Last Night: Whirlwind Company, the supergroup of live poetry

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Watching the Whirlwind Company deliver their energetic brand of live verse at the Mercury Café on Wednesday night felt a bit like being in the crowd for a Cream show. Indeed, taking in the combined forces of Mindy Nettifee, Brian Ellis, Jon Sands and Mike McGee -- along with a contingent of local Denver poets -- was akin to watching a rock supergroup on several levels.

The touring troupe brought each of their separate and distinct skills to the table. Nettiffee's verses, informed by the exhortations and energy of a religious revival, melded with Mike McGee's comic narratives; Ellis' intense and highly personal poems stood alongside Sands' frenetic, firsthand tales from the boroughs of New York. The group's styles differed in tone, structure and content, but the foursome offered a unique chemistry in their performance. For all the differences in their approach, the group showed a common intensity and resonance. Their combined performance proved, in an immediate way, that "magicians are just wordsmiths feeling especially passionate," as Nettifee observed.

The touring troupe hails from all corners of the country -- Nettifee is from Long Beach, Ellis from Boston, Sands from New York and McGee touts his hometown as "everywhere," though he's carved out a strong niche in Denver for his unique fusion of poetry and humor. The Whirlwind Company's Mercury Café performance wrapped up a series of three gigs in the state that ranged from Montrose to Grand Junction. The company will have appearances in Ohio, New Jersey, New York and Washington D.C. before the tour wraps up next month.

Local poet and emcee Ken Arkind led a supporting cast of local wordsmiths during the show Wednesday, an element that added a Denver dimension to the Whirlwind's high caliber show. Community College of Aurora English professor Wayne Gilbert was a highlight of the local poets, offering staccato verses straight out of the beat era. Arkind himself provided the transition from the open stage to the Whirlwind performance, opening up the main event with a reading of "Summer of 2001: A Meditation on White Suburban Romance" before introducing the Whirlwind troupe with some human beatboxing.

The four Whirlwind poets seized on Arkind's beat -- Nettiffee played stark, simple chord progressions on a keyboard, Ellis wailed on an imaginary saxophone, Mike McGee played riffs on a harmonica and Sands topped it off with vocal improv.

The verses that followed the bombastic introduction ranged from the romantic to the tragic. The poets' separate accomplishments and accolades showed in their diverse approaches, styles comprising stark imagery and haunting turns of phrase.

"Our hearts are just muscle-fisted clocks keeping their own time," Nettiffee observed; "When you forget you have a body you expect to run into yourself everywhere," Ellis declared. In proclaiming his affection, McGee claimed he liked the subject of his poem like "pirates and frat boys like booty," "like testicles and homeboys like to hang." It was an affecting, inspiring collection of verse, a live compilation that showed the breadth and power of the national poetry scene.

As a final lullaby, McGee encouraged the crowd to take up their own pens and find their own muses. "Let's cry and laugh so much that they're inseparable," he exclaimed, "Try your best and your hardest to move mountains."

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