Keep One Eye on Monocle Band

Monocle Band
Courtesy of Monocle Band
Monocle Band
Monocle Band enjoys a good story. Tales of old-time intrigue emerge from the band's music, as well as deeply felt emotions. Songwriters Bill Huston and Monica Marie LaBonte combine their respective influences to forge compelling Americana- and folk-influenced results; and it's no wonder, when you consider their backgrounds. Huston studied creative writing at Stanford University, while LaBonte, a graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, enjoys poetry and spent several summers during her youth working at a camp deep in the woods of Alabama.

"We started playing music together at a mutual friend's wedding around 2010," says Huston, a 39-year-old resident of Boulder and father of a one-year-old girl. "[Monica] turned me on to Gillian Welch and that style of music. I was big into Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. After the wedding gig, we started swapping music and we bonded over it. And then we were like, hey, we should write some songs together."

With LaBonte's interest in poetry and penchant for introspective themes such as love, depression and relationships, and Huston's background in literature and writing, the two songsmiths joined forces, and their combined work first saw recorded light on a Kickstarter-financed CD, Monocle Band, in 2013. 

"The band name was originally a play off of Monica's name," Huston explains. "But it also has an old-timey resonance to it. We wanted something that was a little bit nostalgic. We used to call ourselves Monocle without the 'band' part, but there were some other groups called Monocle, so we added 'band' to differentiate ourselves."

Huston and LaBonte, who was raised in Colorado Springs and now resides in Pinewood Springs, just northwest of Lyons, recall their early gigging life as being a high-spirited time in the town of Boulder.

"I lived there for about eight years total," says LaBonte, who studied speech, language and hearing sciences while at CU. "We met in Boulder and started writing together. It was fun. I lived close to campus, and there was a lot of bar-hopping, taxi riding and biking around that town. We played as many gigs as we could as a guitar-based duo, and then organically, we decided to add drums, a violin and bass."

Eight years after their first outings, the songwriting partnership is going strong, and what began as a duo has become a regular quintet. The bluegrass- and Americana-tinged group released its second full-length, The Clearing, in October of 2017 and has been riding a wave since then.

"We get a lot of great songs that come out between us," says Huston, who is originally from the Chicago area. "Some of our stuff feels a little old-fashioned, maybe, but we don't consciously try to create our material to sound that way. We just try to write from the heart and translate our feelings and experiences to music. With the new record, we're moving into more of a modern folk and Americana vein, I would say."

LaBonte, 33, who also spent time living and studying in Fort Collins, agrees with her creative partner's assessment, and adds that their outfit's collective sound is always evolving and moving in unexpected directions.

"We have a tradition of writing storytelling songs with cool old themes like bank robbing, which are great," she says. "I mean, who doesn't like a good bank-robbing song? We started with some bluegrass instrumentation, but over the years we've begun to transcend the bluegrass and old-time genres a bit. We have drums, upright bass, fiddle and acoustic guitars, but we recently included piano and electric guitar to provide some textures that go beyond bluegrass into other worlds. We had a great sold-out show for our CD release at the Wildflower Pavilion at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons this past October, and we have a handful of gigs this January. We're just starting to book for the summer, and we're ramping up. It's really fun."

Monocle Band comprises Huston on guitar and vocals; LaBonte on guitar, vocals and piano; Dave Weinand on upright bass and vocals; violinist Emily Rose Lewis; and drummer Todd May. Their recent release was produced by well-acclaimed sound engineer John McVey at Cinder Sound Studio in Boulder.

"Monocle Band is a melting pot of various styles coming together to make a modern folk-rock sound," says Huston, who logged time in a few jam bands while living in California and also studied jazz for a while at CU-Boulder's College of Music. "We try to incorporate everyone's influences."

LaBonte says the title track from the group's new release breaks ground for the band and goes way outside the accepted acoustic-band box.

"It takes us to new sonic spaces," she says. "I'm playing piano, and there are a lot of electric sound washes. It's more of an experience than a story. It's kind of like an eleven-minute atmospheric electric ballad. It's really cool. We're very proud of how it turned out on the record. Five years ago we were playing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival competition, and this is about as far from that style of sound as we can possibly go. We'd get disqualified if we played it. It's almost like an anti-bluegrass song."

Monocle Band, 8:30 p.m. Friday, January 12, Oskar Blues Grill & Brew, 3030 Main Street, Lyons; 3 p.m. Saturday, January 13, Estes Park Winter Festival, 1209 Manford Avenue, Estes Park, $30.