Isaiah "Ikey" Owens would have turned forty on December 1, but heart failure on October 14, 2014 took him from us before that could happen. Those who knew him best have already offered their memories and condolences. He was a great mentor and friend to various musicians around the country, but certainly to a small but significant circle of artists in Denver. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ikey in 2009, prior to the first Free Moral Agents show in Denver at Old Curtis Street Bar. What follows are some images and memories of Ikey across four years of getting to see Ikey play and hanging out with him on tour with Rubedo.
In the Fall of 2009, Braden Smith, aka Ancient Mith, contacted me about a show happening on short notice with Free Moral Agents, who couldn't seem to book a date in Denver except at Old Curtis St. Bar. Smith is a gifted hip-hop artist who used to play around Denver a lot back then but now mostly does gigs in Europe. He'd been friends with Ikey for a while and he connected me with him for an interview that was published in Westword. I had seen The Mars Volta for the first time two months before at the final Monolith Festival, and Ikey sure made a massive impact as a musician from far away at Red Rocks. He played the keyboards like a punk rocker, like he could have been a member of the VSS.
Fortunately, the show was packed and some musicians I would end up meeting later were in attendance, including Gregg Ziemba of Rubedo. That night, those musicians connected with Ikey and would go on to work with him. After the show, Ikey proved to be one of the most down-to-earth musicians I had ever met in my life, including to people in not very well known bands that hadn't played much outside of Denver. He made time for anyone that wanted to talk to him, not as a conscious and gracious concession to fans, but because that's just how he was.
Ikey would occasionally come back through town to play with Rubedo and he worked with the band on both it's 2012 debut album Massa Confusa and it's 2013/2014 follow-up, Love Is The Answer. One of these shows included the final event at the DIY space Unit E on June 28, 2013.
In the Fall of 2013, Rubedo invited me to come along on its tour to California and Arizona and I gladly went. The first stop was Los Angeles but the first show would be in Long Beach on November 15. We stayed at the studio and home of the rock band Wild Pack of Canaries and everyone seemed to know each other and share a good deal of mutual respect. That seemed like the kinds of relationships Ikey fostered between the various lives he touched. Ahead of the first actual show of the tour, we picked up Ikey at his home in Long Beach, California. Though clearly a working class city, it had style as well as grittiness and a relaxed pace.
The Long Beach show was at a place called We Labs in one of the upper stories where a non-profit art collective had its offices and spaces. It was a show that only featured Rubedo as a live act and the group, joined, of course, by Ikey on keyboards, played with its usual verve and vigor.
Somehow Rubedo got booked for an event held by the San Diego burner community, known as the Love Mob, on November 16, 2013. The event took place in what looked like an office park during the rest of the year with a base in one of the buildings called Vision Pulse Creative Suites. There was a lot of "love" messaging around grounded in what seemed to be a polyamorous perspective. A lot of Goth-pagan style around including that of the hosts. At one point the male host announced over the P.A. that they hadn't made as much money as they had hoped, so they weren't sure they could pay the bands what they agreed upon. Rubedo and Ikey were inside when this went down and I told Ikey about it. In a polite but firm manner, he talked with that organizer and Rubedo got some of the money that night. Any band needs someone with experience with this sort of nonsense and that day, Rubedo was lucky to have Ikey on not just as a player but as a de facto tour manager for three dates.
The last time Ikey performed with Rubedo was at the Double-Ply Translucent Caterpillar event this past fall at Dryer Plug Studios, but the final time I got to see Ikey play with Rubedo was the final date in California of that fall 2013 tour at Harvard & Stone in Hollywood. He always looked like he fit in with the band and as though he had been a member from the beginning.
Mr. Owens was not just a mentor but a collaborator with Rubedo as well as Holophrase, True Aristocrats and Wheelchair Sports Camp, to name a few from Colorado only. How many record producers tour with that same band? Not many. His hands on approach to building a vibrant underground music world benefitting from his experience in the commercial music world will likely have resonance for many years to come. He talked and operated like an old school jazz leader and that level of sophisticated and smooth informality backed by trained expertise was powerful without being abrasive. Isaiah "Ikey" Owens will long be missed by many.
*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.
• BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS • - Ten Musical Projects Ikey Owens Made Great - Denver Musicians Pay Tribute to Ikey Owens. "His Voice Screamed Through the Keyboard" - Why DIY Venues Are Vital Are Vital to the Health of the Entire Music Scene - DIY or Die: Why Denver Need Under-The-Radar, All-Ages Arts Spaces
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.