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For years, Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass has been considered one of the local bands most likely to sign with a major label and burst into national prominence--but it's not going to happen. After shows at Denver's Bluebird Theater and Boulder's Fox Theatre on Friday, April 10, and Thursday, April 23, respectively, the group's members, led by rapper Theo Smith, aka Lord of Word, will be going their separate ways.

On the surface, the reasons for the split add up to a typical local story in which a combo becomes a big draw in Denver but is unable to reach the next level of popularity. However, things are a bit more complicated than that. The band has spent much of the past two years on the road, and in the process has built up sizable followings in San Francisco, San Diego and a number of other cities. Moreover, the act's booking firm, the powerful Tahoe Agency, never lost faith in the act; to the contrary, representatives wanted the musicians to tour even more energetically. But when label interest that was generated by showcases at the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles and a Las Vegas date opening for James Brown added up to little more than casual compliments and hot air, exhaustion set in. Finally, according to bassist John Hamala, "Theo called a meeting and said he was really tired and that he felt like he'd lost the feeling you need to have. He wanted to call it quits."

Smith isn't quite as explicit about his reasoning. "It's just something that I've kind of been contemplating for a few months and talking myself out of," he says. "But I ended up deciding that I should take a break, save some money, buy some equipment and maybe even put together my own label and release music on that. I guess I just wanted to have a little more control over things and oversee things a little bit closer. But there's no animosity between the members of the band or anything. It's just something that I felt I needed to do."

The Disciples of Bass have undergone a myriad of lineup changes since the band's formation in 1992; Smith estimates that 37 musicians and dancers have been part of the ensemble over the years. Notable players such as drummer Count D and guitarist Maurice Avatar, who were on board when Westword first profiled the collective ("Word of Mouth," July 28, 1993), eventually gave way to Hamala and ax-man Tim Miller, both previously with the late, lamented Jonez, and keyboardist Jeff Lipton, a onetime part of Love Lies. But despite such membership shifts, the band never lost its local following. It won Westword Music Awards Showcase prizes during each of the event's first two years and earned solid reviews for Positive, a CD that hit stores last year.

Behind the scenes, though, the situation was more erratic. Promoter Bill Bass signed on to oversee the group, but Hamala says the musicians abandoned him when another manager he declines to identify offered to take them under his wing. Unfortunately, these plans soon fell through, leaving Smith and company on their own. The agreement with the Tahoe Agency provided a timely boost, but it also created additional pressure. "We would do two or three weeks at a time every couple of months," Hamala notes, "and that wasn't enough for them. But because the band is so big, touring was expensive. I was the road manager and did all the finances, so I can tell you that we made money at home. But even though we got good crowds on tour, we didn't make anything. And that was hard when you'd be out there playing sixteen shows in sixteen days in sixteen different places, especially if the routing wasn't right. Sometimes we'd get into a place, load, play and get to sleep at two or three in the morning, then have to be up at six in order to make a ten-hour drive to the next place. In some ways, that's typical of what bands have to go through, but for someone like me, who's been doing it for eleven years, it gets to be kind of a drag."

These experiences have convinced Hamala to try on a normal life for size; he's accepted a job at a family business in Dallas and plans to relocate there soon. Doing so will allow him to spend more time with his wife and 22-month-old daughter, Madison. But at the same time, he's already gotten in touch with the musicians in Hellafied Funk Crew, a Denver act now headquartered in Dallas, and expects that he'll be back on a stage before long. "I was with the Jonez for eight years and thought they'd get signed, too, so this has been a really harsh dejà vu for me," he allows. "But the music is part of me, and I know I'll be doing it again."  

Other Disciples are casting about locally for opportunities; don't be surprised if Miller, Lipton and their bandmates wind up in new outfits shortly. As for Smith, he makes it clear that retirement is not on his mind. "I'll probably be going back into the studio before the summer is over," he says. "And I think doing everything will give me a chance to challenge myself a little more. I think I have the ability to do it musically and business-wise--to maybe do a little Ani DiFranco kind of thing."

Looking back on the six years of his band's life, Smith concedes that "there's a few things that we've done that I probably would have done differently. For one thing, I definitely consider myself more of a rapper than a singer, so I might have gone in a more acid-jazz, hip-hop direction. But I really liked all the stuff that we did musically, and I don't regret at all working with any of the people who were in the band."

A few Disciples vets are expected to guest at the upcoming farewell dates, including ubiquitous drummer Kenny James and Kyle Comerford, now with the Reejers. But Smith is certain that the gatherings won't be melancholy. "This isn't the end," he says. "It's the beginning. I'm going to carry on, and I expect everyone else will, too."

The bashes taking place on Friday and Saturday, April 9 and 10, at Cricket on the Hill are celebrations of a different sort. The venerable establishment, located at 1209 East Thirteenth Avenue, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with a pair of bills stuffed to overflowing. The first night, acts on the schedule include Dirty Pool, Wanker, Product 626 and a secret special guest, while the next evening is set to feature Monica Augustine, the Baggs Patrick Band, Rhino 2 Rhino and Cosmic Pond. Proceeds from the shows will be given to a charity designated by the attendees, who'll get a copy of the fine CD Superstars of the Cricket on the Hill simply for walking in the door.

The man behind the festivities is Thom Salturelli, who bought the venue in April 1978, two years after moving to Denver from his native Michigan in order to effect a major change in lifestyle. "I had an MBA in marketing from Michigan State, and I was making good money at General Electric; I was a sales manager in the plastics division," he says. "But I was in my twenties, I was single, I used to party all the time, and I didn't want to be one of those guys who get to be about 40 or 45 and then get shoved off in a corner. So I wanted to try something new--and since I spent so much time in bars, I figured that I could do a good job running one."

The first joint Salturelli purchased was the Cherry Cricket in Cherry Creek, which he ran until 1990. Then, in 1977, he bought Doc Weed's, at 16th and Lawrence--and although he sold that establishment in 1981, its legacy lives on at Cricket on the Hill. The reason? Doc Weed's featured music by acts such as Ron Henry, Lannie Garrett and the Freddi-Henchi Band, and Salturelli enjoyed booking them so much that he resolved to carry on the tradition at the Cricket.

Previously called the Lighthouse, Cricket on the Hill was "just a little neighborhood bar," Salturelli remembers. "It basically catered to old-timers. It used to open at seven in the morning. You had guys in here with coffee and shots." Salturelli cleaned it up and turned it into an original-music room: "No cover bands for us," he says. The club started featuring live music every night in 1980 and quickly became known for giving up-and-coming acts their start. For instance, Big Head Todd and the Monsters played their first Denver show at the Cricket and were regulars there until they moved over to a larger place, Herman's Hideaway. Salturelli also fondly remembers a night in 1989 when Bo Diddley dropped by to play. "That was the best music I ever heard here," he says.

During the early Nineties, however, Salturelli concluded that the Cricket's musical approach was growing stale. To mix things up, he took over the booking himself and instituted multi-band nights with a hard-rock edge. Although neighbors sometimes say otherwise, he denies that focusing on this brand of music draws a rough crowd. "This is a residential neighborhood," he points out. "We try to keep everything quiet outside, and for the most part, we do. There's a house right behind my parking lot, and I never get any complaints."  

These days, Bryan Woodard, who began working at the Cricket five years ago, handles day-to-day management. His approach to booking echoes Salturelli's. "I prefer to go with all-original music," he says. "You can throw a couple of covers in there if you want, but that's about it. Tom told me one time, 'You should give everybody a chance. If they have the balls to get up on that stage, they deserve a chance with their own music.'" Most of the artists who play at the space rock as hard as they possibly can, but Woodard also likes to let folks who specialize in other genres step behind the microphone. Longtime Cricket fixture Denver Joe, for instance, plays his inimitable variation on country music the second and fourth Mondays of each month, and singer-songwriters sometimes turn up on other nights. As for Sundays, they're reserved for an open stage hosted by Baggs Patrick. This forum is something of a farm system for the Cricket, Woodard says: "Someone will do well there and we'll give them a Tuesday night. And before long, they could be on Fridays and Saturdays and drawing big crowds. It's great."

Salturelli doesn't plan any big changes for the Cricket as it enters its third decade of existence. "Bryan has pleaded with me to let him book some semi-national acts," he reveals. "But I said I don't want them in here, because I can't have lines out front. The neighbors would go nuts." But then, he admits, "I probably have held the place down. I could have expanded it and made a big club out of it, and it might have done better. But I guess I like it just the way it is. And I think I've done all right. We've done live, original music seven nights a week for eighteen years--and I don't think anyone else in this town can say that."

The Association for Independent Music (AFIM) will hold its annual convention in Denver May 13-17; hundreds of indie labels, distributors, retailers and suppliers will be represented at the bash. Locally, the Rocky Mountain Music Association is in charge of rounding up people to assist with registration, pre-conference preparation, badge-checking and the like. In exchange for doing so, volunteers will receive a one-day pass to panels and workshops that's valued at more than $200. More info can be had by calling 623-6910.

Operators are standing by. On Thursday, April 9, Baxx's Funkus Groovus performus at Herman's, with the Novembers and My Blind Alley. On Friday, April 10, Tequila Mockingbird, joined by new bassist Jerry Lentini, intoxicates at Herman's; the Murder City Devils move in for the kill at the 15th Street Tavern, with Hell's Half Acre and the Chokers; and the Heptals get hep at CU-Boulder's Club 156. On Saturday, April 11, Branford Marsalis improvises at the Boulder Theater, and cult faves the Silver Apples are appealing at the Bug. On Sunday, April 12, Splitter takes separate paths to the Fox Theatre, with Whores, Pigs and Ponies and Juhl. On Monday, April 13, Plankeye sees all at Crossroads Church, 9725 West 50th Avenue. And on Tuesday, April 14, King Diamond displays his many facets at the Aztlan Theatre, with Pitbull Daycare. Woof.

--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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