Itchy-O, by virtue of the sheer numbers of its membership, should devolve into chaos. Its shows can seem chaotic and on the brink of tipping over, especially when the group engages in that hybrid of tribal, traditional and Western marching band percussion and the crowd dances in kind. But it proved on New Year's Eve at 3 Kings Tavern that its specific rituals, flexible enough to fit into the spaces in which it performs, are somehow fine-tuned while giving the impression of intuitive cohesion. One uniformed figure took up positions around the band with a GoPro strapped to his head. This person playfully pretended to try to tickle Chris Ritter as he was taking photos. The figure didn't break character and reveal himself. But word got out among various people in the room that it was Jello Biafra, and to the crowd's credit, people left the punk legend alone to his task of documenting the event in his unique way.
Opening act Human Ottoman was reminiscent of Tool but with a bowed bass, drums, loops, synth and a vibraphone. It was an unusual combination but it seemed to work somehow, like a good soundtrack for a steampunk movie. Toward the end of the set the group called up hoola-hoop performance artist Dave Sullivan, who wowed the crowd with truly masterful use of four and more hoola hoops in various capacities while Human Ottoman played.
Rather than some kind of cult ritual, this Itchy-O show seemed more brightly lit, with more fog and even more focused. The entertainment on tap earlier in the night was reminiscent of a "burner" community event, and the band seemed to play to that vibe.
"They infiltrated the space and rocked my world and I was like, 'Oh my god! Where have you been all my life?'" recalls one fan named Palmblad of that first experience. "I just like that they're a mix between the drum corps -- which is something that always stirs my blood -- and then they have the noise pieces. On top of that they have performance art. So I feel like they're kicking on all six cylinders. When I imagine big, imaginative projects that are larger than life that I don't think I'd ever actually be able to pull off, that's what they're doing."
"Then it was cool being a newbie and not having any idea what to expect or hearing the buzz about it and just show up and having the experience," adds Palmblad. "Listening to Burn the Navitgator later and hearing how composed everything is and how intentional all the sound and noise pieces are--what the hell? And, of course, the whole novelty of the record being on Jello Biafra's label."
Palmblad and her boyfriend had seen videos of Itchy-O crashing the St. Vincent and David Byrne show in the Denver area in summer 2013. But even that failed to capture the full impact of the live band.
"When I got there and I saw someone ride in and the lights and the creativity with all the stuff strapped to their person, it's awesomely symbolic as it is," explains Palmblad. "I mean if I could just ride around on roller skates and have my amplifier strapped to me at all times, life would be better. Instead of thinking about it, they actually did it. Then you see Larry the Lion come in and by the time it starts kicking your heart's beating and you're joyfully into the imaginative experience. Of course my first thought was 'I'm pretty sure Joel would love this!' I've been a dork ever since trying to explain it."
Since then, Itchy-O has been on Palmblad's mind and she has been avidly following the group and what it's been doing. Memories of the band and what it has accomplished as a creative entity has even enriched her most tense moments at her day job as a high school English teacher.
"If I'm having a bad day at work I imagine that you hear sirens coming from down the hallway and Itchy-O comes and crashes my classroom and everything's okay," offers Palmblad.
"My plan was to have them write a letter to ask Itchy-O to come and play," reveals Palmblad. "I have shared Itchy-O with a couple of students that are into innovative, independent music and they checked it out. I was trying to think of a way to get those letters to the band to come crash our school in some capacity but then my kids just kind of look at me like I'm crazy when I say things like that. They're never sure what to do with me. Masked people trying to bum rush my school might be a bit of a problem too. We'd definitely have to let admin know ahead of time."
"Maybe it could happen at one of our literary arts fundraiser," she concludes. "I talked to Brett Andrus to have Itchy-O play the alley in front of [his downtown art galleries] Modbo and SPQR but it would be expensive to pull off because there's so many of them. And it's not an easy project run, I can imagine."
Bias: Itchy-O is in a strong and compelling place as a live act. Having seen the band on and off for the last five years it seems to have integrated all its elements well and it doesn't hurt that Burn the Navigator is one of the best records to have come out in 2014.
Random Detail: Chris Ritter formerly of San Francisco punk band Fang and Denver band Crash was shooting photos throughout the show.
By the Way: DJ Dr. Whom and his companion looked like Jawas at their console on the south side of the room with glowing eyes. Maybe saying they looked like members of The Residents would be more accurate.
• BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS • - Itchy-O Plots World Domination With Jello Biafra - There Was a Tribal Ritual and a Lone Cellist at the Mercury Café on Saturday - Seven of Denver's Most Underrated Bands - Why DIY Venues Are Vital Are Vital to the Health of the Entire Music Scene
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.