Our hard-hitting media colleagues have spent the past several days eulogizing John Denver, who died in a plane crash last weekend at the age of 53, not as a drunk driver and a gasoline hoarder, but as an environmental activist and a boon to Colorado tourism, and that's fine; I hope when I'm in the ground, folks will overlook my screwups, too. However, it was Denver's music that made the biggest impact on my life--and I must confess to hating it with undiluted purity. As a native of this state, I was subjected to his noxious warbling from an early age, and long before I was in this line, I resented the fact that far-flung listeners associated my home with him. Moreover, the passage of time hasn't improved the quality of his work: To me, his lyrics remain as drippy as a tarpaper shack in the path of Hurricane Pauline, and his piercing yodel of a voice makes the flesh on the back of my neck bunch up like a tumor. But while I may have fantasized about his being struck mute a time or two, I never wished for him to join the Calypso in the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau. Even I'm not that mean.
In the October 2 edition of this column, I noted that the members of Sweet Water Well had announced their intention to break up from the stage at the Bluebird Theater, where they were accepting a prize in conjunction with the third annual Westword Music Awards. This week, allow Tony Achilles, a singer and guitarist with the band, to give you some insight into the move.
"Really, what happened was that I started to realize that we weren't particularly going in the right direction with our career," he says. "It just occurred to me that the band's music may have been great, and the way we were doing it was great, too. But since it wasn't helping us to achieve our personal goals, I approached the band and told them how I felt--and I told them that I thought we should try some other avenues in our lives as opposed to Sweet Water Well."
This comment sounds firmer than it actually turned out to be. Achilles first considered making such a statement in April of this year, when Sweet Water Well (which also includes David Jackson, Molly Bowers and Chris Helvey) was in the midst of touring Texas. Upon the outfit's return, Achilles wrote his fellows a letter noting his concerns. The band subsequently sat out the entire month of May in order to mull over the ramifications of a split, after which it was more or less agreed to abandon the Well. But when opportunities for shows came up, the players took them--and in an interview for the Westword Music Awards Showcase guide, which appeared in our September 18 issue, Achilles pussyfooted around the issue of calling it quits. "We're tapping other resources, so that when we come back together, we'll all have fresh ideas," he said at the time.
Today Achilles insists he wasn't fibbing. Rather, he was vacillating. "I'm so sentimental, and Sweet Water Well provides such a sense of comfort for me that it was really easy for me to say, 'Okay, let's do a few more gigs,' and so on. But if we're still playing, we're all still living with Sweet Water Well--and that makes it even harder to leave it. I haven't been able to pick up a guitar without becoming confused and frustrated.
"This band has been going since I was a teenager," he continues. "David and I started playing together in late 1988, and we started playing out in 1989. That's a lot of time, and over the years the band has really developed such a distinct sound and personality. But people change, and it's hard for a group to change with the people. When the band was fresh for me, I was hearing David Wilcox and James Taylor and loving it so much. But now there are a lot of different styles of music that are turning me on--things like Morphine and 16 Horsepower and Digable Planets. And with Sweet Water Well so established, it's been hard for me to incorporate different kinds of things into the sound. It was limiting, and I knew it--which is why I finally decided that I had to do something."
Complicating the situation was Sweet Water Well's relationship with Denver's Alley Records, which had just ordered another pressing of Watermelon, the band's 1996 CD, prior to the dropping of the Bluebird bombshell. "The people at the Alley are shocked. They're really the victims in this, because the timing of it couldn't be worse," Achilles concedes. "I'm not sure how everything will be worked out with them. We had a one-record contract with an option to do a second record--and since we're not going to be together, obviously they won't pick it up. But they've got another thousand copies of the CD, and they're worried that the sales will die if word gets out." He adds, "It's worth saying, though, that the record is still available--and that it's a great record and worth having."
At this point, it's impossible to know where the instrumentalists will land. Bowers has already created a new group, Molly Universe, and Helvey is drumming with Zeut and overseeing an open stage on Sundays at Market 41, while Achilles and Jackson are currently weighing their options. But all four remain committed to a Sweet Water Well goodbye show, tentatively scheduled to take place before year's end; watch this space for details. In the meantime, they are trying to prepare themselves for a world without Sweet Water Well. "Some people are more comfortable with it than others, but everybody accepts it equally," Achilles says. "Right now, it isn't exactly natural for us to be together. It's like we've been in a four-way marriage, and suddenly we're separated. But I expect that to fade. We're all ready to move on."
Good news: This column may be the last one for a while to include info about a key employee at Fey Concerts bolting in the wake of the firm's sale to Los Angeles-based Universal Concerts. Why? Because with the departure last week of Jesse Morreale, a booker who was brought aboard last June, almost all of them are already gone.
Morreale was enjoying success with Gess Presents, a promotions company of his own, when Fey Concerts' Barry Fey snapped him up. (Fey, who sold his portion of the firm a couple of months back, had a long history of eliminating his competitors by hiring them.) He subsequently worked on the 1996 and 1997 Summer of Stars schedule and booked an impressively large percentage of dates on the Fey/Universal calendar; by his count, he was responsible for setting up 17 of the 25 dates Universal has scheduled through the remainder of 1997. But at the same time, he kept Gess alive by booking concerts independently--and he's happy he did, because soon after Universal took complete control of the Denver operation, he realized that he didn't much like the way things were done at the company.
"The process by which you have to work with a large corporation like them is by its nature kind of anti-effective in booking clubs," Morreale says. "You have to be pretty quick, and an organization like this isn't quick. When Barry was here, I was working with a little more autonomy, but Universal doesn't necessarily share this management style. That's a big part of why I'm leaving. Besides, by my nature, I'm an independent person. Having run my own company for eight years, I'm used to being able to make a certain number of decisions myself, and I didn't feel I could be either effective or happy in an environment with that many constraints."
By the same token, Morreale swears that his parting is relatively amicable, and the fact that he made the aforementioned remarks from his office at Universal, where he was allowed to remain until securing office space of his own, tends to support this claim. He's also agreed to supervise the dates he's booked with Universal into November. According to him, rumors that he's planning to go head-to-head with Universal are overstated. "Hopefully I'll be able to carve out a little niche of my own," he says.
If Morreale's local competitors see his return to full-time indie status as threatening, they're not letting on. Dan Steinberg of To Be Announced Presents claims to be happy about the change: "Jesse will be buying the same shows, but he won't be buying with the type of money he used to have or all the power he had when he was with Fey," he says. "Actually, it's kind of a nice thing for me, because Jesse's back to square one. And he may have some hard times ahead with the agencies. They'll say to him, 'Hey, before you said it was better that we dealt with you because you were independent. Then you said it was better that we dealt with you because you were with Fey. Now you say it's better that you're independent again. Make up your mind.'"
For his part, Morreale envisions no obstacles of the sort Steinberg outlines. "I've spoken with pretty much all the agents that I work with in the nation, and I've gotten a very positive response. I was surprised, frankly, by the number of agents who said, 'We didn't figure you'd stick around this long.'" He adds, "We've built up some good relationships with a lot of bands, like Pantera and Oasis, and I think some of the other bands that we've booked over the past couple of years, like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, have the potential to grow. And I'm hoping a lot of them will stick with me."
Doug Kauffman, who owns nobody in particular presents, expects that many of them will: "This is a business of relationships," he claims. "Loyalty matters." But Kauffman also understands that in order to survive, promoters need to adjust to new realities. "When Jesse was an independent, we were cohorts. And then when he was working for a major company, he was trying to put me out of business. And now, suddenly, it's bingo--'Let's work together again.'" Kauffman confirms that he's already received calls from Morreale proposing the very sort of co-promotes that were forbidden in his Fey/Universal days, and that's fine with him. "I said, 'Fine. You betcha.' I have a very pro-business concept."
So does Morreale--and he believes this sense was sharpened during his time with Fey/ Universal. "I gained a wider knowledge from being there of some things that maybe I wouldn't have learned on my own, like how to deal with large facilities like Fiddler's Green. But those kinds of things aren't going to be my focus. I won't be trying to book Michael Bolton and Tina Turner. I'm just going back to the streets. That's what I'm most interested in doing."
Synergy, a local jazz label formed in January, has been growing rapidly: It's already released several fine recordings, including Speak Low, by the Paul Warburton Quartet, and When Kentucky Was Indiana, by the Russian Dragon Band, featuring Art Lande. This week the label steps forward with more intriguing items--fresh discs by the Primal Mates Trio and the duo of Lande and Mark Miller, plus an enhanced reissue of an offering by Aubrey Carton. These artists and others appear on Friday, October 18, in Denver, and Saturday, October 19, in Boulder (see the Hit Pick on page 102 for complete venue information); Synergy chieftan Mike Fitts thinks jazz fans will like what they hear. "I see what we're doing as being very eclectic--a cross between ECM and the Knitting Factory Works," he says, adding, "We want to let people know that there's new music being made by people in Colorado who are world-class talents and that this is music that they can take home."
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You might be able to take home some of the following musicians, too--but be sure to ask first. On Friday, October 17, Everclear makes an in-store appearance at Tower Records; Atlanta's own Shawn Mullins stops by Acoustic Coffee in Nederland; Cliff Eberhardt warbles at the Swallow Hill Music Hall; Dirty Pool is skimmed at Soapy Smith's; the Mr. T Experience and the Groovie Ghoulies share their favorite television moments at the Fox Theatre; J. Frede gets industrial at the 26 Broadway warehouse space (call 744-9659 to learn more); and Martha's Wake swells at the Market Street Lounge. On Saturday, October 18, Clay Kirkland blows harp at the Swallow Hill Music Hall, and Lonesome Dan Kase appears for his regular Saturday night showcase at the Taj Mahal, 777 17th Street. On Monday, October 20, the Cramps suffer at the Ogden Theatre. On Tuesday, October 21, the Slackers take it easy at the Bluebird Theater; Thee Lovely Lads look their best at Cricket on the Hill, with Jetland; Carolyn's Mother and Turnsol remove their plugs at Herman's Hideaway; and John March and the Circuitbreakers play the first of two free shows at the Fox. And on Wednesday, October 22, Huffamoose ambles into the Ogden alongside Toad the Wet Sprocket. Sounds like an episode of Wild Kingdom to me.