Isaiah “Ikey” Owens was more than merely the genius keyboard player of the Mars Volta. He was more than a key figure in the Long Beach music scene of the '90s and the 2000s. He was more than a mentor/producer to underground bands like Rubedo, Holophrase and True Aristocrats from Colorado. He was someone with the experience, the knowledge, the skills and the connections to help make positive impact in a practical, professional way in the world of music. And there were plans in the works to create an imprint with some management weight and good taste behind it. Ikey had connected Rubedo with music industry friends, and those plans and projects may yet come to fruition. We can only hope.
Ikey would have been 41 on December 1. But heart failure took him from us on October 14, 2014, while he was on tour in Mexico as part of Jack White's band. White canceled the remaining two dates of that tour—out of respect and because you can't easily replace someone of Ikey's unique gifts as a musician.
Ikey's passing was a great blow to friends and family, but also to his extended network in the underground music world but also the mainstream music world in which Ikey often found himself. I first met Ikey when Free Moral Agents played a last-minute show at Old Curtis Street Bar on November 18, 2009. I had interviewed him for an article thanks to my friend Braden Smith a.k.a. Ancient Mith. Not only was Ikey someone who struck me as possessed of great intelligence but also an uncommon sensitivity and understanding. He put on no airs. That night his keyboard-playing was ferocious—a quality that had blown me away upon seeing the Mars Volta earlier that year during the final Monolith Festival.
In 2013 Rubedo asked me if I wanted to join them for a short tour to California and Arizona and, having the opportunity and flexibility, I gladly went. For a good deal of that tour, Ikey was along to perform and occasionally acted as a de facto tour manager. At each show he seemed to put himself as much into the music as did Rubedo. As the producer of Rubedo's 2012 Massa Confusa and 2013 Love is the Answer albums, Ikey knew the music intimately.
When the first show of the tour took place in Ikey's hometown of Long Beach, California, it seemed appropriate. Walking and driving around town, catching nighttime views of this city from an upper floor of the building that held the DIY venue/art galley We Labs, it dawned on me where some of Ikey's inner calm may have originated. Make no mistake, he was a passionate artist and performer and was not what one might call sanguine, but with him there seemed to be a core of peace and tranquility and complete originality. Like he had roots somewhere that shaped the kind of artist he became and to which he could return to recharge his energy and creativity, where he could just be Isaiah Owens and not a legend or rock star or colleague. Ikey had been around the world in his lifetime, but when we were in Long Beach, we took in its grittiness, its beauty, the clear regard people there seem to have for preserving a distinct aesthetic quality of the local architecture. It didn't just feel like a place where someone from cold and dry Colorado could appreciate; Long Beach felt like the kind of place that could produce a person like Isaiah “Ikey” Owens—a person with specific creative energy that could resonate with artists anywhere who shared his motivated, expansive, loving spirit that challenged you to go further than you think you can.
What follows are several images from that tour with an emphasis on places in and near Long Beach.
*Author's Note on the High Plains Underground Archive: In the late 1990s, I started going to local shows on a regular basis. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I didn't know there was such a thing as local music worth checking out. But I was drawn in after seeing a band called Rainbow Sugar (an all-female punk/hip-hop/experimental guitar rock extravaganza) opening for Sleater-Kinney's first show in Colorado at The Fox Theatre in October 1998. Next, I learned about a show at the now-defunct Rebis Galleries. From there I went to the first Monkey Mania show, and there was no looking back.
Rainbow Sugar was the first local band I photographed at Herman's Hideaway in 1999. But it was in 2005 when I got my first digital camera that my extensive photo archive started. In this series, called High Plains Underground Archive, I will share a small fraction of the tens of thousands of those photos, focusing on specific venues, bands, time periods, movements and whatever else seems to make sense. The title of this series comes from the working title of my book on the history of underground music in Denver 1975 to the present.
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