Denver Afterdark travelogue: Safe Boating, Gauntlet Hair, Force Publique and more

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While there were many memorable performances at the Denver Afterdark festival -- presented by Analog Space, curated by Peter Black and spread out between several venues on the 2700 block of Larimer last night -- the most unusual and, subsequently, memorable set of the evening belonged to Safe Boating is No Accident, who played a late night set that involved an execution and resurrection of the band members in a dark alleyway between Larimer and Walnut.

Before any of that happened, Neil McCormick and Leighton Peterson picked up their respective instruments, introduced themselves and got down to business. A Casio drum beat kicked in as Peterson and McCormick played a rendition of "Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt. After one iteration, the tempo changed and the duo repeated the whole thing again multiple times, increasing the tempo each time until they reached a pace too hectic to really keep up on bass and banjo.

As the pair queued up another song, McCormick laid a spiel on us about how the other half of the band had quit on them and just as casually mentioned how he had gone back to his heroin habit as part of that process. He said it so matter-of-factly that we all went along with it as part of the show. After all, this is one of the few bands that always seems to have some inspired gimmick up its sleeve. After revealing that both of them had grown up in remote towns and had dogs named Lucy, McCormick and Peterson sang/spoke a story song about another dog named Lucy, who apparently changed genders throughout the song, which just added to the hilarity.

The story of this Lucy took that whole Go Ask Alice kind of narrative to new levels, first cast as a friend of Lindsay Lohan's coke dealer, then ending up on a prison reality TV-show, in which Lucy laid waste to the Aryan Brotherhood collectively, because she was Jewish and took umbrage at their whole anti-Semitic and white supremacist jibber jabber. In a final stroke, just as Lucy was about to "curb stomp" (this was an actual lyric in the song) them all in one fell swoop, she said, "Mazel tov, bitch!"

Following this bizarre song-tale, Safe Boating went into a pretty straight forward folk song, the kind it generally excels at, and when the last notes of the song rang out, two figures in black turtle necks, wielding long carrots stormed into the room proclaiming that they were "Disciples of Pitchfork" and that they were going to "take over the show." The two demanded Safe Boating play Bon Iver -- who, apparently, is the only acceptable person to musically emulate.

Leighton and Neil indulged their demand with a kind of mocking impression that only served to outraged the Disciples, who hinted at some sort of execution out in the alley. Right about then, we were all forcefully encouraged to follow the Safe Boating guys into the alley between Larimer and Walnut, and so out we marched for what turned out to be one of the most bizarre episodes of street theater and performance art in recent memory.

Once we all got to the alley, Leighton Peterson and Neil McCormick were marched down to a smelly dumpster, where one of the Pitchfork disciples had the guys put down their instruments and told them to get on their knees. At that point, he executed McCormick with one of the carrots he and his co-hort were packing, prompting Peterson to cry out to the heavens: "Why?!"

The thug then made Peterson dance for the assembled crowd of about twenty, and when Peterson awkwardly tried to dance he was told to shake his "money maker." He made an attempt, and when that wasn't good enough, the Pitchfork devotee set about executing Peterson, which is when Zay Alejandro Dicamara jumped out from behind the dumpster and beat up the black-turtle-necked thug.

Immediately, Dicamara checked McCormick and found him dead, and he informed us that he was a conjurer or a sorcerer but that he needed our help. So while Leighton and Dicamara laid hands on McCormick, we all chanted "Zim Bim" repeatedly until McCormick started to shake and slowly come back to life, at which point he held on to Dicamara like a baby monkey.

From there, the band played some of its more popular songs acoustically with Dicamara playing some stuff he either found (placed?) in the dumpsters with some drum sticks he happened to have with him. At one point somebody whose was not part of this whole performance art experience walked down the alley through the whole proceedings with raised eyebrows. The price of admission was worth this experience alone.

Following Safe Boating's set, Gauntlet Hair offered up a dreamy set of music that sounded thicker and more dynamic than ever, likely due to the addition of Matt Daniels of Vitamins on bass. Although Craig Nice's kick drum pedal kept failing, it did not detract from the set where it was clear these guys were giving their all in a way that didn't seem as obvious on previous occasions. Andy Rauworth nearly leapt off the ground with the force of emotions, as Nice struck his kit with a new sense of ferocity.

Tighter, more compelling than before, the group played some newer material that showed that this band hasn't just stood still in the midst of its burgeoning buzz. The attention, as this performance proved, is fully justified. With the glitches ironed out (and even if not), these guys are likely to win a lot of fans on tour among those who have only heard the recordings and otherwise.

Force Publique took the stage after Gauntlet Hair and also delivered one of its strongest performances to date. Having Alex Anderson of ManCub on board on drums, seems to have given Cassie McNeil and James Wayne that little push they needed to take its already well-written songs into vital live-band territory. Force Publique always showed promise, but this show felt raw in the best way, delivering on the group's early potential.

McNeil has joked about how she doesn't really move around much, but her vocals were so strong and emotive this time, that wouldn't have mattered. Just the same, between vocal passages, hunched forward with her bass, she played like she was rocking out a little but not in an obnoxious, faked way. Wayne was caught up in the energy of the moment, and overall, it seemed like the band had a lot more presence and power behind it than it did six months ago or even six weeks ago.

After "Distorted and Thin" ended the set, Peter Black, the festival's curator, came on stage and graciously thanked everyone for showing up, showing his usual high level of enthusiasm for the things he loves. If he felt any pride about the festival, he should be because the turnout spoke for itself.

At the Meadowlark earlier in the evening, Chase Dobson performed a set of his own experimental electronic music. Glitchy, dark, the songs bordered on downtempo but were marked by a rich soundscape constructed of flowing low-end, punctuated by sharp percussive sounds, with a melodic, ethereal synth over the top that could have doubled for interesting white noise. Another song sounded like what it might be like to be inside some kind of cybernetic organism with metallic percussive noises, stretching sounds and who knows what else cycling fluidly through at rapid speed.

School Knights, who played at the Larimer Lounge, is another band that sounds like it has gotten notably better in the last six months. Earlier on in the band's life, the duo of Michael Stein and Zack Roif propelled the music with sheer youthful exuberance. But this incarnation of the band allows for greater nuance and strong sonic signature.

The music evoked Black Lips a bit, but in a way that was more playful and in some ways a little sonically darker, but not like some post-punk thing, more like a garage rock band that made more interesting use of time-based effects and reverb and synched it properly with the rhythm section.

This performance reminded me of what might happen if Dinosaur Jr. splintered up one of its songs and put it back together in an upbeat, poppy, nervy configuration. If you've seen this band before and didn't get into them for whatever reason, check it out again.

On the outdoor stage at the Meadowlark, Mombi created a kind of dream world of songs. No surprise since Kael Smith and Matt Herron of Khale were involved, and so was Michael Behrenhausen, who was in the underrated and always interesting Maraca 5-0, among other bands.

It would be tempting to call it dreampop or shoegaze, but it didn't sound like any of that stuff, so much as a band that wasn't going for a genre but instead had a deserty psych-pop flavor, with delicate atmospheres with intense emotions flowing underneath.

Mixing acoustic and electric instrumentation with excellent synths and electronic compositions to enrich the overall mood of the music, Mombi sounded like a it was partly a collaboration between 16 Horsepower at its gloomiest, Legendary Pink Dots at its dreamiest and Pink Floyd, when Gilmour goes off the blues map for a bit.

For his set at the Flobots Stage, Tom Metz, aka Iuengliss, did more of a hip-hop-oriented set. Or so it seemed, as there was less emphasis on vocals and the gorgeous synth pop that is often associated with Iuengliss and more on beats and textures. At one point, the music sounded like a John Carpenter/Daft Punk mash-up.

At the Larimer Lounge, Nyota played songs that sounded like 8-bit music done with high end equipment designed for much more than 8-bit's extremely limited sonic expressiveness. Mark Shusterman's use of vocoder was creepy, like some of the music on Air's 10,000 Hz Legend. On "How Does It Make You Feel?" Mark Weaver's bass didn't even sound like a conventional bass; it sounded more like bass synth, which means that it could have been Corey Brown manipulating synthesizers and other electronics or even Shusterman.

And yet there was something so visceral to the music, that even as it was haunted, it was also frenetic and grounded in the human aspect of music. If anything, since changing their name to Nyota in lieu of Constellations, the guys have pushed their music even further over the edge with fascinating results.

In passing, I heard a bit of CacheFlowe and his always interesting, upbeat admixture of hip-hop, glitch, samples and noise experiments. Somewhere along the line, the schedule got backed up at the Flobots Stage, and I stood outside while some kind of dance party was going on inside instead of Safe Boating Is No Accident. At least the music, a lively, sonically colorful dance music grounded in experimental electronic composition, seemed worthy of the enthusiasm of the crowd. Naturally, it was R E A L M A G I C, whom I assumed I had unfortunately missed.

Click through to see more photos from Denver Afterdark

Click through to see more photos from Denver Afterdark

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