Westword Music Showcase Sutra Room, Bar Standard and 1144 Saturday, June 14, 2008 Better Than: Spending the day at the Highland Street Fair.
It's just before 3 p.m. when I walk into Sutra completely unmolested. No one seems to be watching the door, taking tickets or checking ID’s. I survey the room, and immediately feel some dissonance between the venue and the bands to come. The acts scheduled to perform today at Sutra could be broadly grouped as acoustic singer-songwriters – yet the room has not one, but two poles designed for exotic dancing, and a prominent light fixture that looks unmistakably like a giant pink vagina.
No matter, I saddle up to one of the stripper poles adjacent to the makeshift stage area and settle in to watch The Wheel. Nathaniel Rateliff appears, takes a seat wearing a white t-shirt under a black vest, and jibes gently with the host through a friendly introduction. He checks the time on his cell phone. “I’m running one minute late, that’s one song I won’t play,’ he jokes. The crowd spans a diverse age range. It looks as if many of those in attendance are fans already. Several folks grab seats on the floor in front of the stage, clearly already under Rateliff’s charm.
Strumming a nylon string guitar with his bare fingers, Rateliff shows that he is skilled at picking out unusual melodies within the traditional rhythms of American folk music. Adeptly, he maintains the pounding heart of the bass line as he explores sumptuous overtones on the higher strings. Rateliff seems quite comfortable combining fairly basic chord forms with more abstract jazz voicings.
And then comes the voice.
It is when he sings that Rateliff’s spell fully extends over the room. His tone is at the same time both smooth, and gruff. He weaves his dark lyrics with a masterful phrasing that is reminiscent of Elvis Costello. Rather than being simply descriptive, Rateliff’s songs utilize vivid imagery to evoke an emotional reaction in the listener. When Rateliff sings about being “a one legged pony pulling the plow,” we feel that he understands what that means. A few songs later, he's joined by Julie Davis from Bela Karoli. Together their voices cut mercilessly through the hot afternoon. Everybody in the bar, really everybody, is listening. Their command of the material demands an empathetic reaction from the crowd, and they get it. They kiss sweetly at the end of the song, backed by affectionate applause.
In the end I am left with only one question: Why the fuck isn’t this guys famous?
After Rateliff's set, the Hollyfelds take the stage clearly dressed to impress. The front tandem of Eryn Hoerig and Kate Grigsby sport sultry red dresses that match the trap kit behind them. Kicking up their black high heels, the Hollyfelds speed into the first of their up-tempo western swing numbers.
The sound is reminiscent of the best bands to come out on Bloodshot records in the late '90s. Early Old 97’s and Moonshine Willy immediately come to mind. However, the Hollyfeld’s lyrics seem a bit more complex than you'd expect from a country dance band – at one moment they seem hopelessly sweet and romantic, but frequently they turn to the sarcastic as in the masterful “Empress of Wyoming.” And instrumentally, they pull out all the stops, fearlessly employing lap steel, autoharp, mandolin and even electric ukelele. With endless amounts of charm and a kick-ass rhythm section, the music of the Hollyfelds begs to be danced to.
And yet, no one is dancing. “Well it’s not cold in here,” chuckles Grigsby.
“She’s very astute,” Hoerig interjects, wiping sweat from beneath her neat dark bangs. “That’s why you’re not dancing right?”
A couple of brave young women take to the dance floor briefly, but without further encouragement from the crowd they soon resign themselves to quietly bobbing their heads to the beat. And herein lies the problem: If people in our town flat out refuse to dance to the Hollyfelds, how long can we hope to keep the act feeling loved enough to stick with playing music our town?
After the Hollyfelds set, I head over to Bar Standard only to discover that this whole non-dancing thing appears to be a city-wide phenomenon.
“We’re here to make you dance!” Proclaims Astra Moveo frontman Tyler Hayden. “We want to vibe off you!”
No one complies, just like at the Hollyfelds performance earlier at Sutra. Undaunted, Astra Moveo moves on to a new song, “Kill Your Stereo.” With the lyrics mostly inaudible, I imagine the song as the centerpiece of the soundtrack of an erotic thriller about robots determined to triumph in a winner-take-all battle with a race of sexy aliens. I’m not sure that’s what they were really singing about, but I don’t think my fantasy could really be that far off.
Astra Moveo look like an '80s dance band in rare form, and that’s what they sound like too. Deftly combining live and programmed elements, the outfit maintain a set that sounds energetic and raw like a New Order bootleg. However, rather than succumbing to the temptation to decadence that seems inherent in electronica, the group sticks to a tight pop song structure that keep its music highly listenable. Though soaked with delay, the guitars are clear and sharp, and the live bass hits you in the chest.
Red Orange Yellow's Devon Shirley
When Astra Moveo finishes up and Red Orange Yellow takes the stage just before six, "Shit!" I think to myself, "another instrumental indie band." When a local band looks like they’re going to claim lineage with the likes of Tortoise and Mogwai, break out the Red Bulls ‘cause it’s inevitably going to be a boring ass ride.
But wait, this doesn’t sound right. Red Orange Yellow is actually rocking! A quick tempo, a hammer-on guitar lead, and they’re off to the races! Red Orange Yellow sounds like they’d rather evoke memories of Man or Astroman? or the Minibosses, than the decadent and self-absorbed instrumental bands of the last half-decade. And they’ve done it in an unique way, forging ahead sonically by exploring the full potential of their Moogs and Korgs.
Red Orange Yellow's Nick Martin
Like a confident jazz combo, the members of Red Orange Yellow (Kyle Gray, Nick Martin, Devon Shirley and Holland Rock-Garden) riff off of each other. The two keyboard players seamlessly switch roles, each covering the melody and low end in turns. This is no electronic band, though. Guitarist Rock-Garden and drummer Shirley nail their parts, providing a soulful underpinning for the group’s synthetic elements. Dynamically, the group covers a lot of ground – building from plodding and deliberate verses, to explosive riff-driven choruses. Mostly, though, Red Orange Yellow impresses in its ability to present a united musical front, a testament to the substantial talent of its lineup.
So now I’m a convert. Let us all prejudge local instrumental groups at our own peril.
After Red Orange Yellow, I make my way to 1144 Broadway to catch Horse. Leave it to Uncle Nasty to keep it hopelessly real. In Horse, Nasty has collected a peerless group of metal veterans. Judging solely by appearances, Horse looks to have at least eighty years of collective experience in playing the heavy music. Exhibiting influences too numerous to define, Horse exploits countless conventions of the genre. As I listen to Horse, I enjoy their tempo changes, thick bass lines, tunefully screamed vocals, searing guitar leads and those little hits on the bell of the ride cymbal that metal drummers just seem to love.
And that’s what really characterizes Horse, love. The guys clearly love what they’re doing. They're having the time of their fucking lives! And they seem to really know what they believe in. Nasty isn’t in the least bit afraid to speak his mind on the American culture of fear. The members of Horse believe that the music still matters and can make a difference. What a freaking concept for those of us cynical indie rockers.
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The crowd beneath the thick wooden rafters at 1144 seems to be listening too. Rather than the endless sea of white, bespectacled, twenty-something faces (mine included) that I’ve seen at other venues today, the scene here includes that Hispanic metal-head from up the street, that black dude with the Cannibal Corpse shirt, and the unkempt drunk who’s on a first name basis with most of DPD. They’re all true believers.
Walking down Broadway after Horse’s set under the evening sun, I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, and full of love. -- John Shoe
Critic’s Notebook Personal Bias: Few traditional journalists are likely to write about these passionate and worthy acts. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it. Random Detail: Overheard in front of Arby’s “I don’t care who’s playing, I’m just here to drink and get my party on!” By the Way: The sampling of acts in this blog represents only a small sampling of the acts from the showcase, which is itself only a tiny sampling of the deep talent pool that Denver has produced.