There are several ways to approach a festival such as June 16's Westword Music Showcase. Wrist-banders can check out a handful of their favorites or several groups they haven't had a chance to catch yet and spend the rest of their time exploring the rewarding world of mass-manufacture beer on tap; they can park themselves at a single venue and let the lineup there wash over them for the duration; or they can run around like a confused firefighter with a burning ember in his drawers and try to experience as many different acts as possible.
This last approach is by far the stupidest -- so, of course, that's the one I chose. I've popped the quarter-sized blister that bloomed on my right heel three times so far, yet I can feel it puffing up again even as I type. Damn you, Allen Iverson-signature Reeboks! Damn you to hell!
Between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., I caught portions of 58 sets, by my count, out of sixty-something total. As a result, the writeups below of outfits such as Westword cover boys Cat-A-Tac (pictured) can't be considered definitive. How could they be, when they're based on about four minutes per stop? Instead, think of them as aural snapshots that make up a mosaic of the spectacle as a whole. Some of these images are undoubtedly emblematic of a given performance, while others likely qualify as exceptions to the rule. Who knows?
Certainly not me...
Hour one: Nathan & Stephen kicked off the day on the outdoor stage, near 12th and Acoma, with a burst of smiley exuberance. The members of the sprawling outfit seemed to be on a Polyphonic Spree, sans the robes and air of beatific cultdom. Meanwhile, over at Two AM, 1144 Broadway, Action Friend didn't let soft early attendance put a crimp in their three-piece rock instrumental assault. Loud, roiling, satisfying. At Shelter, 1037 Broadway, Forged in Violet, recast for the day as a duo, cranked out a rather perfunctory retro-industrial groove. In contrast, The Hollyfelds, playing Sutra Room, 1109 Lincoln, gently explored their roots, with vocalists Eryn Hoerig and Kate Grigsby harmonizing beautifully. Zack Nichols, doing the singer-songwriter bit at Andrew's, 1111 Lincoln, made less of an impression, but he did it with maximum sensitivity. More interesting was tunesmith Rachel Pollard, who wound up her session at the Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma, with a gentle, quirky song that revolved around farting -- one of those topics that popular music has left sadly underexplored. Thanks, Ms. Pollard, for righting that wrong.
Hour two: Machine Gun Blues followed emcee Adam Cayton-Holland's listing of sponsors with a heartfelt fuck-you from frontman Aaron Collins directed at, you guessed it, sponsors. "Rock and roll doesn't need sponsors!" he declared before the band launched into a typically raucous assault that reeked enjoyably of Detroit circa 1970. Roger Green, at the Acoma Center, hunched over his guitar, scraping emotions from the strings. Dazzle, 930 Lincoln Street, began its day with Willie Houson and the Blues Prowlers, who specialize in the brand of blues that's long been made for Rush Street tourists. The Skivies, at Two AM, added a welcome touch of showmanship to their set, donning mock-Hazmat suits as they pumped out a killer blend of Ministry-meets-Southern Culture on the Skids mayhem. Scaffolding, at Shelter, offered up laptop grooves with a minimum of artifice -- not much to watch there -- as Oakhurst fired up Andrew's with a rollicking hoedown more than capable of knocking any ho down. Still, the highlight of the hour was Nathaniel Rateliff of Born in the Flood in his secondary persona -- The Wheel. His intricate songcraft kept a gathering crowd at Sutra Room suitably rapt.
Hour three: If anything, Planes Mistaken for Stars upped the racket ante on the Outdoor Stage. The Golden Triangle shook like never before (and would continue doing so for the majority of the day). Although Ghost Buffalo, at the Acoma Center, wasn't quite as raucous, the band, which sports a reconstructed roster, sounded unexpectedly brawny. A welcome development. Savage Henry, the first band I managed to catch at La Rumba, 99 West 9th Avenue, did its best to jam up a relative handful of supporters. Tempa and the Tantrums, at Dazzle, proved to be a typical bar band, with all that phrase implies. Next door at DC 10, 940 Lincoln Street, I finally managed to catch a group in action after two failed attempts: Future Jazz Project. The collective wasn't at full strength -- just three of the FJP participated. Nevertheless, their jazzy take on hip-hop still managed to hit the spot. Cacheflow, at Shelter, continued the club's laptop trend, but with a bit more panache than his predecessor. He's one of the city's stronger practitioners of this growing art. Yerkish, at Two AM, churned out a slick, polished take on arty hard rock, while Zebra Junction, at Andrew's, enlivened its standard instrumentation with a solo on a Playskool tape recorder with scratching capability. Go crazy on those wheels of plastic, kiddies.
Hour four: The Swayback, at the Outdoor Stage, got hips swinging to their slinky, sensuous take on blues rock. Cowboy Curse haunted the Acoma Center with dark modern rock, with a splash of hoodoo on the side. U.S. Pipe & the Balls Johnson Dance Machine finally got La Rumba rumbling via wonderfully funky rhythms emitted by Chris "Citrus" Sauthoff and his vibrant crew. Dazzle was just as dazzling due to the presence of the 9th and Lincoln Orchestra, a big band that deserves the name. The Orchestra was seventeen members strong on this day, and when all of them were blowing at once, the sounds couldn't have been sweeter. My timing was worse at DC 10. During the time I was able to spend there, Distrakt delivered a hip-hop history lesson in lieu of rapping to music. Well-intentioned? Yep -- but I already knew about Kool Herc. King Rat, at Two AM, shoved out the old-school punk they've specialized in for a decade or so. If they'd done otherwise, someone might have set off the Alarm. Still, Luke Schmaltz got off a good line. After discovering the band had fifteen minutes left to play, he said that was time for sixteen more songs. At Andrew's, I wound up in a conversation with a friend I hadn't seen for a couple of years, so I didn't get a chance to concentrate on Something Underground as closely as I should have. Sorry, gentlemen. Fortunately, I was completely attuned to George&Caplin, at Shelter. While DJ Ivy spun easy-going ditties on the just-opened Shelter Patio upstairs, G&C mated electronics with Jeffrey Stevens' trumpet and Robin Rozum's flute to birth a bracing hybrid.
Hour five: Outdoor Stagers Born in the Flood, with Nathaniel Rateliff back in his usual guise, proved again why they're among Denver's favorite and most respected bands. Cat-A-Tac, at the Acoma Center, justified their presence on the cover of the current Westword with highly accessible indie stylings. The Haggardies, at La Rumba, presented cheeky pop complete with bongos -- an instrument that fit in with the fun. The Greg Harris Vibe Quintet's sound enveloped the loyal Dazzle contingent with sonics as warm as the day. Dent reeled off worthy rhymes that were experienced by a small but enthusiastic DC10 audience. Tifah enchanted at Andrew's, while Joshua Novak used electro-beats to add substance to the fragile material he presented at Sutra Room. The Life There Is added to the atmosphere at Shelter downstairs as DJ Michael Trundle nudged up the pace on the Patio. Even so, nothing could top Black Lamb, which tore up Two AM with the key assistance of vocalist Brian Hagman at his most uncontrolled and ferocious. For me, it was the best performance by an area act, bar none.
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Hour six: The Laylights, at the Acoma Center, delivered catchy hooks without a heckuva lot of individuality. Likewise, P-Nuckle, at La Rumba, was more than a tad generic, albeit in a different genre (the one that comes slathered in jam). The Bottesini Project, at Dazzle, was considerably more intriguing. This conglomeration of jazzers toyed with silence as much as sound, to diverting effect. At DC10, The Flobots brimmed with the energy and charm that they seem to have such a difficult time capturing on disc. Hip-hop lite that went down smooth. On Shelter's patio, Sara T put together a more hands-on set than her predecessors at that particular console, while Constellations, at the downstairs venue, challenged attendees with random noises that eventually cohered into a diverting whole. Bold stuff, and well-executed, too -- a description that also fit what Ian Cooke managed at Sutra Room. As The Trampolines bounced along next door at Andrew's (but not so high as to execute any especially memorable aerials), Cooke dueted with himself on the cello, breaking hearts with every pluck. Cooke's CD, The Fall I Fell, is unquestionably the finest disc to come from a Colorado artist thus far in 2007, and if anything better comes along, I'll be shocked. Far less unexpected was Lucero, on the Outdoor Stage. The players put out maximum effort while rendering ultra-familiar ditties. I liked this band better when the year was 1982 and they were calling themselves Rank and File.
Hour seven: The Omens brought garage rock to the Acoma Center with tremendous aplomb. Watching them, I felt the strong desire for a pack of Chesterfield Kings. At La Rumba, The Potcheen Folk Band added even more vice; their raucous Irish airs demanded jigging and guzzling. At Dazzle, Ron Miles trumpeted with his usual casual confidence. The Pirate Signal, at DC10, showed that two people are enough if the words are flowing and the crowd is jumping. At Shelter, Wesley Wayne picked up the pace on the patio, and Nightshark tore up the joint with crazed skronk uncut by compromise. At Sutra, Gregory Alan Isokov employed a vocal distorter, but the strength of his songs came through clearly, and Ten Cent Redemption strummed for all they were worth.
Hour eight -- almost. At 8:45 p.m., the shows at other venues were over, giving the entire throng a chance to gather at the Outdoor Stage to experience headliners Dinosaur Jr. From the outset, the reunited threesome -- J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph -- let it be known that they weren't shooting for mere nostalgia. The show opened just as their new album, Beyond, does -- with "Almost Ready," in which Mascis warbles, "Come on, life/I'm almost ready" against slabs of guitar thick enough to foil an electric carving knife. That was followed by Beyond's second cut, "Crumble," after which the Dinos skipped to song four, a Barlow-yelped number called "Back to Your Heart."
Prior to launching into this tune, Barlow said, "Hooray! It didn't rain!" -- and indeed, there had been a period during the late afternoon when the skies were threatening to open. In the end, though, the weather was ideal, and so was much of the music. Of course, other stuff fell short of perfection, but it hardly mattered. After all, there was probably something else better just down the street, if you were willing to walk there. Next year, I'll wear better shoes. -- Michael Roberts