Ask anyone who was around the underground rock scene in Denver in the early '90s and chances are that person at least heard of Sympathy F. Since its 1991 debut at 7 South, a club now known as the hi-dive, Sympathy F became a favorite of peers and fans by virtue of its superb songwriting and the beautiful vocal harmonies of Elizabeth Rose and Tony Morales. Then as now, Sympathy F combined a kind of folk rock compositional sensibility with jazz-like rhythms and Doug Seaman's ability to play within and over the melodies with his knack for switching between inventive soundscaping and playing an electric lead to Morales' own tuneful acoustic strumming.
Drawing a bit from its sole album, a 1993 untitled or perhaps eponymous release, the live version of songs like "Don't Make Me Say It" and "Guilty Conscience Day," were so much more lush and emotionally nuanced than what was captured on the recordings. You might chalk it up to the increased maturity and creative sophistication of the members of the band, but it was more than that. There was a way that Rose projected a kind of playful sensuality into her performance and the way she and Morales seemed to cue perfectly into what the other was feeling for an effect that flowed through with the rest of the band.
At no time did it feel like aging rock stars reliving glory days. Everyone in the band has been active since Sympathy F slowed down in the late '90s. Morales and Seaman have been in the dream pop/rock outfit Juliet Mission and Morales and Rose have been playing her more jazz-oriented solo gigs around town at places that aren't the standard rock clubs the band has often found itself playing. All of that experience has kept this group of people on their game in playing music together and separately and you can tell all of that experience has only enriched what the band is doing now.
Shifting effortlessly between smoky, lounge pop and more electrifying, heavier fare, Sympathy F was impossible to pigeonhole, except as a band that seemed to be having fun with the show with plenty of engagement with the audience. The latter explicitly so when Rose came off the stage into the crowd at various points and acknowledged various people she couldn't see but could hear. The recent Sympathy F shows, to be fair, have felt like a band that still loves its music. Apparently the follow up to the 1993 record is in the works, due out in 2015 along with the second Juliet Mission album.
Morales did double duty for the show and played drums in the Sleepers following the Sympathy F set. Kathryn Ellinger spent some time away from any kind of music scene around the turn of the decade but before that she had been one of the primary songwriters in Worm Trouble and later The Sleepers. Having tried out to be the vocalist for the 40th Day, Ellinger started her own band when Tammy Ealom got that gig. Ealom, of course, has been the singer for Dressy Bessy since the late '90s. But Ellinger's own bands have benefited from her eclectic tastes in terms of songwriting.
This time around, the Sleepers reflect Ellinger's love of hard rock. Yet with Ellinger, there is always going to be strong, passionate, melodic vocals. It would be difficult to compare her style to anyone else: It's a little girlish and a little otherworldly, imbued with a powerful ability to elevate your mood.
Ellinger often says this is the best band in which she's played, and it is pretty much impossible to argue with that. Eric Davies, known to some as a guitarist in prog/psych band Kongtoss, really seemed to synch with the rest of the musicians and played blistering leads without overpowering the rest of the band. Too many guitarists suffer from "lead guitarist syndrome," Davies most certainly does not. With a new album coming out in September, The Sleepers pulled out some new songs that really let Ellinger's gift for creating hard-edged music that also manages to be emotionally delicate and atmospherically dreamlike. One of the best was a song called "Your Silence Is a Weapon." It was so raw, honest and vulnerable it felt like Ellinger really dug down deeper than she has in the past and exposed a hidden or unexpressed hurt and in doing so has written a song with the power to heal.
This was really just a gig featuring mutual friends of the last two decades. Seaman even played in Worm Trouble at one point. But beyond that, it was proof that Denver's alternative rock era featured a diverse collection of men and women creating dark but also emotionally rich music. Their creations are proving ageless.
Bias: One of the first local bands I saw on listings for venues before I really got into local music was Sympathy F. Then found the 1993 album at Cheapo Disc and was a fan of the band in the past tense until seeing them open for The Swayback on February 26, 2010. Walking into the theater I was wondering who this tonally vibrant band was and it was Sympathy F. First saw Worm Trouble in late 2000 at 7 South and immediately loved its weird cocktail of space rock, pop, hard rock and whatever other strangeness came out of the imaginations of Kat Ellinger and Michael Trenhaile.
Random Detail: Met King Rat frontman Luke Schmaltz for the first time. Cool guy.
By the Way: There were a lot of other great bands that came out of the late 80s and early '90s in Denver and Colorado including Twice Wilted, Warlock Pinchers, The Denver Gentlemen, Fanatics, Jux County, Small Dog Frenzy, The Fluid, 40th Day, The Nixons, Cold Crank and Human Head Transplant. It's all worth checking out and learning about more as well as bands from that era still around like Velvet Acid Christ, Little Fyodor and Babushka Band and Thinking Plague.
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
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