A funny thing happened to Rainbow Sugar the first time the band performed: It became the opening act for Sleater-Kinney, one of the most critically acclaimed bands on the riot-grrrly record label, Kill Rock Stars.
"We just kept calling and calling [Sleater-Kinney's managers] until they said we could open for them," drummer Germaine Baca recalls.
The bandmembers took it as a sign of good things to come.
Rainbow Sugar. 9 p.m., Sunday, October 31, Larimer 21, 2040 Larimer Street, 303-296-2424
"We felt like real rock stars before we hit the stage," says Rainbow Sugar frontwoman Cindy Wonderful, whose wardrobe and loose, associative personality might lead the terminally normal to question whether or not she has all of her sugar granules in one packet. And though she has yet to attain the rock-goddess status she so openly desires, she's got a jump on the lifestyle. A longtime member of various Denver music projects, Wonderful is something of a living cartoon, at once girlish and streetwise. She's a charismatic performer who rolls around town in a multi-colored hand-painted van that would make the merriest of pranksters crack a knowing smile. Bump into her on even a warm, casual Denver night and she's likely to be dressed the star part, sporting outfits that might include a comically oversized pair of faux-fur green pants and a colorful floppy hat in a combination that's equal parts Land of the Lost and the once-beloved Rainbow Brite.
But let's clear up a couple of misconceptions about the girl and her band right now: First, Ms. Wonderful is not the lead singer in Rainbow Sugar; rather, she is the lead rapper. Second, Rainbow Sugar, which also includes drummer Germaine Baca, bassist Amy Fantastic and new guitarist Sherri Hern, isn't a rap act -- or a rock act. Confused? Get used to it. Rainbow Sugar is part of a musical movement that functions as a kind of sounding alarm to traditionalists on both sides, warning that neither hip-hop nor rock are going away anytime soon, so they might as well be friends. Ever since Run DMC decided to perform "Walk This Way" with a little rock band called Aerosmith and Anthrax brought the noise with Public Enemy, the middle ground between the two genres has proven fertile, both in terms of commercial viability and much-needed musical innovation in the mainstream. So while the phrase "Hey, let's start a band" used to typically mean rounding up guitars and the usual spectrum of rock accoutrements, today it invites a range of approaches in which vocals are as integral an instrument as a guitar melody and non-organic beats are as vital as a live drummer.
Wonderful first incorporated rap into her art late in 1997, when she recorded with Wet Daddie Click, a rap act based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After abandoning the sometimes self-deprecating approach of her prior bands (among them Shitbox, a band that incorporated edited bits of karaoke music) about a year and half ago, Wonderful recorded some electronic hip-hop tunes with Quaternion 15 and released them on a demo under her own Stupid Records imprint. Inspired, she set out to form a genre- and gender-defying band, and Rainbow Sugar was born soon after. Wonderful enlisted the help of Fantastic, a longtime cohort, to play bass and recruited guitarist Miss Michelle; drummer Baca was brought on board after seeing her improvise at a party. Wonderful changed the Stupid Records tag to something slightly more optimistic, and in August, the foursome released "the orange tape," as Wonderful refers to it, under the new and improved Wonderground Records. The raw, scrappy recording featured songs that had become staples of Sugar live shows, including "Meow Meow," "The New Song," with its Rage Against the Machine-style rants, and "Baby," which shared elements with fellow femme rappers Luscious Jackson. The Sugar gang has changed a bit since the tape was completed: According to Wonderful, Miss Michelle recently left the band to "spread her wings and fly" as a songwriter and solo artist. Hern, formerly of Fox Force Five, has taken over guitar duties, although "she doesn't yet have a spectacular name, but she might get one," Wonderful notes.
"Rap is influencing everything right now," says Wonderful. "But even though rap's been done and rock's been done, it's never been done like this."
More accurate words could hardly be spoken. One might even venture to say that the Rainbow Sugar sound is a hybrid that dares audiences to not take it seriously while simultaneously refusing to do anything but have a goddamned ball. The band's range of styles is informed by pop, heavy metal and punk as much as by the Luscious ladies. Seeing Rainbow Sugar live can be compared to watching a live Beastie Boys show back when the B-Boys were fighting for their right to party instead of for a free Tibet. Wonderful encourages the crowd to dance and respond to the way she paces the stage, inciting audiences in much the same fashion as her rap idols do. She can name Notorious B.I.G. in one breath and Cibo Matto in the next and consider them both equally important influences on the band's sound and approach. Her bandmates cite similarly disparate sources, gushing homage to Janis Joplin, the Eighties metal band Poison and riot-grrrl rockers Bikini Kill. Yet dipping into such a varied pool of styles requires some serious musical ability, something that doesn't scare off the Rainbow women.
"We're not afraid to move into different genres of music," says Amy Fantastic, whose own history in Denver music includes a stint with Star Hussler, a rockish bar band in which Hern and Wonderful also spent time.
"You can entertain people," Wonderful muses, "but if you want people to get into you other than at a show, you have to work hard. It's not enough to sound horrible."
"We all know how to play our instruments, and we communicate with each other really well," Baca adds, addressing the stereotype that women musicians are somehow less skillful then their male counterparts. In general, the bandmembers feel that the relative novelty of being not only an all-female band, but an all-female band that takes a stab at the largely male-dominated hip-hop realm, hasn't been much of an issue for them. They do, however, share a palpable excitement about the number of women artists emerging in Denver, including Hemi Cuda, nouveau-ambient artist Michelle Barnes, and the Pin Downs. "We're like cousins to that band," Wonderful says of the latter. (Pin Downs guitarist Heather Dalton was also in Star Hussler, while guitarist Ginger Richards was in the Girls Room with Wonderful and Baca a few years ago.)
Which is not to say that Rainbow Sugar has not encountered the occasional gender-based barb. The most recent came before a performance at the Westword Music Awards Showcase (the band was nominated in the Hip-Hop category). "We were just getting ready to go on, and suddenly this guy shouts, 'You guys better be good!'" Baca reports, to the amusement of her bandmates.
But here's the best part of that story: They were good. Incorporating fast, punk-metal style as a backdrop for Wonderful's skillful MC work with a vaudevillian performance ethic, the Rainbow show was on the short list of truly memorable ones in an evening that showcased some of Denver's best. So, yeah, they're girls, but they're musicians first. And as musicians, they're on a four-woman crusade to combat boredom and unhappiness.
According to Hern, the band's rather extroverted stage persona is a necessary weapon in its "a good time will be had by all" mission. "Making art is private in the process," Hern states, "but music is public in the process. You're making it in front of other people, and you can't be shy.
"I spent a lot of my life being afraid of what I felt, and the only place I got to feel was in my art," she adds.
"I want to inspire people to get out of the holes that they're in and see that anything is possible," Wonderful says earnestly. "I want people to want to be better. Sometimes I feel like a motivational speaker, but I just have a band. I want to be that guy in the infomercial with the really white teeth who walks on coals and is always on the beach just telling you that you can do anything. That's what I want to be: hyper-positive."
Or at least positively hyper. Wonderful and her band have been happily busy these days, playing more gigs around town and heading to Los Angeles to play with Friends Forever, a Denver two-piece whose drummer, Nate Hayden, recently moved there. "We love Friends Forever so much that me and Amy [Fantastic] are gonna get Friends Forever tattoos. We want our friends to feel like rock stars, too -- to let them know they are loved and adored." The loyalty is understandable, considering that one of the Friends recently fulfilled a Sugar fantasy of diving off the fake cliffs at Denver's Casa Bonita restaurant. "We got to experience it through him," Wonderful says. "It was so cool. They put him in this fake jail -- it was so worth it." Wonderful has also been occupied with a compilation project for Wonderground, a mixed bag of "emo, noise, dance and everything" that will feature cuts from Wonderful pals Qual, Michelle Barnes, the Hellmen, Noise Between Stations and the Carbon Dioxide Orchestra, among others. The band will also be included on the Studio X compilation of live tracks from local artists that's being compiled by David Fox at Alley Studios.
"Hold on to your seats," Fantastic says of the band's plans for the future, a knowing smile on her face.
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