Mike Mitchell learned to be adaptable at an early age. When he was in the seventh grade, his schoolteacher mom pulled up the family tree in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and replanted it in the Wind River Indian reservation in central Wyoming.
"She saw one too many episodes of Little House on the Prairie," Mitchell says, "and thought it would be great to move the family out to the middle of nowhere."
For the young Mitchell, however, the move wasn't so great. He quickly became a target for local troublemaking teens who didn't care for the white kid who'd been dropped into the middle of their turf.
Rexway CD-release party
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8 p.m. Saturday, June 7
Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway
"I got more than my share of ass-kickings when I was a kid," Mitchell recalls. "Now I look back on it, and it's the greatest thing that ever happened to me: You learn how to take a beating and it teaches you how to hold your own in just about any situation. And I have so much material to take from now."
These days, Mitchell parlays his past into the Denver-based rock band Rexway. With mates Skot Lain and Chris Dockter (guitar), Susan Phelan (bass) and Craig Dubin (drums), he's soldered a punishing blend of '80s metal, outlaw country and Irish drinking songs that kicks more butt than a schoolyard scrap.
"It goes all the way from Johnny Cash to Mötley Crüe and the Misfits, with a little element of Dropkick Murphys in there," Mitchell says. "The country adds a little bit of two-step to it, to where it's driving rock but not just bang-your-head rock. It's move-your-feet rock."
The band's melodic metal is documented on the newly released Last Call Scars, a thrilling collection of twelve songs that chronicle the tough culture Mitchell and Lain discovered as adults living in Wyoming. "You go to the bars there, and everybody gets drunk and fights at the end of the night," Mitchell says. "It's all about brawlin'. There's nothing else to do up there but get drunk, have sex and fight.
"The whole album is about drinking, fighting, love, losing love, finding love -- everything that happens at 2 a.m. when they turn the lights on," Mitchell continues. "You go home, you wake up the next morning, and you got all these scars from last night. I got a broken heart, a cut on my forehead from fightin' or throwin' up in the toilet. Those are all different last-call scars."
Last Call Scars resonates with a fiery cowpunk swagger that pops up whether Rexway is channeling AC/DC or a sea chantey -- a combination not to be attempted by the meek. "Fremont Kilt" sports pennywhistle guitar lines and verses that extol the wonders of the rez, the sea, Gloucester and bar fellowship, while "Cocktail Ho Down" is a saucy call to drinkers, replete with a galloping cowboy beat and a stumbling chorus: "A cheer to all our dedication/To friends and newfound admiration/We're lifelong friends in alcohol." "Ten High Pride" is a Supersuckers-style country number that details the rough-and-tumble activity in the watering holes of Fremont County.
Wyoming's cowboy culture has shaped more than just Rexway's most recent album. Mitchell and Lain (a distant cousin to Johnny Cash) first embraced rock and roll, particularly heavy metal and KISS, while living there. Friends since their teens, the two played in metal bands in Wyoming in the late '80s. "The people are starved for music there," Mitchell says. "Anything that comes that way, they just eat it up, and you get a great response. But it's hard for musicians to establish themselves there; people don't take them seriously."
That lack of seriousness prompted Mitchell and Lain to move to Seattle in the early '90s, lured, like so many others, by the city's grunge scene. They moved to Fort Collins a couple of years later and formed Rexway in 1998; the band released a four-song EP in 1999 and a full-length, County 10, in 2001. When songs from both recordings ended up in a series of Slednecks extreme-snowmobiling films, the group suddenly claimed a smattering of fans from all over the globe. Locally, Rexway carried out a novel marketing program with County 10: Instead of the players selling the disc and recouping the $5,000 they spent recording it, they gave away copies to anybody who wanted one. Over the course of two years, the band gave away over 9,000 copies.
"People took it for free, gave it to their friends," Mitchell recalls. "It got people to come to the shows, to get the free CD. Or they came to the shows after getting a copy from a friend. We've been giving stuff away for so long, people are happy to pay for it now."
Now the group's live show is what draws audiences in Colorado and Wyoming -- and back on the Wind River Reservation, where Mitchell is practically a hero among the locals he once tussled with. One of Rexway's greatest live assets, Mitchell says, is bassist Phelan. "She definitely has a tendency to draw people out," Mitchell says, chuckling. "Six foot two, tattoos -- she has that Nashville Pussy element, for sure."
The band has a simple philosophy of performance. "Like Gene Simmons said once," Mitchell says, "'The stage is a holy place; you dress up for it.' People come out to be entertained, not just have a band just sit there. We're about the show; you're going to get entertained.
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"Somehow, something happened to rock and roll," Mitchell adds. "The rock 'show' -- it's been lost. Now everyone's trying to cover it up with makeup and crazy-eyed contacts. We live for bringing the fun back to rock and roll."
Rexway's approach has bandmembers entertaining feelers from a few major labels (including Sony Music and Dreamworks) and some smaller ones around the United States. In July they'll play Crüefest at the famed Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles; a tour of the Midwest is slated for the summer. Traveling Middle America in the humid heat of summer seems like something that could provoke the once-punchy Mitchell's temper; despite the vigor of his music, however, the frontman swears he's mellowed in recent years.
"You get older," he notes, "and you realize there are things worth fighting for in the world, and there are other things that just aren't worth the time. People judging you: That's not worth fighting for."