The Write Stuff

I feel bad about not liking Rob Drabkin's music. I really do. He seems like such a quality individual. It would be so much easier if he were a narcissistic asshole or something. But he didn't come across that way to me.

Between sets last Thursday night at Dazzle, the heartthrob (man, you should've seen the way he made some of the ladies swoon) with the King Buzzo haircut stopped by my table -- completely oblivious to my identity -- and graciously thanked me and my stunt double for coming out to his songwriters' circle. And then, not an hour after the show had ended but by now tipped off to my presence, he sent an e-mail cordially thanking me again and expressing regret that we hadn't met. That, of course, only made me feel worse, particularly since at that very moment I was ruminating about how I'd had the same reaction to seeing him live as I'd had each time I'd listened to his disc.

Which is to say, I found his music as stimulating as watching paint dry.


Rob Drabkin

So, yeah, I felt horrible, and still do. But as someone far more clever than I once pointed out, this thing of ours, it's not called show friends, but show business. And that's just the way it goes. There have been times when I've felt compelled to lavish praise on people whom I'd pay not to be in the same room with, and other times when I've taken decent folks to task, people whom I truly admire. As people -- just not as musicians.

People like Drabkin. It's not that the guy lacks talent; he's both a nimble-fingered guitarist and beyond serviceable as a vocalist. And it's not that his songs are inherently bad; they just strike me as soulless. He offers plenty of sizzle, just not enough steak for my tastes. If you're the type whose heart races every time you hear Dave Matthews, this is your guy. The resemblance is uncanny. Drabkin's meandering melodies, punctuated by histrionic falsetto runs, a percussive playing style and unorthodox chord voicings, are Matthews personified.

To be fair, Drabkin might not have seemed as lackluster had the three other singers alternating songs in the Dazzle songwriters' circle not been so, well, dazzling. They all sounded like somebody else, too, but managed to be intriguing nonetheless. Reed Foehl channeled Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams so convincingly that a retina scan would be required to distinguish the two; Kevin Mileski paraphrased David Wilcox with grand efficiency; and Gregory Alan Isakov summoned a rootsier Glen Phillips covering the best Kelly Joe Phelps songs never written.

So why the double standard? I operate under the general presumption that everybody is derivative. Show me a truly original artist working in the past two decades, and I'll show you music that tests the limits of listenability. So originality isn't a prerequisite for an artist to resonate. A lack of inventiveness can be overlooked, provided an artist either a) transcends his influences by adding his own spin to craft something unique, or b) presents music that's so damn gripping, it renders any thoughts of its origin completely moot. And all three of these guys succeeded.

Although Mileski, with his deft finger-picking style and supple vocals, was clearly the most accomplished player of the bunch, what won me over was his witty, engaging presence and incredible melodic sensibility. He introduced songs such as "Breakdown on the Side of the Road" by regaling us with entertaining anecdotes about having written the tune after inexplicably breaking down in the middle of Oklahoma (again!) and hoping to thwart the jinx. Other cuts like "Cafe Brioche" didn't need an introduction; Mileski's John Gorka-like narrative style spoke for itself.

Foehl sucked me in first with his evocative vocals, and then with incisive lyrics on songs such as "Chances Are," which boasts the lines: "Stripped of his clothes and cursing the cancer/God's only got so many prayers he can answer/With millions of bodies and millions of souls, somebody's bound to be left in the cold." The words stung a little more when I realized that Foehl -- who once upon a time fronted Acoustic Junction -- was perhaps singing about his father. (During a brief conversation, he'd mentioned that he'd moved back home at one point to help care for him.)

I'd admired Isakov's work from afar since late last summer, when I stumbled across his MySpace page and reached out to him. He responded by sending copies of his discs, which I dug immediately. As good as his pastoral songs sound on record, they're even more endearing live. Part rustic troubadour and part backwoods shaman, Isakov had us all spellbound, hanging on to every last note.

Mileski, a masterful performer in his own right, verbalized the thoughts of everyone in the room. "I never sighed so much in a show," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "This is like the world's best open mike. I had no idea what I was walking into."

Me, neither.

At the end of the night, at the behest of a few members of the audience who couldn't get enough, the four musicians joined together for a poignant rendition of "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen tune popularized by Jeff Buckley and countless others. I wouldn't quite call it a religious experience, but it was certainly magical -- even if they had difficulty remembering the third verse.

All in all, Drabkin put together a fantastic evening -- even if his contribution was the least compelling. To that end, I feel for the guy. I know firsthand what it's like to be outshone on a bill that you helped fashion; by default, I once played the middle slot between two songwriters I couldn't carry water for. But then, judging from the reception he received at Dazzle, Drabkin's doing just fine without me. And he can take heart from the fact that nice guys don't always finish last. Dave Matthews has sold something like, what, a bajillion albums or something?

Upbeats and beatdowns: On Friday, February 23, 3Oh!3 gets down at the Gothic with Under the Influence of Giants, Signal to Noise and Firescape, while Constellations, Nathan & Stephen, Laylights and Rabbit Is a Sphere create a can't-miss lineup at the Bluebird.

On Saturday, February 24, renowned jazz vocalist René Marie (a recent transplant from Atlanta to Denver) sounds off at Dazzle in a fundraiser for Lincoln Elementary School, backed by a stellar cast of musicians including Jeff Jenkins on piano, Ken Walker on bass and Paul Romaine on drums; the Mercury Project issues its new disc, On to You, at Herman's Hideaway with Five Style Fist (playing its last show) and Just Be Frank!; Avail frontman Tim Barry shares a hi-dive bill with Ghost Buffalo, Eyes & Ears, Josh Small and Hawks & Doves; Pink Hawks, Team Awesome!, Mannequin Makeout and Pee Pee relieve themselves at the Larimer Lounge; Machine Gun Blues shoots up Bender's Tavern; and Hello Kavita, Stillhouse Burning and Shwerver stop by the Bluebird.


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