at point of purchase.

Things haven't gone quite as badly for promoter Al Kraizer's latest baby, the Denver Blues Festival, but there still have been a few bad breaks along the way. The event, which will take place May 31 and June 1, is an ambitious one, in part because Kraizer, the man behind the annual LoDo Music Fest, decided to stage it in the Golden Triangle area near Civic Center Park--a section of town with which some potential concertgoers may be unfamiliar. (Call 478-BLUE to receive complete, easy-to-follow directions.)

Fortunately, Kraizer was able to assemble an estimable lineup for the debut of this series of showcases, including Luther Allison, Francine Reed, Guitar Shorty, Kelly Joe Phelps and Johnny Clyde Copeland. The presence of this last artist, the so-called "Texas Twister" of the blues, was most intriguing of all, since his last trip to these parts, in 1994, nearly killed him. As Copeland, age sixty, told Westword contributor Linda Gruno earlier this month, "That altitude up there in Colorado was so high that I couldn't breathe when I got up in those mountains. But that kind of happens to a lot of folks when they come there, so even though I was getting sick, I didn't think it was that unusual. I was feeling bad, and that made it worse for me. It's hard up there--and that's when it happened."  

The "it" to which Copeland referred was a heart attack--a serious one. He was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that required a gizmo called an LVAD (left ventricular assist device). "That's a machine that they implant inside you," Copeland noted. "They hook it to your heart and it keeps the heart beating, but it's only a temporary thing. You aren't supposed to be on one for a long period."

Nevertheless, Copeland's heart was assisted by the LVAD for twenty months--a medical record, according to him. Then, on January 1, 1997, he received a heart transplant. When he awoke after the surgery, he said, "I felt good right away. Spending that time in there waiting, I realized how lots of people take everything, every day, for granted. And well, you know, I think it's good to be alive. I'm glad the technology was there." Still, he added, "I'm always scared. I'm scared right now. Hey, it's a scary situation. You'd have to be almost insane not to be afraid, because you can always have complications."

These words proved to be extremely prescient. Over the Memorial Day weekend, Kraizer received a call from one of Copeland's representatives informing him that health problems would prevent the singer/guitarist from appearing at the festival. "It's not life-threatening in any way," Kraizer explains about Copeland's condition. "But there is leakage in one of the valves. The heart came from a 35-year-old man and seemed to be in great shape, but with what's happening now, the doctors think the donor may have had rheumatic fever when he was younger. So that's what they're dealing with; they're giving Johnny anti-rejection drugs and keeping him under observation in the hopes that everything will work out."

This medical setback suddenly left Kraizer with no headliner for the fest's second day. But as luck would have it, there was an angel waiting in the wings: Lonnie Brooks. Kraizer had wanted the Alligator Records signee on the bill in the first place, but because Brooks had already promised to take the stage at a blues gala in Arkansas that weekend, his management said that he was unavailable. However, Brooks knows Copeland well, and when he heard about his colleague's plight, he stepped into the breach. Brooks and his band will finish their set in Arkansas on May 31, then drive for thirteen consecutive hours in order to reach Denver in time for the big show. "That's the real story here," Kraizer notes. "Lonnie Brooks is a good friend to have"--for Kraizer as well as for Copeland.

Larry Wilkins, who died of cancer on May 6, had a long association with Colorado music. He was born in Boulder and played in a series of popular area combos, including the Rondells, the Jaguars and King Louie and the Layman, described as "the best in their field" by the folks behind a roster of Colorado acts of the Sixties called The Boss Band Book. Wilkins went on to become a key member of the Freddi-Henchi Band (he was part of the outfit for seventeen years) and collaborated with everyone from Lannie Garrett and Chris Daniels to Denver-scene graduate Jill Sobule. During the Nineties he lived in Los Angeles and fronted a band of his own when not touring with Eric Burdon, former lead singer of the Animals. He was part of the supporting cast when Burdon played Denver in February; it was to be his final Colorado performance.

Burdon, Garrett, the Freddi-Henchi Band and many others pay tribute to Wilkins during a concert to benefit his family; it takes place Saturday, May 31, at the Blake Street Baseball Club. Donations are also being accepted: They can be sent to the Larry Wilkins Fund, c/o Jeannie Brown CPA, 6425 West Brown Place, Denver 80227.

Mike Elkerton is at it again. The onetime guitarist for Babihed and Electrolux and current frontman for Thee Lovely Lads, a collective he describes as "sophisti-punk," Elkerton is among those who've just put together a compilation disc spotlighting eighteen acts associated with one of Denver's most venerable original-music venues, Cricket on the Hill. Dubbed Superstars of Cricket on the Hill, the CD sports contributions from Babihed, Thee Lovely Lads, Hillbilly Hellcats, King Rat, Denver Joe, Fox Force 5, MK Ultra, the Throttlemen, Wanker, the Rock Advocates, the Capitol Hillbillies, Backspackle, Oscar, Dave Delacroix, Baggs Patrick, the Shrinking Violets, Half-Burnt Match and the late Jeff Dahl, profiled last year in these pages ("Dahl Parts," January 31, 1996). "We were originally going to make just a few copies for jukeboxes, like the one at the Cricket," Elkerton says. "But now we're actually going to press some copies for sale; you'll be able to get them at the Cricket, Wax Trax and a few other places." A concert to help finance the project takes place at--guess where--the Cricket on Saturday, May 31, with King Rat, Thee Lovely Lads, Backspackle and the reunited Fox Force 5 taking part.  

By the way, the main reason MK Ultra isn't involved in these festivities is that, in the words of lead singer Augy, "I'm still looking for a fucking drummer." If you're a timekeeper who fits this description, make Augy's day by calling him at 292-5692.

Unrelated fact. Brethren Fast is now being sponsored by Budweiser; it's one of forty bands in the Bud Family In-Concert program from across the country. Offer the Messina brothers a Michelob at their next show (Saturday, May 31, at Herman's Hideaway, alongside '76 Pinto) and they'll spit it in your face.

Maybe. On Thursday, May 29, Larry Coryell plays by his lonesome at the Fox Theatre, and Seraphim Shock joins Trance to the Sun and Scarlet Slipping at the Bluebird Theater. On Friday, May 30, Nuttstalk '97, starring Blowfly, John Frusciante and other folks with a tenuous grasp on sanity, hits the Ogden Theatre; Epitaph signee Total Chaos causes same at the 15th Street Tavern, with Blast-Off Heads; My Blind Alley plays for the first of two nights at the Rock Bottom Brewery; the Amazing Royal Crowns rock, rock, rock at the Bluebird; and the 8-Bucks Experiment hosts a record giveaway at Area 39--everyone through the door gets the band's new single at no additional charge. On Sunday, June 1, Robert Cray fishes at the Ogden.

One more thing. Michael Roberts's Jukebox, a feature of Westword online, is undergoing a facelift; Jukebox 2.0 will debut concurrent with the appearance of our June 5 issue. As a result, we're holding a clearance sale this week to dispose of all the old items that have been piling up around here. Over ten off-kilter sound samples and fourteen chunks of pop-cultural flotsam are only a click away. Curious about the address? Then look down.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com


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