In the two decades since Tammy Ealom formed Dressy Bessy, the Denver that she and her bandmates remember has become unrecognizable.
The city, once considered a flyover cowtown, has become wealthy, a world-renowned live-music destination. The 15th Street Tavern, one of the punk band’s old haunts, is no more. The neighborhood now dubbed RiNo was once industrial, a home to DIY spaces — nothing like the hipster empire it has become. Countless independent venues that once filled the city have been shuttered or taken over by AEG Presents Rocky Mountains.
But for all the change, Dressy Bessy remains an icon of whatever true punk spirit still haunts Denver — even if the band’s influence on our music scene may not be obvious at first glance. After all, the group never skyrocketed the way Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, The Lumineers, or The Fray once did; the group has not graduated to playing with the Colorado Symphony like DeVotchKa. While selling out clubs around the country in 2005 and 2006, there were times when the bandmates felt like they had more fans outside of Denver than in town.
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While Dressy Bessy was on an eight-year hiatus — between the 2008 record Holler and Stomp and the 2016 album Kingsized — the city boomed; by the time the bandmates returned, they felt like they were starting over.
“We took off quite a bit of time when we didn’t have a record, but we weren’t relaxing,” says guitarist John Hill, who’s been with the band since 1998. “In the meantime, all these people moved into town that didn’t really know us, or they knew us from some other place. But everything moves so fast now. If you take five years off, you may as well be a brand-new band. We have had to somewhat claw our way back the last three or four years.”
“There are like ten times as many venues as there used to be,” adds Ealom. “On any given Saturday night, there might be eight shows, and a lot of them are similar.”
But from the right perspective, Dressy Bessy is as essential to Denver music history as anyone else.
“Dressy Bessy’s knack for writing and producing cheerful pop anthems was the gold standard of the Denver scene in the early aughts,” says Alisha Sweeney of Colorado Public Radio’s independent music station OpenAir, which will host the group’s upcoming release party. “To own their records, to see them perform, they were on a different level than the other locals in which they would share the stage.
“They had a momentum that went beyond Denver; they were a guest on BBC Radio performing a coveted Peel Session for influential British disc jockey John Peel and had songs featured in cult films and television shows,” Sweeney adds. “Similar to how nowadays it’s exciting for bands to be profiled on a popular music blog or Spotify playlist, the indie-pop bands that came up alongside Dressy Bessy just wanted the Dressy Bessy treatment.”
“It was really cool to see a band from Denver start to gain that kind of status — especially a female-fronted band,” says Kitty Vincent, a longtime Denver musician and singer for rock band Le Divorce. “It’s hard for bands to break out of Denver, and it especially was then. There was no Internet, really. It was in its baby stages, and there was no social media.
“If you wanted to tour, it wasn’t like you lived on the East Coast and you could get in a van and drive to ten cities in ten days,” she adds. “You had to drive sixteen hours to get anywhere. For a band to come out of Denver actually get recognition, that was cool. That was special.”
Twenty years after the release of Pink Hearts, Yellow Moon, Dressy Bessy’s full-length debut, the band is releasing Fast Faster Disaster, one of its most dynamic and contemplative efforts to date. Delivered in the group’s classic catchy punk-rock style, the songs run the gamut of subjects: Ealom sings about raising a daughter during the Trump administration on “Tiny Lil Robots”; pays tribute to original bassist Rob Greene, who died in 2014, on “Mon Chéri”; and honors one of her favorite musicians, Buzzcocks singer and guitarist Pete Shelley, who died in 2018, with a cover of “What Do I Get.”
As principal songwriter, Ealom has typically written from anger, needling whoever’s crossing her at any given time. Though Fast Faster Disaster has the same fiery punk-rock spirit that runs through the Dressy Bessy albums that came before it, Ealom approached the songwriting from a different perspective: with the goal of changing the world around her.
“Personally, I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been as a singer, songwriter, guitar player — and that lends itself to this record,” says Ealom. “We’ve gone through incarnations of the band. In the past, there’s kind of been turmoil between certain bandmembers, and this and that and yada yada. I’m at a real comfortable spot with my band.
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“It’s not more of a happy place; it’s from more of an honest place,” she explains. “Rather than writing a song about a certain feeling and feeling like I won the fight or whatever, I’m sort of hashing it out and realizing that sometimes there is no winner or loser.”
Since the beginning, Ealom and Hill have viewed themselves not as a popular punk band, but simply as hardworking musicians in the scene. They recognize the time and effort they’ve put into their music and careers, but are quick to point out that they don’t feel like Denver royalty.
“We’ve never really even thought at any point about our legacy or history or anything, because we’re always moving forward and living in the moment,” says Hill. “We just kind of do what we do, and we always think that whatever we’re doing is the best thing we’ve ever done.”