Kazoo Buskers of the 16th Street Mall Are Welcome in Coyote Poets of the Universe

Coyote Poets of the Universe is Denver's most serious band.
Coyote Poets of the Universe is Denver's most serious band.
Tom Murphy

Coyote Poets of the Universe has cultivated a unique songwriting style over the years in order to accommodate the disparate voices of its nine-piece membership -- the results will be on display during a show this Saturday at the Oriental Theater. But the band did not have ambitious beginnings; in fact, the Poets started out as the soundtrack to a radio show in 1998."The original premise was that we had this radio show called Jazz Tales on KUVO," says bassist Andy O'Leary, also known by his radio handle of Andy O. "We had a group of slam poets who started their own band. I was the musician and the engineer."

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The group quickly gained a life, however. "I was a slam poet, but when I got into this, I stopped doing that and focused on this," adds Poets co-founder and guitarist Gary Hoover. "I felt more into this. I'm a musician, and they don't want you to have the tools and stuff up there with slam poetry. I would say I was more a performance poet than a slam poet."

The loosely defined band started playing shows, often bringing in new musicians with each performance. Sometimes Hoover or O'Leary would invite a kazoo or xylophone player from the 16th Street Mall to sit in. That open-door membership policy has characterized the band throughout its existence.

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According to Hoover, there have been about 55 members in the band over the years, including Bad Luck City violinist Kelly O'Dea. The charismatic and gregarious keyboard player Melissa Gates moved to Denver from Vermont in 2007 as a fan and ended up joining the band. Violinist Josie Quick, whose surname matches her wit, got the job through a Facebook message from the band on the recommendation of O'Dea. Her significant other, critically acclaimed new-age guitarist Tom Carleno, joined at the same time. Drummer Shannon Spencer was an old friend of Hoover's from time spent together in Laura Newman's Big Band in the early '90s. Veteran saxophone phenom Patty Shaw was recruited from a Craigslist ad.

The sprawling membership could be a mess, but the way it comes together makes it sound as though everyone in the band grew up together, because their collective capacity for following each other's dynamics, tonality and pacing is remarkable.

"With a band this size, there's a lot of room for people to play some amazing stuff," says Gates. "We don't believe in reeling anyone in. Everybody gets to play to their own drummer."

"And yet we avoid trying to be a jam band," quips Hoover. "No noodlefests."

"People say we're a little bit like Arcade Fire but a lot like Frank Zappa, if you mash those two things together," says Gates. "Which is really cool for us, because we don't have to stick to any one genre. We're not even trying. If you looked us up online, we would look like 'Americana Prog Rock.'"

The decision to pick that particular label helped Coyote Poets of the Universe find a rabid new audience. "When we decided to go with that, we got a ton of people coming in and bootlegging our music," says Gates. "Because we actually are that, whatever that is."

The group's latest project, a double CD titled Strange Lullaby, will be out in the middle of December. Additional documentation of the band in action will come from this week's show, which will be filmed as a full-length concert movie by Cinema Raven.

"We're really stoked about the double album, because it's a really cool way to bring in the songwriting talents of Josie, Patty, Andy, Johnny [Rasmussen, who plays woodwinds and keyboards], Tom and I," says Gates. "Everyone is bringing something to the table in a way that smashes it all together into something that's really strange and beautiful."

Coyote Poets of the Universe will play this Saturday, November 22, at the Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, $10, 720-420-0030.

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