He's Still Standing
It's a cold Saturday night in Arvada, the kind of frosty evening that keeps all but the most die-hard live music fans at home. But inside Mr. B's Roadhouse -- a neighborhood temple of sports, rock and roll and drinking culture -- a handful of music patrons and barflies have braved the elements for a sonic fix. When Trace Christensen, tonight's main attraction, peels off the opening guitar riff to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy," he turns what looked to be a quiet night on its ear. As bass, drums and guitars roar out of the speakers framing the stage, the folks in front smile in appreciation. Christensen (who plays under the abbreviated "Trace" moniker) sings the song in a clear but soulful voice while running through some dead-on Stevie Ray maneuvers on his guitar. A few bars later he unleashes a thermal, 36-bar solo over the competent rhythm section supporting his playing.
As local cover acts go, Christensen's is better than most. It's also far stranger: The "band" he plays with is a Frankenstein-like creation that exists only on the DAT tapes that spin in his soundboard -- homemade creations on which he plays every note. He shares the stage not with fellow players, but with a stockpile of gear: keyboards, electric drum pads, racks of guitar effects, and a collection of pedals, stompboxes, switches and cables.
"I'm the loudest, rowdiest one-man show going," Christensen tells his small yet appreciative audience as "Pride and Joy" ends. Over the next hour, he blazes through a set of familiar classics, aided by his prerecorded rock: a pair of Santana cuts, Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" (complete with live talk-box effect), Vaughan's "If the House Is Rockin'," Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" (during which he accompanies himself on twelve-string acoustic) and an original tune that sounds like some lost late-'80s power ballad. He also rips through Lynyrd Skynyrd's "I Know a Little" (ably handling both sides of the band's Steve Gaines/Gary Rossington dueling-guitar segment) and a complex Joe Satriani cover. He closes the set with a full-length cover of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," during which he plays live percussion, keyboards and electric guitar over a near-perfect taped re-creation of the classic stoner opus. The set is both impressive and bizarre, a mixture of guitar-whiz glory and basement-studio geekdom gone mad.
"I get guys every week who come up and make comments -- you know, 'What the hell is this karaoke act?'" Christensen says, settling into a break between sets. "But I tell them, 'You go home and learn how to play every instrument you hear on all these songs, then record all the parts and get a P.A. and get these gigs. You try that and then come and talk to me.' See, there's a huge difference between what I do and karaoke, and what I'd be doing if I were in a band. Who in a band has to learn every part on every instrument on every song they play?"
It's doubtful many players in town can answer "me" to that question. Christensen says he spends up to forty hours learning, playing and recording each of the 200 songs now stashed in his digital repertoire. His catalogue of pop-metal and classic and contemporary rock tunes also give his Berklee School of Music chops a vicious workout, both on tape and on stage. But Christensen -- who has been playing full-time for three decades -- says his efforts are worth it, partly because it frees him from one of the pitfalls of being in a successful band, which is having to work with other bandmembers.
"I've given my whole life to doing this, for thirty years," Christensen says, "and it seemed like all I could do was hook up with people who aren't as committed as I am. And as soon as a break comes along, someone can't tour, they can't do it. And I've had to count on flaky people that don't work hard, that have drug or alcohol problems. This whole approach was born of necessity. I just decided I wasn't going to ever have to start all over again or have someone knock me back to zero."
Two years into his oddball solo gig, Christensen's modus operandi is paying off. He currently plays eight to twelve times a month and earns enough dough to pay his bills with music as his only job. He's also garnered a loyal following in bars that typically book live groups and smaller rooms that welcome his one-man-band act.
"You hear 'one-man band,'" says Carissa Stauffer, owner of Carissa's Bar and Grill in Broomfield, "and you think, 'Oh, my God, it's some guy with tambourines on his knees and a bass drum on his back.' But people are very impressed by Trace because he's got so much talent and what he does is so unusual." Stauffer has been booking Christensen for a year now, even though her venue typically books more traditional bands. She says her crowds have had no problem getting past his technology-aided routine, and he's now one of her most popular acts. "It's nice to get five headbangers on stage," she adds, "but with Trace, I only have to rely on one person. And he's not loud and obnoxious."
Kenny Mallinson helps run the Cuckoo's Nest in Lakewood. "Normally I get guys in here that do an acoustic thing, because we don't have that much room," he says. "But Trace is a band by himself and has a following here that's unheard of for a one-man act. I can't believe he's not booked solid all the time, because he's the best bang for the buck in town." His appeal, Mallinson adds, is also based "on content. It's not the novelty of it."
As one of Christensen's regulars, Doug Opfermann catches the show about once a week. A musician and former recording engineer, he says some of Christensen's appeal is the techie side of his act. But he's most impressed with his onstage playing. "I've worked with a lot of musicians in the studio," he says, "and his guitar playing is impressive because he plays so well in so many different styles. He's what I aspired to be all my life."
Christensen's journey to his current gig began in the '60s, in Utah, where he grew up. His family settled there when his father, Charles C. Christensen, relocated to the state and became a leader in the U.S. rocket industry. (According to Christensen, techniques developed by his dad helped put the bulk of today's satellites into orbit, and in the '80s he won the revered R.D. Franklin award, joining a list of recipients that includes Marie Curie.) Life in Utah was complicated for the Christensens, Trace says, because the family was not Mormon. "I'm the whitest guy in the world," Christensen says, "but I know all about prejudice and discrimination." After graduating from high school, he followed in his father's footsteps and studied computers, picking up the guitar on the side. He soon dropped out of school to pursue a musical career in Utah's progressive rock community. One of his first bands, Hyperformance, enjoyed a stint overseas touring with the Scorpions. After that band folded, Christensen went back to college and got his degree in music from Boston's Berklee School of Music, where his classmates included Aimee Mann and Berlin's Terri Nunn.
In 1988, Christensen formed a top-forty cover band, Big Bang, that toured for three years. When that band collapsed, he moved to Denver and formed the Spencer Tracy Band, a power trio. The group played area bars and toured various states around the West, getting as far as Alaska. ("That was the last wild-West place for musicians," he recalls. "I lost a lot of brain cells up there.") In that band, Christensen began using the "sweetening" tracks that would later become his sole accompaniment. When the group broke up, Christensen relocated to Hollywood to spend a year in another top-forty band, Radio Radio. Then he returned to Denver and launched a solo career, which took off when one of his studio tunes -- "Time to Move On," from his Footprints in the Snow solo debut -- garnered airplay on a few hundred triple-A and college stations around the country.
"Having the success with the single was great," Christensen recalls. "The problem was that I didn't have a band to get out and support it." That dilemma led him to reconsider his methods, and it ultimately led to his current approach. But his solo act was also motivated by changing economics in the music scene. "I was on the road back in the '70s," he notes, "and this was the best job in the world. And it was real money then, and I could travel with a big band, and it was great. But the clubs have all downsized now, so I had to downsize with them. I decided to do the best I could and get rid of all of the overhead. Now there's no more agents, no more roadies. And no more musicians."
According to Christensen, much of this area's (and the nation's) musical shortcomings stem from decreased pay to live acts, which has forced good players out of the business. "When musicians started making fifty bucks a night and less," he says, "all those capable people went back to school or started businesses. The guys that are left over are the guys who aren't that capable or committed." The remaining musicians, he says, are doing further damage to their own scene by playing for cheap. Players, Christensen says, "have to work on their craft until they're worth something. If you're not ready, stay out of the bars and wait until you're good enough that you can offer a good product for a fair price." With his small payroll, Christensen could be joining the roster of bands willing to play for cheap, but he refuses to do so. "I charge what a band charges," he says with pride. "I'm not going to undercut any band, absolutely not. Musicians have to stick together."
Christensen says finding work for his neo-solo act was difficult at first. Rooms accustomed to traditional solo artists were scared away by the idea of his full-force show, or they couldn't understand the concept. Talent buyers accustomed to bands were skeptical that his act could hold a crowd hungry for the genuine article. It's a hurdle he continues to deal with.
Recently, however, he's found that more clubs are open to the idea of his performances. (To view his performance schedule, check tracerock.com.) Part of his success in winning them over, Christensen says, "is [that] I play my guts out every night, whether it's [to] three people or 300." He also credits his familiar, radio-friendly song list that hits home with today's bar-hopping demographic. "I'm doing the songs that people now in their prime earning years loved when they were in high school," he says. "So I can do a corporate thing for heavy hitters or a bar gig for people into '80s music." To some musicians that might sound like artistic compromise, but for Christensen it's not. "I play the songs that please me," he notes. "None that I don't like. That's the great thing about my solo act. I don't have to play the drummer's favorite song if I don't want to."
Not that his show doesn't have drawbacks. With three decades of band work under his belt, Christensen says he misses the camaraderie of living, breathing bandmates. He also misses the spontaneity that comes from playing with them. Occasionally he's hit a few technical glitches, too, such as tape machines locked up from sitting out in cold weather.
But the pluses of his DIY endeavor, he notes, have far surpassed the negatives. One advantage is the freedom to change his show at will to suit any crowd's tastes. "If the crowd is enjoying my Santana songs, I'll play six of them in a row," he notes. "Pleasing the crowd -- that's what I'm here for." Lack of peers also means not having to explain to anyone that a slow night means less dough than expected.
"This is such a tough business these days," Christensen says. "You work your ass off your whole life, with no guarantee that you're ever going to make a nickel. So most people shy away from it. But I'm dependable," he says, "and I can do this full-time without any distractions that take away from the music. And I have to do all the work now, but that hasn't really changed anything, because there's always one guy in a band that does all the work anyway, and that guy was always me. If I had bandmates, I'd have to be working some other job to afford it.
"It is strange," Christensen adds. "I went from playing in a nine-piece horn band in the '70s to playing in a one-piece, one-man band in the year 2000. But it's the only way I could figure out how to make a living playing music in today's market. So far, it's working."
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