BEST FRONTMAN 2006 | Nick Urata DeVotchKa | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
DeVotchKa deserves more awards -- and cash and Grammys and groupie-filled hot tubs -- than there are room or resources for here. It's never seemed, however, that this group's been in it strictly for the filthy lucre. After all, gypsy-tango-sousaphone rock hasn't climbed very high on the Amazon charts lately. And yet DeVotchKa's universal appeal is undeniable -- as is the arcane charm and fluttering lilt of leader Nick Urata. He swigs wine from the bottle on stage. He clangs the tambourine with impeccable savoir vivre. He sings in tongues -- four, at last count -- and moves like a matador conducting an orchestra of trained Miuras. Long after Urata's become rich and famous and embarked on a Sting-inspired world-jazz solo career, he'll still know how to slay the crowd with a smirk and a warble.
There's nothing about Monofog that doesn't rule. But the first thing that strikes you -- and the last thing that lingers -- is the voice of Hayley Helmericks. Part Patti Smith, part PJ Harvey and part Hurricane Katrina, Helmericks howls like a poetic force of nature, lending an almost asphyxiating atmosphere to the band's saw-toothed post-punk. But it's not all sound and fury. Her lyrics and melodies are at once cryptic, bruised, anthemic and complex, and they utterly humanize the mutant riffs slicing out of her bandmates' amplifiers. And on stage? Let's just say Helmericks makes Karen O look about as intense as Kelly Clarkson.
Go on: Just try to find a single soul who's seen Angie Stevens live and not been completely entranced. Backed by a stellar cast of musicians, Stevens engages audiences in a way that makes every performance feel intimate, like she's playing her songs just for you. The amiable chanteuse has shared the bill with a wide array of performers and had every audience riveted by the end of each set. Hell, she's so compelling, we're pretty sure that her earnest acoustic-based rock could win over a Cephalic Carnage crowd. Bolstered by songs that are often chillingly poignant ("Judy," for example, a song about her mother), Stevens makes the icicles form on your spine the minute she takes the stage.
To say that Vaux has a combustible live show is like saying Ashton Kutcher is sort of telegenic. With six equally virtuosic members, it's hard to decide what part of Vaux's frenzied, retina-searing sets to focus on -- the light canister wobbling back and forth on Ryder Robison's bass cabinet in time with his rumbling bass lines, or drummer Joe McChan whirling about so violently it seems his head will snap right off at any minute? Or should you watch frontman Quentin Smith, who, with mike in hand and veins pushing to the surface, often resembles a pit bull tethered to a stake? Add to that homemade strobe towers that flash on and off in sync with the music, and you are in the presence of a veritable powder keg.
Valiomierda has its priorities in order. Yes, the band delivers lyrics in Spanish and Portuguese as well as in English, but trilingualism is less important to cohorts Lance Julander, Val Landrum, Bart McCrorey and Igor Panasewicz than is rocking listeners to within an inch of their lives. Thanks to originals such as "Crucificados Pelo Sistema" (not to mention a crushing cover of Motorhead's "Killed by Death"), Valiomierda is lethal in any language.
First came Nightingale. Good band. But that name? Not so much. Fortunately for the world at large -- which surely would have assumed that Nightingale was some crappy goth-metal act and avoided it forever -- the group was inspired to change its name by one of the dozens of outfits that already claim it. So Denver's leading purveyor of psilocybin-spiked drone switched to a tag that had been a contender back when the group was formed: Moccasin. Of course, some might argue that Moccasin is just as bad, or maybe even worse, than Nightingale. Pshaw! Sure, moccasins are those dopey shoes appropriated by hippies and art teachers. But a moccasin is also a snake. A viper. A really cool water-type viper with heat-sensing organs and poison and fangs and stuff. Hiss.
Remember back when Mile High Stadium became officially known as Invesco Field at Mile High? All but on-air commentators stubbornly refused to refer to the facility as anything other than Mile High. That same sort of logic prevails here with the act originally dubbed Red Cloud (which counts Westword's own Jason Heller among its members). After discovering that a Christian MC had already co-opted the name, the band -- whose emotionally charged sets have made it one of the most compelling live groups in the scene -- simply slapped "West" at the end of its tag and called it good. Balderdash, we say: Whoever coined the phrase "Go west, young man" obviously didn't know what he was talking about. As our man Clarence the barber noted in Coming to America, "Mama call him Clay, I call him Clay -- Cassius Clay." Stick to your guns, boys.
With so many recent shakeups, it's surprising that Ghost Buffalo isn't a ghost of itself. But despite that fact that founding guitarist Matt Bellinger left his main band, Planes Mistaken for Stars, right around the time that Planes drummer Mike Ricketts left Ghost Buffalo, GB landed on its feet -- and put all its muscle behind its self-titled, full-length debut on Suburban Home. The disc proves what fans of the quintet's live show have known all along: Ghost Buffalo is poised to become Denver's next breakout indie band. The disc melts indie pop, moody country and even a sliver of vintage goth into the dulcet strums and sighs of leader Marie Litton. With new drummer Andy Thomas -- not to mention a stunning video and yet another national tour on the horizon -- Ghost Buffalo has a whole new lease on the afterlife.
The band's members themselves might deny it with their dying breaths, but (die) Pilot's quirks are what make it so captivating. Unlike so many other bands trying to force vast Coldplay/Pink Floyd vistas through the tiny straw of indie rock, singer/guitarist Eugene Brown and crew allow just the right amount of creative tension and unfiltered soul to seep into their work. Radiation, Weather, Art, (die) Pilot's 2004 debut, showed overwhelming promise. The group's new lineup, which includes the odd yet otherworldly tones of full-time violinist Paul Jansen, is working on its sophomore disc. We'd bet on it being among the year's best when the dust settles on 2006.
How short Denver's collective memory can be. A mere decade ago, Painstake was the hardcore band in town to beat. But in 1998, the group (which counts Vaux guitarist Adam Tymn as an alum) went on hiatus -- a break that everyone, the group included, eventually assumed was permanent. Earlier this year, though, four of its five members found themselves in the same town and on the same page once more, and resurrected Painstake with singer Jaime Van Lanen. With a new sound that's even more progressive, complex and compelling, Painstake is set to strike fear -- and fire -- in the hearts of Denver's hardcore scene all over again.

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