The neighborhood surrounding Dryer Plug Studios, along a strip of current and former light industrial buildings on 43rd Avenue, isn't exactly quiet. Freight trains run at semi-regular intervals less than two blocks away. Next door is a church, and across the street are some houses. The entrance is on the side of the building rather than along 43rd proper, and even though there was plenty of activity inside, you couldn't hear much from outside, making it highly suitable for its usual function as a recording studio and as an impromptu venue for a show like last night's Royalty Free Haiti benefit performance. Go to the organization's Indie GoGo page for much more information about its projects, which include working with artists in Haiti to teach kids there and creating an artistic bridge between those artists and their peers in Denver.
Once inside, you turn to the left and on the right is a large studio room, and along the hallway a bit of gear, some for the upcoming bands, some obviously part of the studio, like a vintage electric organ that looks like it came out of the late '60s or '70s.
The crowd for Wheelchair Sports Camp was refreshingly mixed and excited for the show before it even got started. Because it was a studio instead of a bar, and because it was Wheelchair Sports Camp and The Knew and Molina Speaks, there being no age restriction actually meant something. A handful of teenagers were at the front, where they danced enthusiastically. More bands should keep that in mind if they want to play for people that really do appreciate it and show it with not a lot of reticence. It always elevates a show to be in the same room with people who don't have to check themselves on whether or not they're enjoying something.
But beyond the teenagers, the WSC crowd just seems to have fun -- they share in the positive vibe from the stage. It's not as though the group is a conventional hip-hop group -- there's so much adventurous jazz and avant-garde elements in the mixd. Their sophisticated sound is thanks in part to the interplay between master trumpeter Josh Trinidad and drummer Gregg Ziemba, who has an uncanny knack for playing a steady beat with tasteful flair and flourishes that come from outside standard jazz percussion figures. He plays off Kalyn Heffernan's own energetic and yet controlled and nuanced rapping and around Trinidad's work, which is sometimes atmospheric, sometimes tuneful and sometimes flamboyant. It's like Low End Theory, but more pointedly political and confrontational but not aggressive.
The group was joined by Everai on the beats and for extensive cameo raps. Also featured prominently in the set were some of Heffernan's students in the Youth on Record program. And the two guys that got up to rap weren't short on personality either, pumping up the crowd some with an admirable level of confidence and humor. That spirit of openness, support and respect to and for developing talent is one of the things that has and continues to make Heffernan's impact on an up-and-coming rap and music community so significant. Rather than insist on some kind of hierarchy, Heffernan in her words and actions brings her students into the mix and helps them to become very much part of her cool thing while emphasizing their contribution. When WSC played some of its newer material, Kyle Grey of Rubedo took the mic and rapped some verses that may appear on the next album. It was another surprise moment, going with the flow and the vibe of a show like this.
Closing out the night, the rock band The Knew got up for a short set, and despite the late slot and serious day jobs, really put in a hearty performance. It was a little more hard rock than usual -- or it came off that way in that environment -- but that just meant getting to see another side of the group's songwriting. Most of the crowd had cleared out by then too, likely because of curfew, but those of us that stayed got to see an already excellent band have fun playing for its own sake and a band that, although it has very much its own local audience, has the sense to take shows like this and not just try to push its career ahead. As Heffernan mentioned much earlier, WSC had been friends with The Knew for a long time, but had never had the chance to play a show together until this night. That sense of friendship definitely added something to how this show at this place felt like being among friends one doesn't get to see regularly.
Bias: Wheelchair Sports Camp is a band with real jazz chops and creativity coupled with serious and incisive political content to its words tempered with compassion. That sets it apart from most hip-hop projects based on that alone and one of my favorites because A Tribe Called Quest had that too. WSC isn't exactly a best-kept secret, but seeing the group always feels like that because the shows feel so inclusive. The Knew is one of Denver's best rock bands and ever since playing a couple of shows with those guys in years past you discover that their friendliness is not even a bit phony and that you can play in some of the weirdest bands in town and they'll find some value in it -- completely unexpected from guys who play in what is often just a great power pop group. The Knew's uniqueness doesn't hit you over the head, it's something that demands you pay attention and when you get it, you're a fan. The band sounds nothing like the Replacements but in that regard it is just like the Replacements.
Random Detail: Ran into Luke Leavitt of Cop Circles and Kyle Grey and Alex Trujillo of Rubedo in the driveway behind the venue.
By the Way: Hit up Chad Saxton for some studio work at www.dryerplugstudios.com.
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