As a cold rain fell in Boulder last night, I walked into eTown Hall for the first time since eTown relocated from the Boulder Theater in 2012. Shame on me for previously only passing by the show’s incredible new setting, inside a renovated church that originally opened in 1922. eTown started recording live performances and interviews with musicians in 1991, and generally hosts stereotypical adult-contemporary and Americana artists, drawing mostly an upper-class audience to its tapings, which are edited for subsequent broadcast via podcast and countless radio stations. Hosts Nick and Helen Forster do great community work, including talks with environmental heroes between acts, and Nick — an immensely talented guitarist — enlivens parts of every eTown taping by sitting in. But the couple’s show has historically featured a selection of musical guests that leaves a lot to be desired diversity-wise, especially in a country with such a huge variety of captivating original music.
So it was with significant excitement that I let my daughter, a five-year-old Heartless Bastards fan who is, of course, only permitted to say the band’s name at home, stay up late on a school night so that she could join me at eTown Hall for the unique Austin rockers’ first eTown appearance. Considering eTown’s typical musical selection — Brandi Carlisle and Grace Potter are about as “edgy” as the show usually gets — seeing Nick Forster interview Heartless Bastards frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom after the band's first set felt about as risqué as Bill Grundy’s infamous chat with the Sex Pistols.
As Wennerstrom, in a black leather vest over a black dress, took the stage to lead Heartless Bastards through blistering versions of “Gates of Dawn” and “Black Cloud” from the act's just-released fifth album, Restless Ones, she seemed amused at what must have been an out-of-the-ordinary situation for an internationally acclaimed, down-and-dirty indie quintet. eTown Hall — with its wondrously clear, rich, thick sound — is virtually all solar-powered, even its bar/cafe and recording studio; the seating capacity is 220 but feels smaller, and the sea of gray hair and white faces — an Asian-American woman was the sole minority I saw in the sold-out crowd — manifests an atmosphere that’s almost Pleasantville-esque.
Not to say that eTown Hall, billed as “the greenest music and media center in Colorado,” isn’t a remarkable place to see live music. The sound in the performance space is ridiculously “dialed-in,” as the saying goes, for the enjoyment of both the in-person crowd and the international radio and podcast audience. The high-quality live audio and video downstairs in the cafe — which serves alcoholic beverages, coffee and snacks — is also a nice touch, especially for journalists who need to take their kindergartners to the bathroom but want to miss as little of the show as possible.
However, one thing eTown lost in the move from the 850-capacity Boulder Theater to the intention-filled eTown Hall was the feeling that audience members are at a noteworthy concert that happens to be getting recorded. Last night it was tough to forget, for even a moment, that I was attending an in-studio taping: Sometimes this felt special, sometimes stale. Heartless Bastards, for their part, knocked “Gates of Dawn” and “Black Cloud” — with Wennerstrom’s strong, sweet, booming voice and Michael Weinel’s soaring lead guitar impressively filling the hall — out of the park before Wennerstrom sat down to be interviewed by Nick Forster.
Forster, whose high-class-dude voice and journalistic character parallel that of San Francisco Giants announcer Mike Krukow, asked Wennerstrom, an Ohio native, “Did you ever pay attention to Chrissie Hynde?” He also seemed to surprise Wennerstrom — who had just turned red straining what looked like her entire being as she held the longest notes of “Black Cloud” — by reminding her that she is baring her soul with earnest lyrics written for a band entrenched in the vibrant, competitive Austin music scene: “It’s kind of brave in a way, don’t you think?”
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“Well, we’re not in our twenties and we’re not millionaires,” Wennerstrom replied.
I was just as surprised that Forster didn’t bring up Naropa University’s forty-year-old Jack Kerouac School of creative writing, only a dozen blocks away, when Wennerstrom mentioned that “Tristessa,” from Restless Ones, was inspired by Kerouac’s novel of the same name. Instead, he concluded the interview with the rimshot-hopeful words, “Good luck on your restless way” before the Bastards got a couple heads bobbing with a loud, confident version of “Hi-Line.”
The night became more intriguing when Forster interviewed a local environmental scientist bent on harvesting protein from food waste, and uplifting when Nick and Helen (who sings) jammed with 71-year-old California-via-Mississippi bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, who has played with everyone from Muddy Waters to Tom Waits. Musselwhite plays harmonica like James Cotton — i.e., like a badass — and, before mesmerizing eTown with a solo vocal-and-electric-guitar performance of “Crying Won’t Help You,” had the line of the evening with “I just know one song: blues.”
It’s easy to poke fun at eTown, but the Forsters’ show is a vital part of Colorado’s place on the modern world map of music, not to mention a vital part of the Colorado entertainment industry’s place in environmental activism. If the internationally renowned radio show can make a habit of tempering its usual type of musical selections — Bob Schneider, Gregory Alan Isakov et al. — with more diversely interesting acts (especially interesting to people under forty), perhaps the sea of faces at eTown tapings, and, in turn, around Boulder, might become more diverse, too.