How Respectful Crowds Affect Performances

Strange Americans at Swallow Hill Music Theater.
Strange Americans at Swallow Hill Music Theater.
Kevin Galaba

When bands take to the road to tour in support of a new album, they play a lot of shows in a lot of different venues --some small, some cavernous, all of them unique. The trick is to adapt to the room, so that the songs connect with the audience -- whether that's 12 people or 1200. Strange Americans is one of those bands -- after two tours of the Western half of the country and a steady presence in cities and towns in Colorado, they succeed with an intuitive ability to adjust their strategy to make that connection.

They played the Bluebird Theater in Septempber and nearly sold out the venue. Last weekend they took the same songs to Swallow Hill Music Hall, which only holds 100.

See Also: For Strange Americans, Music Is A Royal Battle

"We really sculpted this rock and roll show that's made for the 50-minute set that's to take out on tour," says guitar player Trent Nelson. The set, he explains, was designed to grab an audience and hold their interest for the duration of the evening. "Honing that skill has been great," he adds, "but it pigeon-holes you into that kind of set."

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The Swallow Hill gig found the band broadly restructuring their song arrangements. They understood that it would have been easy to blow away that smaller venue if it was approached the same way they play a venue like the Bluebird -- and they didn't want to be the kind of band that brings a gun to a knife-fight.

"The room is not hi-dive, and it's not Larimer Lounge," Nelson says. "We knew we had access to the piano and we weren't going to be fully electric. We were going to be playing acoustic guitars."

Swallow Hill is what the band calls a "listening room."

"It's totally quiet when you're playing," Nelson continues. "People clap after a song and when they stop clapping, all you can hear are crickets. That never, ever happens to us."

"It was really fresh, it was really different," adds guitarist and vocalist Matt Hoffman. "There was a lot more room to breathe."

Hoffman taught classes at Swallow Hill in the past. Currently, bandmates Nelson and drummer Michael John McKee teach there. Many in the audience are students of the band, and their support helped to sell out the cozy 100-seat room. In between songs, they shouted words of encouragement, obviously delighted to see their music teachers in action.

Strange Americans is a five-piece Denver-based rock band, soaked with an Americana twang. They've been together since February 2010, playing (mostly to Colorado audiences) a blend of folk and rock and country--songs that tells stories, songs that utilize lap steel guitar, harmonica and banjo. Influences range from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty. And Wilco -- definitely Wilco -- as well as Texas based alt-country cult band, Centro-Matic.

In stripping things down for the Swallow Hill show, Strange Americans started to look more deeply into who they are as a band.

"Some of these songs we've played hundreds of times," Nelson says. "Other songs we've played two times. It almost breathes a sort of different life into them when you kind of strip them down to the melody and the shape. You take that, and you build different instruments on top of it, or play it in a different way. I find it very refreshing."

"You go back to these songs, Hoffman adds, "and you almost re-visit your headspace, or where you were, like four years ago. You haven't done this song in so long time. It's like a new challenge -- it's exciting."

 

Trent Nelson, who teaches music classes at Swallow Hill, on pedal steel guitar.
Trent Nelson, who teaches music classes at Swallow Hill, on pedal steel guitar.
Kevin Galaba

Hoffman adds that he was playing less at Swallow Hill than he was at the Bluebird. "A drum beat and a vocal could keep the song interesting and keep the music moving forward. There was just a lot of air and breath in the songs that night that isn't there all the time."

Strange Americans are known for long shows, which can run up to four hours. "I think that's probably one of the things that has tightened us up as a band over the years," Nelson says. "We play a lot for very long stretches of time, and when you have to read a crowd for four hours in one night, you learn quite a bit about each other just from playing through that."

That Kind Of Luster, a new ten-song album released in September, has the band ready to tour again in early 2015 -- this time to the East coast.

In the meantime, they've applied for the Career Advancement Award, a grant for creative entrepreneurs in Colorado that matches funds to support artistic projects.

"It's not a lot, but we make our albums pretty cheap," Hoffman says. "We can get a lot of mileage out of it." He hopes that the start-up cash will provide the funds to hit the recording studio again, maybe mix a new album.

Which is a good thing, because Strange Americans has already started to write new material.

"We've actually already started writing," Nelson says. "What that becomes, we don't know. We're not following a business plan, or shooting for something -- it's just kind of like, 'This is who we are, and this is what's coming out of us.' We fine-tune here or there."

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