Never underestimate the power of a bad review. Judge Roughneck, widely regarded as Denver's premier ska ensemble, is living proof. Before winding up on the receiving end of a particularly vituperative slam, the act was a hobby--a cover band that Byron Shaw, former leader of the Jonez, saw as an entertaining way to work off steam while putting together his first solo album. Afterward, the band became Shaw's primary focus, a hardworking sextet with a stack of original songs, a new CD and enough ambition to keep it driving into the future.
Sit down with the Judges (bassist Kyle Jones, trumpeter Rolf Reitzig, saxophonist Jon Hegel, guitarist Chris Reidy, drummer Scott Seiver and Shaw on vocals, percussion and melodica) and it doesn't take long for the topic of their most negative critique to surface. "It was in the Hooligan," Jones says, referring to the late Denver-based 'zine. "They didn't like anything about us. They called us a 'moneymaking scheme,' which was ridiculous."
"Doctors study for years to be able to practice medicine," Shaw comments. "And no one asks them to do it for free. Well, musicians study just as hard at their craft. They deserve some compensation. But I guess this guy at the Hooligan disagreed--and he dogged us for being a cover band, too."
"I don't see them dogging the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for being a cover band," interjects Reitzig.
As the other players burst into laughter, Jones says, "I think you can tell we've had this conversation before."
"And," Shaw concedes, "it gets us a little defensive."
No doubt: Judge Roughneck's first disc is called Rude One's Money Making Scheme. But while this pointed reference is clearly an act of good-natured revenge, it's also an acknowledgment that the Hooligan's rebuke had an effect on the band.
"That review set a path for us," Reitzig claims.
"We saw it as a challenge," Hegel says. "On one level, it was a realization for us. But what came out of it was good."
Shaw agrees. In his view, the notice spurred him to get back into the original-music arena at a time when he needed a shove in that direction. By his own admission, he was made a bit gun-shy by his experience with the Jonez, a band that was formed in 1986. By the end of the Eighties, the act, which specialized in a vibrant blend of reggae, ska and rock, was among Denver's most acclaimed combos, and a trip to Austin's South by Southwest festival in 1991 led to, as Shaw puts it, "a lot of labels blowing smoke up our asses." Rumors that the Jonez were on the brink of inking that coveted music-biz contract continued to circulate for years, but somehow they never became fact. By the end of 1994, the musicians finally decided to raise the white flag; as John T., the Jonez's bassist and background vocalist, told Westword at the time, "I kept reading in the paper how we were about to get signed. But I guess no one at the record companies ever read those articles."
Following the Jonez's last gig, on New Year's Eve, members John T., Tim Miller and Mike Psycho were quickly snapped up by other bands, including Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass and Chaos Theory. Shaw, however, resisted joining an established group. He opted instead to focus his attentions on a solo album he planned to make at a studio owned by Jones, a onetime part of Street Choir (an outfit that also included Hegel) and the late, lamented funk mob Thumposaurus Wrecks. But mere weeks later, he began getting the itch to return to the stage again.
"I started making calls in January," he says, "although it wasn't a serious thing at all. It was just supposed to be a cover band playing ska: the English Beat, the Specials--the music I grew up listening to. That's why I called Rolf. He's a rude boy from way back. He even has a rude-boy tattoo."
"Want to see it?" Rolf asks.
The rest of Judge Roughneck's first lineup was assembled just as casually. Before long, Shaw had gotten commitments from local players such as drummer Kenny James, a man who has played with more Colorado bands than any other living human. "I got a call, too," Jones remembers. "Byron called up and said, 'Hey, you want to make $50 a night playing ska?' And I said, 'Sure, cool, that sounds interesting.'"
"Chris and Kyle were battling over the guitar position for a while," Shaw says. "I originally wanted Kyle to play guitar, but Chris was so persistent. He was calling me ten times a day. So we ended up with Kyle on bass and Chris on guitar."
"Which is kind of funny," Reidy remarks, "because neither of us really knew that much about ska when we started. I'd been playing guitar with Wretched Refuge"--among the noisiest, hardest-rocking Denver bands of the Nineties. "I don't think I'd even heard ska before."
"But that didn't matter," Shaw declares. "I just wanted cats who could play, and I knew that they could. The same thing with Jon--he didn't even audition."
"They called me the day before they were going to take some band photos," Hegel recalls. "Byron said, 'Bring your suit and come on down.'"
The players' strong reputations eased Judge Roughneck's way into the Denver scene; from the beginning, the band was able to get bookings not at venues where covers are the rule, but at clubs that specialized in originals. The high caliber of the musicianship helped, too, as did the act's particular take on ska. Rather than playing ska-core, the brand of ska-laced punk that's so prevalent these days, the band focused on ska's roots, when the style's jazz roots were more prominently displayed. The result was an approach that drew younger ska devotees even as it proved accessible enough for a somewhat older crowd. This broader-than-usual appeal struck some observers, like those at the Hooligan, as a conscious attempt to shape the music to fit a certain demographic, a charge Reitzig denies. "It's just that we all bring something different to the table," he says. "We bring jazz, we bring R&B, we bring heavy metal, we bring ska, we bring reggae. And somehow it all blends really well."
Nonetheless, the instrumentalists continued to see Judge Roughneck as a side project, a lark. "If you look at it, we could have broken up a lot of times along the way," Jones admits. "But something would always happen before we could."
"Like playing Red Rocks," Shaw points out.
"Yeah," Jones continues. "We got asked to play Red Rocks for Reggae on the Rocks. And no way are we going to break up before that happens. But it took a long time before I was ready to say that this was my band. People would ask me about it, and I would say 'I play in it' instead of saying 'It's my band.'"
This began to change as the bandmembers started contributing their own compositions. Jones came up with "Rude One," which he sees as both a dance tune and a subtle examination of the ska-core phenomenon, and "Angry Youth," a number that he concedes "isn't really a ska tune. The music is jazz. It's a swing tune if it's anything." Shaw, meanwhile, penned "Rich Girl," about an upper-class female dating a lower-class male, and several others. Slowly, these efforts were integrated into the band's live sets, and when they went over just as well as the covers, Shaw and his supporters (including drummer Jeff Mince, who stepped in for James) decided to record the material for posterity. The result is Rude One, which includes only two covers: a ska-flavored rendition of the Henry Mancini-penned theme to A Shot in the Dark (the second Pink Panther movie) and a mini-medley that merges Symarip's "Skinhead Moonstomp" with the Beat's "Monkey Murders." The disc is due in stores May 1; the band will celebrate its arrival during a headlining gig that evening at the Bluebird Theater. Before then, on Friday, April 11, the players will join the Psychodelic Zombiez at Jamnesty, a fundraiser for Amnesty International set to take place at the Ogden Theatre.
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Making the transition from a cover band to one that specializes in homegrown stuff is a difficult task, but Judge Roughneck seems up to it. At its showcase earlier this month at the Flamingo Cantina during the 1997 edition of South by Southwest, the sound didn't flow as naturally as have past turns, a situation that Reitzig chalks up to a combination of nerves and the cold temperatures that settled over Austin for the majority of the festival. The material, too, was somewhat spotty, at times seeming more like an amalgamation of soloing opportunities than actual songs. But the undeniable skills of the bandmates saved the day: There are no weak links among these instrumentalists. All of them can play and play well--so well, in fact, that even a relatively stiff performance managed to get a sizable throng up and dancing. As Reitzig notes, "At other clubs, we saw a lot of people standing around and looking up at bands, which seems to be the typical way things work down there. So we were happy that we had so many people up and going."
In Shaw's words, no one "came up and offered us a $100,000 contract" after the SXSW date, but he's not overly concerned. "When the album comes out, that's when we're going to start actively pursuing record labels and lawyers and management and all that kind of stuff."
Given this schedule, it's no surprise that Shaw's solo work is on a burner so far back that it's not even on the stove anymore. "I've got three songs pretty much finished, and six others up here," Shaw says, tapping the side of his head. "And I'll finish them someday. But I've got other things to do right now." Indeed, all the Judges (including drummer Seiver, a recent Berklee College of Music grad who stepped in for Mince late last year) seem committed to taking the band as far as it will go. And if that sounds like a moneymaking scheme, well, that's fine by Jones.
"Why deny it?" he asks. "We're musicians. This is our job.