How the Samples Went From Nursing Homes to the Fillmore

The Samples are among the most successful bands ever to come out of Colorado. But primary songwriter and singer Sean Kelly got his start far away from the mountains, playing for unlikely audiences.As a young man, Kelly and his fledgling band, the Last Straw, couldn't get the time of day from venues in their home town of Burlington, Vermont, so they played at area convalescent homes for recovering seniors.

"They would show us their photo albums and books and stuff like that," says Kelly. "Our song 'Did You Ever Look So Nice' is all about old folks. They see people come and go all day, and who knows what their conditions are and where they are mentally?

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"Then we come in.... [Music] is the universal language, and they would gather around and warm up and talk about stories. Here we were, trying to get gigs everywhere in Burlington, and not one call-back and no responses. You're up against that most of your career, actually, I've realized. You just have to blaze through it."

When he moved to Boulder in the '80s, Kelly found the future members of the Samples while working a number of service-industry jobs, including a gig working at On Track in the Crossroads Mall, where he learned to use a two-track machine to record songs for anyone who came in. He also used the machine to tape demos that ultimately led to a record contract for the Samples with Arista.

Throughout the '90s, the band enjoyed some commercial and critical success with music in the general vein of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, the Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows. But the Samples, curiously, didn't enjoy quite the stratospheric popularity of many of their peers, even though their music has arguably aged better. The Samples' perfect mixture of acoustic and electric, along with a diverse songwriting approach, gave their material a certain longevity and timelessness.

"I grew up on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young," says Kelly. "What I liked about them was that they had the electric side and the acoustic side. I need that contrast, so you'll hear songs stripped down to nothing on an album, and then, of course, stuff that's much more rocking. Contrast is very important in being able to pull that off and not get pigeonholed."

The version of the Samples playing this week at the Fillmore is the original lineup, but Kelly is the only one who has been in all iterations of the band. Membership changes nearly brought the band to a standstill in the late 2000s, but the Samples have been back on track as a rejuvenated outfit for the past several years, with Kelly playing solo and duo acoustic shows, trio shows and full-band performances.

The band got a big boost when its song "Could It Be Another Change" appeared in the opening sequence of the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which put Kelly's songwriting in front of a new, young fan base.

"If you look up 'Could It Be Another Change' [on YouTube], there are sixteen-year-old kids with their guitars and their backs against a wall learning the song and singing it and making their own videos," says Kelly. "That is the coolest thing ever! This is what I'm doing still. And I kind of think that's what I've always been doing -- trying to play to that person. That was me, the oddball sixteen-year-old who dropped out of high school having had a horrible time in school with no support."

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.