Colorado Springs is just over an hour by car from Denver, but that has often been enough to prevent too much cross pollination in music between the two cities. Still, anyone willing to make the trip from Denver to check out shows or to catch a Springs band knows that our southern neighbor has produced some of the more original bands of the last two decades and more. Someone more knowledgeable and closer to that subject than me should probably make an attempt at a truly definitive account of the city's scene someday. But for me, the Springs scene from 2005 to 2010 was a bit of a refuge from the usual hustle and informal politicking in Denver.
The Springs scene obviously has some of the same social pitfalls as any other, but my experience during those years was one where even when people weren't 100 percent into the music of some of their peers they generally showed up and supported that small scene in a genuine way that I hadn't much experienced again until very recently in Denver.
Speaking purely from my own tastes and experiences, the two bands that got me down to the Springs regularly were Eyes Caught Fire and Abracastabya. I first learned about ECF in 2003 or 2004 from reading Mike Barsch's email newsletter for Soda Jerk, where he had compared the group to Cranes. That comparison wasn't too far off, but the band I ended up seeing in the summer of 2004 at Larimer Lounge was more like Portishead or Cocteau Twins or an especially moody late '90s emo band, with a gifted lead singer whose vocal prowess really solidified the kind of music that struck deep into your emotional reservoirs. The band's music was dark but hopeful, cathartic and transcendent. So I tried to see the band as often as possible even if it meant driving to the Springs and home to go to work in the morning. ECF was always worth it.
Abracastabya, or Abstab or Stabya as friends would call the band, was a little newer than ECF, but the name struck me as a brilliant inside joke that I probably didn't get but which didn't require over thinking because the play on words was clue enough. Because of some of the shows it played, I had assumed it was a kind of hardcore band. In fact, the group was more like '90s bands, like Versus or Unrest but influenced by movie soundtrack music. Though the songs were never abstract per se, Abstab's compositions had a cinematic quality because its atmospheres were understated and Willow Welter's voice seemed to be channeling her daydreams.
Of course the Springs had many other fine bands that existed at that time as well as some older artists who were still active, like Mike Stephens who was in the legendary emo band Against Tomorrow's Sky. He is always in some worthwhile musical project, including the recent Men of Deep Throat. For a short while he had a rock band called Sedalia that was sort of that classic rock revival, but what he and his band mates wrote remained wholly original.
The Mansfields were (and are) still kicking around with its surprisingly legitimate take on glam-punk, and punk isn't exactly on the decline in Colorado Springs.
Some other bands that made some waves in the Springs and Denver included the excellent alt-country/post-rock/prog outfit El Toro De La Muerte, the Dead Boys-esque garage rock phenoms the Nicotine Fits (some of whom later became the Conjugal Visits), the metallic Thruster, which included former members of the Great Redneck Hope, and Tall City, the solo project of Nic Fits keyboardist Chris Bullock. The avant-garde/post-punk project Colonial Excess was also reliably fascinating every time I got to see a show.
Whatever the band in this circle of friends and acquaintances they all played a small constellation of venues from bars to more or less DIY spaces and the main underground commercial venue, the Black Sheep. By the time I was going to the Springs regularly, places like the High Life House, the Whitney Electric, 32 Bleu and the Colorado Music Hall were all either gone or very inactive. Places that I did get to see some of these bands were the Rocket Room (now The Zodiac), Piano Warehouse, Cedar's Jazz Club, the aforementioned Black Sheep and Nosh.
I was always struck by a sense of closeness within that Springs scene and how there was less snobbery than in a bigger city. People had to stick together in pursuit of doing something creative and interesting with their lives. Chances are few people look at that time too fondly, but as a relative outsider who came to be friends with a handful of Springs musicians, I know it felt like I was getting to witness something special with bands that were doing something good and interesting because they weren't trying too hard to imitate a trend from elsewhere.
Eyes Caught Fire effectively broke up in the fall of 2009 and Abstab within two years. Now, Kellie Palmblad, the charismatic singer of ECF, is in Water Bear with ECF drummer Joel Brown and former Headhum bassist and Modbo/SPQR art gallery head Brett Andrus. Geoff Brent of Abstab joined Leftmore in recent years and left his job managing the Black Sheep to manage the Summit Music Hall. David Grimm, Abstab's and Colonial Excess' drummer, now performs in the majestic doom band Still Valley. Noah Winningham, ECF's bassist, does graphic design work for Soda Jerk. If you've seen SJ's ads in Westword, Winningham probably put the image together. While the end of their respective bands signaled the end of an era especially with moves to Denver and elsewhere, the Springs scene hasn't exactly been quiet or dead. Bands like BAES, We Are Not a Glum Lot and Blighter as well as spaces like Flux Capacitor, the Triple Nickel and the Zodiac and even more off the beaten path places are keeping a fire burning.
Naturally much more than I got to see happened and was going on in Colorado Springs from 2005 to 2010, but here are handful of images from my trips to shows during that time.
*Author's Note on the High Plains Underground Archive: In the late 1990s, I started going to local shows on a regular basis. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I didn't know there was such a thing as local music worth checking out. But I was drawn in after seeing a band called Rainbow Sugar (an all-female punk/hip-hop/experimental guitar rock extravaganza) opening for Sleater-Kinney's first show in Colorado at The Fox Theatre in October 1998. Next, I learned about a show at the now-defunct Rebis Galleries. From there I went to the first Monkey Mania show, and there was no looking back.
Rainbow Sugar was the first local band I photographed at Herman's Hideaway in 1999. But it was in 2005 when I got my first digital camera that my extensive photo archive started. In this series, called High Plains Underground Archive, I will share a small fraction of the tens of thousands of those photos, focusing on specific venues, bands, time periods, movements and whatever else seems to make sense. The title of this series comes from the working title of my book on the history of underground music in Denver 1975 to the present.
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.