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Boulder Acoustic Society's Punchline is perfectly timed

Few musicians can cite a specific turning point in their artistic lives. Boulder Acoustic Society bassist Aaron Keim is one of them. During a visit to rural New Mexico, the young instrumentalist — then a college student in his native Wisconsin — sat in on an honest-to-gosh, down-home hootenanny in a 150-year-old cabin surrounded by a motley crew of players tearing through songs like the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen." It was a day that would forever alter his view of, and approach toward, music.

"I think I was 20 or 21 then, and I had been studying the French horn in college," remembers Keim. "But there was something kind of missing from the experience for me. It just wasn't satisfying. That hootenanny was incredible. They were just young kids with huge energy playing banjoes and mandolins and stuff — this giant, collective, music-making thing. It had this incredible power, a connection to history and culture. It just kind of popped. It was really a cathartic music experience."

Catharsis isn't something Boulder Acoustic Society has any problem drumming up — even if it's sometimes on a humble scale. Take, for instance, a recent BAS concert held during lunchtime on a broiling Friday afternoon: On a small stage in Skyline Park, the group played for passersby and downtown office workers eating their lunches and leaving streaks of sweat on folding chairs. The music was enough to keep a few dozen spectators exposed to the 90-plus-degree heat and unrelenting sunshine.

In fact, an extra shot of sunshine came from the stage itself. "All right, folks, it's time for the dreaded sing-along," chided accordionist and frontman Scott McCormick with a smile before breaking into a string of songs that spotlighted the group's flair for rootsy grit, genre-smashing and sheer, beaming showmanship. Wearing taped-up glasses and a chin full of scruff, McCormick led the band as it dipped and whooped its way through a cover of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm," transposed into a playfully sinister minor key. Violinist Kailin Yong, clad in a scarf and a porkpie hat, sawed along elegantly. Drummer Scott Aller looked decidedly un-acoustic behind the kit in his Mohawk and neckerchief. And Keim plunked and swung his upright bass as if in syncopation with the shimmering heat.

No one in the audience that day actually sung along. Most of them clearly didn't know the songs. Many had mouths full of food. And it was just too damn hot to sing, anyway. But the force of the quartet's synergistic goodwill — its arresting mix of earthiness, novelty, and energy — kept smiles on faces and butts in seats.

"After that hootenanny in New Mexico, I realized the power of string-band music played with the energy of pop music," explains Keim. "I went back to school and met Scott, who was also studying the French horn at the time. He and I got an accordion and an upright bass on the same day." After forming Paradise String Band, a group Keim describes as "American Roots Music 101," he and McCormick started hitting Wisconsin's regional folk circuit. "After all these years of working my ass off on the horn and getting nowhere, I learned eight notes on a bass and got so much more out of it. It was so fun, and people loved it."

Paradise String Band broke up in 2003 when Keim relocated to Boulder to attend grad school at the University of Colorado. But a chance meeting with Yong renewed the bassist's interest in playing in a band. Says Keim, "I met Kailin when I saw him playing violin on the street in Boulder. We've had a couple different lineups of Boulder Acoustic Society since then." The biggest overhaul came in 2007, when Aller was drafted and McCormick moved to Boulder and rejoined his old Paradise bandmate. The resulting CD, 2008's The Caged Bird, was both an evolution and a devolution of the sound the outfit had laid down on its previous two discs.

"We were able to bring in all these crazy influences," says Keim. "Scott McCormick grew up playing gospel. We've got classical things and jazzy things and indie rock and whatever. We had guitar on that album and a lot of guests, like Ron Miles, who came in and played trumpet. We hadn't yet solidified this lineup yet, so it's more of a transitional CD. The first two records we did had almost no vocals, and it was this crazy, classically inspired, bluegrass kind of thing. It was really bizarre. We used to have a marimba player in the band who was really into Frank Zappa. But with The Caged Bird, we moved away from that quirky, odd edge a bit. When Scott McCormick joined, we started pushing toward more vocals. It was simpler music played better instead of crazy music played pretty good."

With Boulder Acoustic Society's new full-length, Punchline, the now well-oiled machinery of the group has kicked into high gear. Building on the raw, joyous fun of The Caged Bird, Punchline's fifteen songs are packed with alternately smoky, bouncy and twangy tunes that call to mind everyone from Tom Waits to Split Lip Rayfield to They Might Be Giants. That said, Boulder Acoustic Society is that rare band that truly has a sound and soul all its own — not that it's been easy to come by.

"Even though this band has been around for five years and this is our fifth record, it's just now that we're getting a certain kind of attention," says Keim. "We sound nothing like we did in 2004. When we were making our first two records, we wanted them to sound as perfect as possible. But when it comes out of the speakers, it turns out perfect sounds like shit. We've been relearning how to do things. With Punchline, I feel like we were able to take all our new ideas and make them sound as good as they could sound, but still leave enough rough edges that we'd be happy with it."

One edge that wasn't left rough was Punchline's packaging. While many in the music industry have been predicting the demise of the CD format, Boulder Acoustic Society turned their new disc into an elaborate, pop-up, 3-D diorama depicting the band at play. Keim's love of hands-on interaction and craftsmanship doesn't end there: In addition to designing and building custom banjo ukuleles for a company called the Bean Sprout that he co-founded, he recently assembled a hand-stitched booklet called, aptly enough, Two Chord Songs — a guide to performing simple, time-honored folk songs that he sells at its many concerts and festival appearances around the country each year. The booklet is introduced with a brief call-to-arms that just might be Keim's overall philosophy of music: "Most of these songs could be played with more, less or different chords, alternate verses, hipper lyrics or whatever... Just take them as a starting point and GO FOR IT!"

"In a way, it's a really super-old-timey idea," says Keim. "Our music is as new-timey as it's ever been, but everyone in the band is a very crafty, make-it-by-hand type of person. Making physical objects just feels cool to us. It used to be that you were part of a musical culture because you were physically in it. You ended up playing the music you played because the people around you did that. When sheet music and then radio and then records happened, you started being able to learn about music from far away. Which is fantastic, but the ultimate outgrowth of that has been Internet culture. Right now, if you want to learn how to play the Hawaiian steel guitar, you can get on YouTube and see every great person who's ever done it."

As if the band's simultaneously forward- and backward-looking music wasn't proof enough, Keim is quick to point out that Boulder Acoustic Society is in no way a Luddite organization "This kind of global culture is great," he admits. "But it's also great to be able to spread music in an old-fashioned way. We were just at the Albuquerque Folk Festival, and between sets we were sitting with all these people in tents, just showing them how to play the ukulele and sharing songs. There's no grandfather sitting you on his knee and teaching you how to play fiddle anymore, so that kind of thing is even more meaningful now. People need that connection."

Which is why, to Boulder Acoustic Society, every day is a hootenanny.

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller

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