The Beatdown

I'm sitting across the table from Wendy Woo, Bob Rupp and a handful of other folks at the Goosetown Tavern after the Westword Music Showcase Awards ceremony; we're reminiscing about the local scene. And from the smiles coloring everyone's faces, no one is ready for the night to end.

Wendy laughs when I mention seeing her perform at the now-defunct Soapy Smith's. She was only about seventeen years old, she says, and just getting her start. At tonight's ceremony, she won the award for best singer/songwriter, and she seems poised for bigger and better -- whatever that may be.

Then Bob, the longtime owner of Rupp's Drums, starts talking about the glory days. I throw some band names on the table and ask what happened to them: the Original Rabbits, Jinx Jones, Elik Pink. He gives the rundown on each one, and then we wax nostalgic about Rock Fest -- an all-local-music showcase, one of the first of its kind, that he funded and produced well over a decade ago. It had a big impact on me, I tell him, especially since I wasn't old enough to see those bands at clubs -- at least, not legally. It was a pain in the ass, he tells me, and it became such a financial burden that he had to end the event.

Like a giddy schoolgirl, I'm sitting at Uncle Bob's feet as he's spinning yarns about the good old days. And it occurs to me that Westword couldn't have picked a better person to host its ninth annual awards ceremony. Bob is one of the most animated people I've ever met; he should come complete with a syllabus, graphs and charts. And once you put a quarter in him, he doesn't stop -- the guy is all over the freaking place.

"Ask me about any band, and chances are pretty good I've got a story," he says. "I've never told them, because no one has ever asked."

Just as I'm thinking how fortunate I am to be in the company of such fine people, Dolly Zander, founder of COMA (the Colorado Music Association), sits straight up in the booth across from me and says: "Mark this day on your calendar, June 26. Today, everything in the local music scene is puuurfect!"

Now, puuurfect is a relative term. I don't think the scene is perfect, but it's certainly come a long way since 1995 and the first Westword Music Showcase. This year, with Bob as emcee and with Sam Bivens and the Denver Jazz Orchestra providing the evening's soundtrack, the event had prestige, even a certain elegance. Which was good, because this is as close to the Grammys as most of us will ever get. It's nice to play rock star once a year, if only for the evening and if only among your friends.

After Bivens and the DJO played a few Doc Severinsen-esque tunes, Bob kicked off the show with a couple of one-liners about last year's host, Sid Pink, who "couldn't make it" again. "You have my personal guarantee -- no skits this year," he promised.

Without further ado, he announced the first category: rock. The Soul Thieves won this one, and their guitarist, Ryan Donley, was so excited that he phoned his parents with the good news. "I called my dad," he says, "and said, 'Dad, we won.'" To which his father deadpanned, "That's great; I'll put your mother on the phone." While Mom was obviously proud, Ryan's son had the best response: He told his dad about the new Hulk video game he'd just picked up.

Although a few of the winners -- Yo, Flaco! in hip-hop, Aggressive Persuasion in hard rock, Otis Taylor in blues -- weren't on hand to pick up their awards, plenty were, and they delivered eloquent acceptance speeches.

Members of the victorious D.O.R.K. , for example, graciously acknowledged Planes Mistaken for Stars, one of the other bands competing in the punk category. Kenny James, multi-instrumentalist and frontman of the Witching Hour, which took home honors in the eclectic category, offered this sage advice: "Whether you were nominated or not, keep expressing yourself. That's what it's all about."

The award for the longest speech of the evening should go to Chris Dellinger of Blister 66, a band inducted into the Showcase Hall of Fame after five straight wins. His "seven years of thank yous" took about seven minutes off my life. Seriously, the dude thanked everyone except his second-grade teacher. Still, he's earned the right to "talk a lot of shit about how cool we are."

And while some other awards -- Opie Gone Bad in pop, Ron Miles in jazz/swing, DJ Ivy in DJ/dance/electric and the Railbenders in country/bluegrass/roots -- were well deserved, they could easily have gone to other artists nominated in those categories. There was some heady competition this year, and plenty of people probably left the Bluebird disappointed that they didn't take home a statuette. If this were a perfect world -- if the local scene was indeed puuurfect -- everyone would win. But it's not. Not yet.

In the meantime, I have a few awards of my own to hand out.

Best performance at the entire June 21 Showcase, by arguably one of the best acts in the state right now: Against Tomorrow's Sky. The group is my idea of the perfect rock band.

Planes Mistaken for Stars would take home the award for "best new band that everyone is just barely finding out about even though they've been around for almost five years." At the end of the band's set, audience members were standing there slack-jawed, and I heard more than a few people say, "Those guys are from here?"

In the "best performance by a group performing to the smallest crowd of the day" category, Ground Zero Movement gets my vote. Being the opening act at an afternoon-into-evening festival, with plenty of daylight still ahead, can be a buzzkill -- but apparently, the five MCs of GZM never got the memo. Even though the asphalt dance floor -- which doubles as a parking lot during the work week -- held only a couple dozen early birds, the GZM crew threw down like it was performing for a throng of thousands.

The Czars would win "best performance by a rock band in the 'quiet is the new loud'" category, by showing that it's not necessary to turn the amps to eleven -- or even to stand up -- in order to be intense. As vocalist John Grant sang the words "Save your bullshit for the bedroom/That's where your best work gets done," the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up.

Serengeti definitely wins for "best performance by a not-yet-opened venue." A potential downside -- the space at 1037 Broadway wasn't close to being finished, and it opened just for the Showcase -- became an upside. Seeing Planes coat the exposed brick walls and concrete-slab floors with its venomous aural rancor was a throwback to days past, when warehouse shows were the only places that kids like me could go for live music.

Local nightclub don Regas Christou, the man behind Serengeti, agrees. "People loved it, man, 'cause we didn't fuck it up with design ideas yet," he says, then adds, "The response of the people was great, except for the drunks from Westword who could barely walk."

Christou is going to take his time finishing Serengeti, and he won't open it officially until it's ready. "I usually run my ass off and finish up at 4 p.m. and open at 4:05," he says. "I got customers coming in through one door and contractors leaving through the other. I'm not going to do that this time." The club is tentatively slated to open the second week of August.

And finally, the "best unexpected ambience" award goes to the Acoma Center, where the stage was outfitted with a homey set for its current show, Proof. That setup was oddly suited to several of the bands playing there that night. I caught some of the Czars and Voices Underwater sets, and it was like watching sepia-toned, backwoods yokels jam on the front porch of the house in The Waltons. The sight was comforting and peaceful, proving once and for all that there's no place like home.

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