Somewhere up around 40,000 feet, while Neil McIntyre was flying over the desolate, expansive state of New Mexico on his way to Phoenix, the woman in the next row let him know that she had seen his band, Yo, Flaco!, play months before at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver. She was an older woman -- grandma-age, maybe -- and not normally a fan of hip-hop music. But McIntyre's band was different, she said, from the image that she held of rap music. The players were talented. Positive. They made her want to shake her aging bones. She wondered, would the boys in the band -- all nine of them -- mind signing a copy of their CD for her daughter?
McIntyre and his mates complied. They passed around a copy of their new full-length CD, Skeptamistic, just released in March, and signed their names: McIntyre (MC), Ben Hadwen (flute/tenor saxophone), Brandon Martin (guitar), Doug Lipford (MC), Ethan Raczka (tenor saxophone), Loren Comfort (drums/percussion), Matt Piazza (keyboards), Steve Mercer (trombone) and Wes Coplen (bass). The woman thanked them. Such nice boys.
"People are always coming up to me and saying things like that," McIntyre says. "They're like, 'I don't like hip-hop, but I like you guys.' Or, 'I don't like jazz, but I like you.' I think what they're picking up on is just a vibe. One guy told me he had never danced in public before in his life, but he danced to us."
Approximately 36 hours later, Yo, Flaco! was on a plane again, heading back to Denver. The visit to Arizona had been a quick but important one. The band had landed, checked into a hotel, headed to a crowded club near Arizona State University in nearby Tempe and proceeded to smoke the final round of the nationwide Jim Beam Rock Band Search, a competition judged by Smithereens leader Pat DiNizio and a panel of music-industry bigwigs. When Yo, Flaco! returned to its practice space on the eastern fringe of Capitol Hill, it was the Best Unsigned Modern Rock Act in the United States.
Things have been going well for Yo, Flaco! this past year. In late 1999, the band was awarded its first Beam-related honor when it grabbed one of 27 monetary grants the Kentucky company awarded to emerging artists across the country. The cash helped finance and promote Skeptamistic, an equally funky, melodic smooth- and urban-sounding release that was primarily recorded live at the Boulder Theater in September of that year; the recording also includes guest stints from DJ Timbuk of United Dope Front and vocalist Yvonne Brown. Officially, Yo, Flaco!'s second album (a self-titled disc released in July of 1998 that features a very different lineup and includes now-departed vocalist Venus Cruz), Skeptamistic sold more than one hundred copies at the band's CD release party back in March. Constant gigging helped increase the number of Flaco fans -- people whose votes in the 2000 Westword Music Showcase helped the band win the Best of Showcase award, as well as one for best eclectic band, in May. (Yo, Flaco! also took home the Latin/World award in 1998.) Now this title.
Yet the bandmembers insist the year's biggest victory was nailing down a lineup that works, something they accomplished by adding Mercer on trombone just over a year ago.
"I almost didn't show up to the audition after I heard that first CD," Mercer says with a laugh.
"Not that it was bad," clarifies Comfort. "A lot of people love that CD. But what Yo, Flaco! is doing now is just so much more interesting."
"We've been through so many people in this band," says Martin, who, with Piazza, founded the first Yo, Flaco! about four years ago after moving to Denver from Atlanta. At its biggest, there were eleven players in the band. "In a way, it's like Darwin. It's like survival of the fittest, where only the strong have survived. We need people who understand that no one person can get in the way of the music. The people who came and left didn't like the evolution of where the music was taking them."
"I think the tension that sometimes existed came from people looking to establish the band in a particular genre," says Mercer. "And, really, the pureness of Yo, Flaco! is that we don't really know what it is we're making."
Some thoughts on what it is that Yo, Flaco! is making:
The band might be the curious but inevitable result of combining studied musicians (Raczka, for example, is currently wrapping up a music-studies degree at the University of Denver; Coplen graduated from the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston) with reformed jazz snobs (Martin is a devotee of artists like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery, and it wasn't until his exposure to the infamous Jazzmatazz release in 1994 -- in which Guru of Gang Starr paired bebop with emceeing -- that Mercer considered "hip-hop" on a level with live jazz) with students of the old-school hip-hop tradition (McIntyre learned to rap by immersing himself in acts like A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde as a youth; Lipford began freestyling in North Carolina before moving to Boulder, where he and McIntyre joined forces and eventually became a staple of Boulder house parties in 1996) and players with funk and world traditions (Comfort's hyperactive drumming and percussion sometimes smolder with Latin flavors). More directional and structured than a jam or acid-jazz band, Yo, Flaco! emerges as more than the sum of its sonic parts. Flaco's music is a dizzying, busy but purposeful blend that might offend purists of hip-hop or jazz, but is complex enough to appeal to musicheads and accessible enough to dance to. At a time when underground hip-hop is attracting more and more listeners -- and younger listeners are beginning to turn an ear toward jazz tradition -- Yo, Flaco! is the kind of band that can provide a pleasing primer for both. Throughout Skeptamistic, McIntyre and Lipford lay down sometimes-frenetic, often-witty rhymes against an ever-changing sonic bed that recalls everything from P-Funk and James Brown to Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. A listen to Skeptamistic or a live Flaco gig is as likely to induce bootay-shakin' as it is to inspire individual listeners to pursue a deeper investigation into the band's influences.
"We are not pure hip-hop, and we're not pure jazz," says McIntyre. "And we don't want or try to be. But we get a lot of musicians saying stuff to us. And that's very cool, whether it's some old jazz cat from El Chapultepec or some guy in a rock band."
"We get a lot of intelligent comments from our audience after our shows," adds Mercer. "Which leads me to believe that we attract people who love and understand music. They can identify elements of what's happened."
"Our crowds are the most diverse," notes Lipford. "I've seen bikers, cowboys. And they're jamming. First and foremost, Yo, Flaco! is going to entertain you."
About two weeks after the Beam competition, the crew (minus Coplen, who's busy sleeping before a swing shift at his UPS job) sits in a large circle in the living room at Piazza's house. Gil Scott-Heron's "Shut 'um Down" plays on the stereo in the other room. Twice a week, the keyboardist's basement doubles as a rehearsal space -- and more often than that, if the players can work out their schedules. They've already written two new songs since the Phoenix trip, they say -- and they like them.
Raczka sports a long-sleeved denim shirt emblazoned with an embroidered Jim Beam logo on the left breast pocket. Each member of the band got one, they say, as small token of their victory. Here's what else they got: a limited-edition Gibson guitar, a gig at the Beam distillery's annual Rock the Rackhouse concert in August, with G Love & Special Sauce, a slot on a five-market tour in the fall, and a $1,500 equipment budget. They have not yet gotten phone calls from the William Morris Agency or other people hoping to take the "un" out of their newly appointed title and sign them to this major label or that.
You might expect this to come as a disappointment. After all, the Jim Beam folks promote their annual band searches as a stepping stone to fame and fortune courtesy of a wealthy record company like Warner Bros. or Universal. But a discussion of their label status seems to interest the members of Yo, Flaco! about as much as the idea of incorporating Eagles covers into their live set. Rather, the bandmembers leave the tedium of the "business" part of what they do to manager Krista Koehler, whose From the Roots Management firm offers Flaco pro-bono guidance.
"This band is definitely marketable in some ways," Mercer allows. "So I could see us getting signed to somebody big. But it hasn't happened yet, and that's fine. It's not something we are preoccupied with."
"We're lucky in that Krista can look at what offers we have gotten up to this point and know in the first fifteen seconds if it's even worth our time to look at it," adds Lipton. "If we did get a deal, it would have to be mutually positive and beneficial to all of us, and to Krista, or no way."
At the moment, the band's efforts at career advancement involve more gigging in more towns -- they already play about twice a week and are gaining more touring experience by embarking on mini weekend tours around the region. Of course, the upcoming tour will serve as a crash course in what it's like to be a working band on the road, playing night after night. Considering Yo, Flaco! is a band whose members seem to actually like being around each other, no one's foreseeing any problems of an interpersonal nature. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"I think the best thing we can do for our music is to go on more of these trips to little mountain towns," Mercer says. "We get to share tapes, CDs, find out what everyone else is listening to and getting into. Every time I get home from one of those I have this whole list of things to buy. That benefit of exposure is incredible."
In the basement of Piazza's house, the Yo, Flaco! "Goal Board" hangs on the wall. It's there that the members write down -- in big bold letters -- what they want to accomplish as a band. In the past year, they've written, and erased, many things: Record CD. Expand fan base. Practice, practice, practice. Win Jim Beam contest.
Right now, the board says "TOUR ASIA."
They laugh about that. When the smiles fade, though, you can feel them picturing the scene.