Last Night: DNC Media Party at Elitch Gardens

Flobots, Railbenders Saturday, August 23, 2008 Elitch Gardens, DNC Media Party Better than: A vacation at Pleasure Island.

It’s a scene that’s disturbing in its darkness, and eerie in its implications.

In Walt Disney’s 1940 feature film Pinocchio, the wooden protagonist is lured to a promised utopia for little boys, an insular island amusement park where food and drinks are abundant and where death-defying rides are plentiful.

This cautionary parable about excess, a lesson hammered in by the unsettling image of little boys transforming into braying donkeys, found a local parallel at Elitch Gardens Aug. 23, as city officials and local sponsors threw open the gates for the throngs of visiting journalists and media bigwigs in town for the weekend.

It was a surreal atmosphere. Wandering barkers peddled the feats of Chinese acrobats, fireworks boomed in the air and it seemed that at every turn, someone was offering free alcohol, free food or free carnival prizes. With this anarchic abandon as a backdrop, two local bands took two separate stages for the event, a musical pairing that highlighted diametrically opposed styles and approaches.

The park’s main stage featured Denver’s rising hip-hop stars, the Flobots, with their strident and conscientious rhymes and their musical fusing of classical and hard rock textures, while an improvised stage at the water park featured the twangy tones of homegrown country quartet the Railbenders.

The two bands could not have offered a wider gap in terms of sound and audience appeal. As the Flobots’ emcees Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit exhorted activism and urged the crowd to take up arms against corruption, Railbenders front man Jim Dalton sang phlegmatically of whiskey and lost love. The Flobots called for the closure of Guantanamo, while the closest the Railbenders came to politics came in what could be seen as a warning against the impact of global warming in the song “Whiskey Rain.”

The Flobots’ Mackenzie Roberts, Andy Guerrero, Jesse Walker and Kenny Oritz provided a driving and insistent backdrop for Jamie Laurie and Stephen Brackett, while the Railbenders’ Tyson Murray, Graham Haworth and Tony Nascar laid down speedy and steady country rhythms and melodies against Dalton’s vocals.

Apart from the content, the assembled crowds at the two shows provided a similarly striking difference in terms of orientation. While the Flobots audience crowded to the edge of the stage and pumped their fists in the air, peopled casually milled about in the space in front of the Railbenders stage. Some audience members lolled on beach chairs next to the park’s tide pool.

Both bands offered up trademark sounds performed competently. The Flobots followed a glowing introduction from Mayor Hickenlooper with stirring versions of songs like “Stand Up,” “Same Thing” and “Jetpack.” Roberts’ hypnotic, elastic violin lines included melodies worthy of Rachmaninov, while Guerrero’s stringent guitar lines paid homage to another band that the Flobots will share the stage with this week, Rage Against the Machine.

The Railbenders’ melding of rock-inspired phrasing over a traditional country framework worked well, with Murray’s upright bass and Nascar’s speedy lead guitar adding impetus to Dalton’s understated approach. Songs like “Whiskey Rain,” marked by alcohol-sodden lyrics and emotive solos, recalled the best moments from Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Taken together, the two performances spelled out very different visions of Denver’s cultural scene. While the Flobots’ politically charged approach hinted at a city with iconoclastic leanings, a place that sows global activism, the Railbenders’ set returned to Denver’s rural, shitkicking roots.

I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Still, the contrast was made all the more stark by the odd atmosphere, Denver’s own answer to Pleasure Island and the planners’ own attempt to turn attendants into another, figurative form of donkey.

In Pinocchio, a rapscallion named Lampwick gives the living puppet protagonist a enticing preview of the Pleasure Island.

“They say it’s a swell joint. No school, no cops – you can tear the joint apart! Nobody says a word,” Lampwick declares. “Loaf around, plenty to eat, plenty to drink – and it’s all free. Boy, that’s the place.” The assessment was an amazingly applicable description of Elitch Gardens on Saturday night.

-- A.H. Goldstein

Critic’s Notebook

Personal Bias: With all the free funnel cakes, buffalo meatballs and beer I had stuffed into my gullet before the shows, it was difficult to jump up and down with the crowd during either of the performances. Random Detail: The Railbenders’ set drew a particularly enthused and entranced male audience member, a lanky, middle-aged media type who grinned stupidly and slapped his knee for the majority of the performance.

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