Bob Drake Helped Put Denver on the Experimental Music Map

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Bob Drake is playing his first-ever all-solo show in nearly four decades of performing music internationally. Hardly a pop star, Drake is nevertheless a legend in Denver avant-garde music circles and an accomplished sound engineer whose production flourishes grace the work of mainstream artists. He grew up in Ohio and Illinois, but when he moved to Denver in 1978, he met people who shared his interest in progressive rock, particularly the truly experimental Henry Cow. One of his new acquaintances was Mike Johnson, and the two played together in cover bands before forming Thinking Plague in 1982. That band and like-minded artists formed a loose community that made Denver a mini-hotbed of strange yet artistically respectable music in the early ’80s.

Drake stayed in Denver until 1989, and he recorded bands and participated in some of the most well-known local experimental acts of the time, including Crank-Call Love Affair, Mau Mau 55, Hail and the Bruce Odland Big Band. The latter included noteworthy local musicians Ron Miles and Mark McCoin.

But by the end of the ’80s, Drake felt like something had gone out of the music world, and he moved to Los Angeles, where he spent a handful of years working as a recording engineer. His production credits include work with Ice Cube and Tina Turner.

While in L.A., Drake met former U Totem drummer Dave Kerman and formed 5uu’s, a group that was pushing the envelope of what music could be even in 1994. A year later, Drake and Kerman moved to southern France, into a studio at a farmhouse owned by ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. That association put Drake in the company of some of the most respected experimental musicians in the world.
Drake is returning to Denver this week, and for his first show in town in several years — he’ll play on Friday, August 7, at the Mercury Cafe — he has chosen to donate all proceeds to a nonprofit championed by his old friend and collaborator Arnie Swenson. Mission Supports (missionsupports.org) was established to aid Denver-area residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are classified as at-risk or who are otherwise on the Medicaid waiver waiting list.

As for why Drake is playing his first-ever solo show, the inspiration came about through one of his many collaborations.

“In recent years, I’ve done a few gigs with my friend Kavus Torabi [of Knifeworld] — the two of us playing my songs,” says Drake. “I’d make quick demos for him to learn from — just me playing and singing live with one microphone, really crude. [It was unlike] my solo albums, where I play lots of instruments and sing lots of vocal harmonies, come up with fancy arrangements, etcetera. I thought there was something neat about the crude demos — just some guy frantically strumming and singing all by himself, a bit frenzied at times and generally reckless — and thought one day I’d have to try doing it on stage.”

Though Drake won’t be bringing any of his elaborate costumes for this performance, he promises to show up in “some crazy get-up.”
“To me, performing live on stage means an opportunity to put on a show,” says Drake. “Be entertaining, theatrical, colorful, fantastic, ridiculous; make something people probably don’t ordinarily see on a daily basis, raise the spirits, and hopefully everyone has some laughs and thrills. It’s a lot more than just the music.”

Drake will be back at the Mercury on Saturday, August 8, for a performance that will coincide with the debut of an animated short by ANIMAL / object’s Kurt Bauer. (Bauer and Drake are old friends, and Drake commissioned the work.) Given Bauer’s talents as a visual and musical artist and Drake’s own creative legacy, this promises to be an evening of unusual art. So if that’s your bag, or if you want to see one of the real legends of Denver music’s past, don’t sleep on either of Drake’s performances.   

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