Dick Weissman, who's lived in Denver since 1972, is a performer, the chairman of the music and entertainment studies department at the University of Colorado-Denver, and an author of several books, including The Folk Music Sourcebook (with Larry Sandberg), Music-Making in America and The Music Business: Career Opportunities and Self-Defense, a new edition of which was published by New York's Three Rivers Press in 1997. As such, he's got deep roots in Denver music--but that doesn't mean he's blind to the scene's shortcomings. Making a Living in Your Local Music Market: How to Survive and Prosper, a Hal Leonard publication that's scheduled to arrive in stores on July 15, updates a tome that first appeared in 1989, and among the additions is a chapter titled "A Tale of Two Cities." In it, Weissman contrasts Denver with Seattle, attempting to explain why the latter exploded musically earlier this decade while the former has barely made a blip on the national radar screen. His arguments may not be easy for Colorado boosters to hear, but Weissman isn't one to pussyfoot around. "It just hasn't happened for us," he says. "And there are a lot of reasons for that."
The factors Weissman touches on don't have anything to do with talent; he believes that there are plenty of gifted musicians living and working in these parts. Instead, he focuses on matters of infrastructure that he sees as necessary for a self-sustaining scene to develop. Seattle, he notes, has a number of first-rate studios; locally based, nationally known musicians such as Bill Frisell and Peter Buck who are active in the community; and homegrown producers, lawyers, managers and power brokers who have the ears of folks at music companies on the coasts. And Denver? "There isn't a single major studio here that's still around from when I first got to town," Weissman says, "and there aren't any producers here who the labels see as capable of executing a major record. We also lack independent labels as strong as Sub-Pop and the kind of celebrity musicians who might attract attention--and we come up short in the business area, too. Chuck Morris is very credible, but in L.A., Chuck would be a very small player, while here, he's king of the heap. That's not to say anything against him, but to have a scene like this work, you need at least half a dozen people on his level--managers and entertainment lawyers who are considered players in those big towns, and who can get their phone calls returned. And they just aren't here.
"There are also problems that are unique to Denver--like the geography situation," Weissman continues. "There are no major markets within 500 miles of Denver, whereas Portland, Vancouver and Seattle are really considered to be one market. And that's not to mention population. If Denver had a population of five million, it could break records on its own, but right now it can't. And the radio situation is also a major impediment. There are no commercial radio stations that have really embraced local music, and until just recently, there hasn't been any college radio at all--and the new Boulder station [KVCU-AM/1190] hasn't made much of an impact yet. And Denver doesn't have any widely read newspapers or magazines like The Rocket that are fundamentally devoted to music." Finally, in Weissman's opinion, Denver seems to lack a certain indefinable spirit that helps scenes coalesce: "I once wrote about something that happened in Memphis; a studio was doing a major project and didn't have enough microphones, so they called someone at another studio and the guy said, 'Let us bring some more over'--and they did. I can't imagine that happening here."
Given the number of strikes Weissman calls against Denver, a couple of obvious questions arise: One, is Denver forever doomed to be a musical backwater? And two, why would any musician in his right mind try to establish a career in such a forbidding place? In answering the first query, Weissman points to the example of Minneapolis. "There, you had Prince getting a record deal when he was 17, becoming a big star, and coming back to Minneapolis to build a studio and start a label--and then two guys he fired, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, became killer producers. Boom, you've got a scene, and all it needed were those three people. That could happen here, too, just like it happened there. We just haven't been that lucky."
As for the second issue, Weissman feels that each performer needs to carefully consider his goals before deciding which path to take. "I try to get musicians to look at who they are and what they want," he says. "In other words, you might feel a lot more comfortable and secure in Denver than you would fighting the game in the big city. Maybe if you stay in Denver, you might manage not to be married fourteen times and take so many drugs that by the age of fifty, you don't even remember your own name. And if you can find a niche for yourself, you might be able to make a nice career for yourself in a place you want to be."
This last comment seems to describe Weissman's particular path. In the early Sixties, he was a member of the Journeymen, a popular folk act that included John Phillips, who would go on to lead the Mamas and the Papas, and Scott McKenzie, the man behind the hit single "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," which was written and produced by Phillips. For his part, Weissman, a banjoist by trade, became a valued New York session player; after his move to Denver, he turned up on numerous recordings, including Reflections, an impressive solo effort issued last year on Illinois's Folk Era imprint. But he's become restless of late, and at present, he's planning to finish up one more year at UCD and then move from Colorado to Astoria, Oregon, a community at the mouth of the Columbia River 95 miles northwest of Portland. He insists that his motives for doing so are only peripherally related to his opinion of the music environment in Denver.
"Denver is becoming so congested and the real-estate stuff around here is so motivated by greed that it's making me uncomfortable," he says. "Oregon is more convivial to my tastes and interests these days; I much prefer walking on the beach to being stuck in traffic. And after this year, I'll have completed ten years of teaching--and although I like teaching, I'm really committed to writing books about music and playing. I want to tour Europe and do some other things like that, and there's no way I could do them if I was still teaching full time."
Until then, Weissman will be heavily involved with a new multimedia venture at UCD set to bow this fall with the release of a compact disc filled with material written, performed, produced and/or engineered by students. He and Roy Pritts, head of audio engineering at the school, served as "quality control" on the album, and he talks in glowing terms about the musicians who helped make it. But if the theories in Weissman's new book are correct, they probably shouldn't hold their breath waiting for the album to go platinum--unless they get out of Denver, that is.
And now, check out some recordings by area musicians who haven't given up the ghost quite yet.
Locals know that saxophonist Nelson Rangell has legitimate chops, but he doesn't get much of a chance to show them off on Always, his debut for the Shanachie imprint. Producer David Mann, who wrote or co-wrote ten of the twelve songs here, makes certain that the recording never breaches the boundaries of the smooth-jazz genre: "Starlight," "I Will, I Do" and "Nana's Song," among others, are pretty in a notably empty way, like the score to a made-for-cable romance that's more of a sleep aid than a time-passer. Most disappointing of all is "Oh, the Places You'll Go," which was supposedly inspired by the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. After listening to the tune coast aimlessly for six long minutes, the place I most wanted to go to was a medical supply store so I could buy some smelling salts (available in area music stores). T.R.U.T.H.--an acronym for truerealityundoesthehatred--is a Wyoming act that traveled south to Fort Collins's Blasting Room studio to record its eight-song debut, Deadspeak. The songs are a blend of death metal and Korn-like rap rage, but the words don't go in for the usual disembowelings and suicidal tendencies: Indeed, "Rise" ("Drop all the self-pity, damaging excuses, and all your fucking blames") is actually something of a pep talk--or, more accurately, a pep scream. It's a potentially interesting combination, but despite the effective production of Bill Stevenson, of All and the Descendents, predictable music and Cookie Monster vocals prevent the majority of the disc from appealing to anyone beyond the previously committed (TruthWY@NETSCAPE.NET).
BLUE PLANET, BY SUNDANCE & MUSIC IN BLUE, IS BLUES THAT'S ON THE SLICK SIDE DUE IN PART TO THE SMOOTH VOCALIZING OF W.H. DUNSTON. BUT DUNSTON'S TIDY GUITAR LEADS AND THE STRONG MUSICIANSHIP OF SUPER-DRUMMER SKIP REEVES, BASSIST CALVIN JACOBS AND KEYBOARDIST RICARDO PENA KEEP THINGS LISTENABLE. A LOT OF THE MATERIAL IS PEDESTRIAN, BUT "DANCER" AND "GROOVIN' LATIN STYLE" ARE SOULFUL INSTRUMENTALS, AND "THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS TRUE LOVE" HAS A FINGER-POPPING, STREET-CORNER FLAIR THAT WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO STICK AROUND FOR A WHILE (SUNDANCE & MIB, P.O. BOX 153, WHEAT RIDGE, CO 80034-0153). WADING IN, BY DAVID & GOLASHES, SETS "TWIST MY ARM," "TALK RADIO" AND OTHER SUPPOSEDLY WRY SINGER-SONGWRITER STUFF FROM THE PEN OF BANDMEMBER BOB LAUGHLIN ALONGSIDE COVERS OF CHESTNUTS SUCH AS "COME TOGETHER," "SEASON OF THE WITCH" AND "MACK THE KNIFE." THE DISC WON'T CAUSE YOUR EARS TO BLEED, BUT NEITHER IS IT ESPECIALLY COMPELLINGo Most of it sounds like your parents and some of their musically inclined friends strumming in the living room after sneaking one too many joints. The only surprise is that they actually went to the trouble of recording it (Bob Laughlin, 303-744-1737).
The subtitle to Scott Brannon's CD Expedition--"Adventures on Hammer Dulcimer"--definitely triggered my flight instinct, and my instincts were accurate. The disc is a trip to a new age in which this longtime Boulderite's considerable skill on his ancient instrument of choice is used to salute the loveliness of nature. I didn't mind "Wink," which occasionally hints at jazz, but airs such as "She Promised Me Rainbows" and "Unanswered Questions" didn't exactly inspire me to go shopping for crystals. To me, mountain streams are just as beautiful when I'm spinning the OutKast as they are when I listen to stuff like this--but guess which one makes me happier (scottydob@AOL.COM). BRANNON IS LISTED AS THE CO-PRODUCER OF DUE FOR A CHANGE BY LOCAL SINGER-SONGWRITER MICHAEL JOHN, AND HE PLAYS DRUMS ON THE FULL-LENGTH AS WELL. BUT JOHN'S OFFERING PLANTS ITS FLAG SMACK DAB IN THE SEVENTIES, WHEN SINGER-SONGWRITERS WHO ROCKED A LITTLE BUT NOT A LOT COULD GET ON THE RADIO. "EMPTY HOLE" AND "THE KISS OF DEATH" HAVE A CERTAIN J.J. CALE FEEL, AND "BABY CAN'T HELP IT" AND "WHEN LOVE WAS NEW" MANAGE TO AVOID SAPPINESS FOR THE MOST PART. STILL, THERE'S SO LITTLE NEW AND FRESH ON CHANGE THAT BEFORE LONG, I FOUND MYSELF EAGER TO MAKE ONE--BY PUTTING A NEW CD IN MY BOOM BOX (MJoEVERSONIC.COM).
THE THUG LIFE MAY BE ON THE WANE IN THE EYES OF THE MAINSTREAM PRESS, BUT IT STILL SELLS--AND THAT'S WHAT MAK BROWN, WHO GOES BY THE HANDLE FATAL INSTINCT, IS BANKING ON. HE'S FORMED HIS OWN LABEL, ON-HIT RECORDS, AND HE'S SO FIXATED ON THE BENJAMINS THAT THE LINER OF HIS FIRST DISC, ONE NATION UNDER PLAYA'S & PIMPS, INCLUDES AN ORDER FORM FOR ON-HIT MERCHANDISE--WHICH, BY MY RECKONING, IS A FIRST FOR A LOCALLY PRODUCED DISC (BROWN SPLITS HIS TIME BETWEEN DENVER AND L.A., BUT HIS COMPANY IS BASED HERE). "RULES OF THE GAME" SETS THE TONE WITH RHYMES LIKE "BEWARE OF THESE BITCHES TRYIN' TO CLOCK YOUR RICHES" AND THE SOUND OF GUNS BLASTING SQUEALING PIGS; LATER, "HOOKER STREET" AND "PAPER CHASE," CO-STARRING NYKE LOC, CHAMPION MISOGYNY AND GREED RATHER THAN REPUDIATING THEM. BROWN ATTEMPTS TO OFFSET SUCH PISSING CONTESTS WITH "LOOKIN BACK ON MY LIFE," A SENSITIVITY SHOWCASE WITH A CAMEO BY RICHEE BENSON OF ROSE ROYCE, AND "LET A G BE A FATHER," A PLEA TO THE MOTHER OF HIS CHILD TO ALLOW HIM TO SEE HIS SPAWN EVEN THOUGH HE HAS NO INTENTION OF TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF. OVERALL, THOUGH, ONE NATION IS GANGSTA BY THE NUMBERS. FATAL INSTINCT HAS A STRONG PRESENCE AND A COMPELLING FLOW, AND THE DISC'S SONICS ARE WAY ABOVE AVERAGE, BUT HE ISN'T SAYING ANYTHING THAT HASN'T BEEN SAID MANY TIMES BEFORE (ON-HIT RECORDS, P.O. BOX 998, WESTMINSTER, CO 80030). FAR BETTER IN MY VIEW IS MENTAL.SEED, A CASSETTE THAT'S MORE OR LESS A COLLECTIVE PROJECTo SEVEN PERFORMERS, WHO ARE LISTED ONLY BY THEIR FIRST NAMES, OFFER UP NINE HIP-HOP EFFORTS AND A SINGLE ROCK SONG, "DON'T WALK AWAY." THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO WILL BE IMPRESSED BY THE TAPE'S SOUND QUALITY ARE THOSE WITH A SECRET FONDNESS FOR HISS, BUT THE SLY, SLINKY MOOD OF THE TUNES IS BRACING ANYHOW. "FELL FOR YOU" AND "I THOUGHT YOU LOVED ME," CREDITED TO URSULA AND CHRIS, ARE SPARE AND SEDUCTIVE, "OUT BY 4," BY CHRIS, DESEAN AND D-FLAT IS SMOOCH-RAP OF A HIGH ORDER, AND A TRIO OF DESEAN SOLO TURNS ("HEADS UP," "WHAT THE DEAL" AND "PUPPET STRINGS") GET HARD WITHOUT GETTING STUPID. THE TALENT IS RAW, BUT IT'S THERE--MAKING MENTAL.SEED AN INTRODUCTION TO PERFORMERS WORTH HEARING (OMACI ENTERTAINMENT, 303-367-9531).
ARMCHAIR MARTIAN ISN'T TRYING TO DODGE ITS INSPIRATIONSo On the promo copy of Hang, on Ted, its latest for San Diego's Cargo Music, reviews mentioning HYsker DY, Social Distortion and Soul Asylum are proudly reproduced. Other influences crop up as well on the CD--"Tomorrow's Over" recalls, surprisingly, early R.E.M., "PS 403" nods to Bruce Springsteen circa Nebraska, and "Statler #3" calls fuzz-tone Wilco to mind. Such branching out is actually a good sign: It means that Jon Snodgrass and his fellows are expanding their palette, which previously was quite limited. If this process continues, it could soon be possible to appreciate Armchair Martian for its own attributes, and not for its skill at homage (available in area music stores). Paul Trunko, a member of the Keepers, is also a dad, which helps explain his latest, Jammy Man: Acoustic Music for Kids.... The album isn't nearly as obnoxious as a lot of children's music--parents probably won't be applying for concealed-carry permits after hearing "Rock-A-Doos (The Rough House Blues)" and a heartfelt medley of "America the Beautiful/This Land Is Your Land." But "Good Nap" is just the sort of thing that makes most kids stage sleep strikes, and I'm doubtful that the crawling instructions in "Loopy Doops" will help turn many infants into toddlers. They might do me some good, though (Jammyman@juno.com).
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The Naropa Institute celebrates its 25th anniversary with a Saturday, July 17, performance at Chautauqua Auditorium by minimalism godfather Philip Glass, previously profiled in these pages ("A Glass Act," October 18, 1995). Joining Glass will be Anne Waldman, Bill Douglas, Mark Miller and other people who've got the Beat.
If Allen Ginsberg wasn't already dead, that joke would have killed him. On Thursday, July 15, Orbit Service is available at Cricket on the Hill, with the Faders, and Heavy Meadow lightens up at the West End Tavern. On Friday, July 16, Stupid Human Tricks acts up at the Raven, with Qualm, Ophil and 5 Day Messiah, and Kenny Rankin flowers at the Denver Botanic Gardens Outdoor Amphitheater. On Sunday, July 18, teen country dream Lila McCann warbles at the Grizzly Rose. On Monday, July 19, Toots and the Maytals brings a bit of funky Kingston to the Fox Theatre, and Kula Shaker rattles and rolls at the Bluebird Theater. And on Tuesday, July 20, the Social Chaos Tour, featuring T.S.O.L., creates havoc at the Aztlan Theatre, and the Kinsey Report is delivered at Brendan's. Intended for mature audiences only.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@.