Concerts

Dragondeer Covers the Velvet Underground on Halloween

It’s common knowledge that the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground — bands that emerged on opposite coasts and mesmerized ’60s counterculture audiences at roughly the same time — both performed previously as the Warlocks.

Perhaps not so widely known are some other commonalities: While the Dead was the de facto house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Test gatherings, the Velvets were holding musical court at Andy Warhol’s fabled Factory parties — and in its own way, the Velvet Underground was a jam band, too, rocking thirty-minute versions of "Sister Ray" while the Dead was seeing how far out "Dark Star," its own improvisational staple, could get.

“They were doing the same thing," agrees Eric Halborg of Denver blues-rock quartet Dragondeer. "They were taking drugs. They were stretching stuff out. They were lettin’ people fly their freak flags. Outwardly, it just looked so different, but they were really doing similar stuff.

“They were definitely incubating at the same time,” he continues, “and obviously, it’s different aesthetics, but the Dead was a little bit rougher around the edges than maybe people think. I don’t think the bandmembers were flower children; they were, like, rolling with the Hells Angels. And the Velvets were dark and brooding, but then there are songs like ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ that sound like a precursor to the Allman Brothers.”

Dragondeer, which has paid tribute to the Dead and others at memorable Halloween shows in recent years, will cover the Velvet Underground at Globe Hall this Sunday, October 31, as well as play a set of originals.

“We got our buddies Extra Gold on the bill for Halloween, and they’re gonna do some originals but then some Dead stuff, too," Halborg says, "so we thought it was interesting to have a sort of East Coast-versus-West Coast sort of mod-versus-hippies crossover."

Halborg, who formed Dragondeer eight years ago as a duo with multi-instrumentalist Cole Rudy, grew up immersed in the blues in Chicago and was previously in the more indie-centric group the Swayback. He says that attitudes toward music in Colorado surprised him when he moved here.

“I was into shoegaze and punk, but then I was also into, like, the Dead and Phish and Widespread Panic," he recalls. "I thought that everybody had a wide taste in music, but I found out that when I would put on Dinosaur Jr. at a party in Boulder, it would bum people out. They’d want to hear the Allman Brothers or whatever. I kind of lashed out at that closed-mindedness. I was, like, ‘Fuck this! Why can’t you like all this?’ — and I shifted toward heavier music. That’s where the Swayback came from. Once that faded out, Dragondeer came, and I was playing a ton of harmonica. I think all the music that I had absorbed in my youth was coming out, and it sort of shaded to that side of my taste.”

Halborg was recording a solo album by Lawrence Arms singer-bassist Brendan Kelly when Rudy, an acquaintance, dropped by to record a cover of the jazz standard “April In Paris.”

“It turned out Cole was a massive Lawrence Arms fan in his youth," Halborg recalls, "and I ended up getting him on that record playing mandolin. In the midst of it, he was like, ‘You play harmonica, don’t you?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’ve never played with anyone.’ I would just play in the car when I would drive. He said, ‘Try playing something over this,’ and he started playing, and that was basically the end of the Swayback. That was really fun, and it went from there.”

Dragondeer has had some big-name bassists over the years, and it recently added Hunter Roberts to fill out the rhythm section with Carl Sorenson, one of the most respected drummers in Colorado.

“I’m the only guy who doesn’t have a jazz degree,” Halborg notes. “But Carl studied jazz, and I know his favorite drummer is John Bonham. He was trained in jazz, but the first gig I played with him was a Nirvana tribute gig, and he knew the beats already and was just smashing them. Once Cole and I expanded Dragondeer past just the two of us doing our version of the blues, it was pretty easy calling Carl to get him in on it.”

The band has released a slew of singles and just one full-length album, 2018’s If You Got the Blues. The follow-up LP — the group is "in the last stages of recording," Halborg says — will be released next spring on the Denver label Color Red and was produced by label founder Eddie Roberts of the New Mastersounds. In the years leading up to the pandemic, Dragondeer built a sort of bridge between the local rock and jam band scenes, and the new album could reflect a juxtaposition of the two.

"With the other three guys having jazz backgrounds, it made sense for us to take these succinct songs and stretch them, to improvise and keep them interesting for us and for fans," Halborg explains. "If we see people getting down to it, getting into it, I’ll make signals on stage, like, ‘Let’s stretch it and loop it.’ I think that sort of mentality lends itself to some of the jam stuff, but I also think we cross over back and forth. We've been enjoying it.

“We’ve been doing three-hour sets sometimes and still been able to keep going. I think that kind of lends itself to that jam-band community, and those people are super nice. I saw Dead and Company last night. It’s definitely music I dig — but then we dig the Velvet Underground, and we’ve been doing Fugazi covers in the middle of jam songs, so it’s kind of a full spectrum.”

Having used Halloween gigs to tackle David Bowie, the Dead, and — in 2019 at Cervantes' — a diverse selection of hits from 1983, paying tribute to the Velvet Undergound at Globe Hall on Sunday should be a treat for Dragondeer and VU fans alike.

“Once we got into the material, there are songs like ‘Beginning to See the Light,’ where the last half of song is instrumental drone,” says Halborg, who's looking forward to blowing the roof off of Globe Hall with the sparks that might fly when indie rock meets jam rock and vice versa.

“In the indie scene, people are expressing brooding, nihilistic things, and jam music is positive, uplifting. It’s nice to have both," he concludes. "I appreciate whoever brings any music to expand people’s tastes."

Dragondeer and Extra Gold play at 7 p.m. Sunday, October 31, at Globe Hall, 4483 Logan Street, 303-296-1003.Tickets are $20; learn more at globehall.com.