Music News

Arms Askimbo

For an aspiring party band, Denver's Askimbo has been known to leave the occasional listener in a mood that's far from festive. At one cafe gig, lead singer/trombonist Howard Bridges II leapt off the stage in order to confront a bouncer who was getting rough with his roommate. And a performance at an area house of worship ended with Bridges screaming at a minister over the decision to nix an Askimbo favorite called "Underwear." According to bassist David Simpkins, "The chorus went, 'All I want to do is take off your underwear.' Now, for a church social, that was pretty bad. So we rewrote the lyrics to say, 'All I want to do is stay off drugs and stay in school.'" But the cleric disallowed this version as well because, Simpkins claims, "the original message was bad enough that the whole song was tainted."

Confrontations such as these suggest that the members of Askimbo (guitarist Geoff Orwiler, drummers Zach West and Brian Feist, saxophonist Candra Rios, Bridges, Simpkins, and Simpkins's brother John on trumpet) are the rebellious type. But nothing could be further from the truth. While hurriedly leaving the aforementioned church function, for example, the players accidentally took some of the hall's Christmas lights with them. When the mistake was discovered, the lights were promptly returned. No doubt David and John's father, himself a pastor, was proud of their honesty.

By the same token, Askimbo is not the sort of band that inspires folks to sit back in their chairs and muse about the mysteries of life. "At every show, I like to get everybody moving by the third song, at least," Bridges says, so that "all the tension from the feeling that, 'Oh, no, I'm dancing all alone' is gone." He adds that his work ethic is just as strong even on those rare nights when he does not succeed at getting attendees on their feet: "If I'm up there sweating, then nobody can tell me anything. Even if they're not moving around, as long as they can at least appreciate the noises that we're making on stage, then I feel like we've accomplished something." During a recent turn at Herman's Hideaway, Bridges and company translated these words into actions. Songs like the hand-percussion-powered "Pimp" proved to be near-mandatory booty-shakers, and "Smokin' Merengue," a sprawling delight that visits various musical neighborhoods without abandoning its brassy roots, was also widely appreciated.

Describing Askimbo's sound proves to be a challenge for Orwiler; the best definition he can come up with is "funky, jazzy, reggae-influenced, rocking, semi-sometimes-not-very-often-hardcore stuff that you can dance to." The style is exemplified by "Rhododendron," an Orwiler composition that juxtaposes a tastefully muted trumpet solo by John, who's all of sixteen, with a rhythmic passage during which all hell breaks loose.

The musicians' lack of sophistication is part of their charm. Although Askimbo's horn players don't exhibit the scorching chops of more seasoned acts, they compensate with tightly structured parts that offer a refreshing contrast to the typical extended jams of their peers. But there's also a negative side to their relative inexperience: Bridges, whose between-song banter generally concerns getting on up, getting on down or drinking beer, is presently a more skilled frontman than he is a singer.

"We're just feeling our way around right now," David admits. "We really don't know what we're doing, necessarily."

"It's really hard putting together a relatively huge band from scratch with no experience, you know?" Orwiler elaborates. "The overall story of Askimbo is kind of just jumping in feet first and getting wet. That's about all there is to it."

The first scene of this tale took place in the Simpkins basement, where David, Orwiler and West assembled various lineups so loud that John and David's dad was actually threatened with arrest. A somewhat less raucous edition of Askimbo (a nonsense word coined by Orwiler) subsequently appeared on a few bills with Eleventh Hour, a now-defunct outfit for which Bridges played drums. As a result of the mutual admiration society that sprang up during these concerts, Bridges soon found himself fronting a ska-based Askimbo side project before officially entering the group about a year ago. Later, acquaintances such as Rios, who switched from clarinet to saxophone for the sole purpose of joining the act, were recruited to round out the band's current incarnation.

From the outset, money was tight. At one point the bandmembers took a job cleaning a north Denver preschool in order to earn the money needed to purchase a PA system. Their eclecticism has made cashing in on the club circuit equally difficult. "One of the evils of local music is that if you don't classify yourself in one genre, sometimes it's hard to get a following," Bridges asserts.

"A lot of times you'll tell people, like, 'Hey, we're playing a show,'" notes David. "And they're like, 'What kind of music is it?' And we'll say, 'It's kind of like a funk/jazz type of thing.' But they'll say, 'We don't listen to that kind of music' and dismiss it right there. It's just kind of a shame that people are closed-minded a lot of the time about what they're listening to, because we can't really fit specifically into a genre."

Nevertheless, the Askimbo seven do not intend to shape their music for the marketplace. As David puts it, "The way we're going about it now is kind of like, 'Does it sound good? Does it make our ears ring? Cool, we'll play it.'"

Provided there are no ministers in the house.

Askimbo. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 4, Majordomo's, 1401 Ogden, free, 830-0442.

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John Jesitus