There are a small handful of bands that would have been great openers for a show like this, and Il Cattivo and Lion Sized are two of them. The former started off the show with a crashing squall that formed into raging slabs of sound punctuated by frontman Brian Hagman's signature caterwaul. Conveying a sense of harrowing desperation with his voice is something at which Hagman excels.
Il Cattivo doesn't skimp on the energy, but it also doesn't feel the need to overdo things. Everyone in the band is a veteran of a wide range of musical flavors, and so Il Cattivo is able to write songs with fluid dynamics from loud to quiet, without just turning on the crushing heaviness and then off, as would be the case with a less experienced band. The group ended with a song that allowed Holland Rock-Garden to display a knack for dreamy expansiveness contrasted with Matt Bellinger's prowess with providing tension, texture and drive on guitar. Adept at outrage, introspection and the transmogrification of psychic anguish, Il Cattivo played a set that was ever captivating.
Lion Sized doesn't play a lot of shows these days, so it's easy to miss those that happen. Early in its existence, Lion Sized seemed to be driven by a nervy energy. But at this point, it was interesting to see how that energy has been channeled into an intentional but never stiff, angular melodicism that has opened up the songwriting a bit more in terms of the group's dynamic range.
Instead of all instruments seeming to compete with one another, this band has clearly mastered the art of working together toward the same purpose in a conscious way. If anything, the material that could be found on the group's latest EP was reminiscent of Devo, if those guys had played a lot faster and tried to be more of a rock band than whatever it is that you'd call what Devo does, exactly. Perhaps a fusion of Devo's rhythmic creativity and Drive Like Jehu's overt aggression. Lion Sized has always been a good band, but this show revealed an expertly nuanced side of its sound.
As per his usual entrance, Watt walked to the front of the stage, where he was helped up, and after getting himself settled, he thanked the "good people of Denver," and then he and his bandmates -- guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales -- kicked the awesome science for 45 minutes. Was it punk rock? Jazz? Blues? Prog rock? Yes on the first three, and only unintentionally on the fourth.
While Watt and company probably weren't going for a rigid classical structure, the music they played stopped on a dime but also whirled about in a free-flowing shifting of time signatures not done to prove a point, but to communicate the feeling to be conveyed by each song. And each was a short piece from Hyphenated-Man.
Things went by so fast and with little formal regard for starting and stopping where bands usually do between songs. The clear change in tone made the shifts seem obvious, but it wan't confusing, because it was all supposed to be thematically related.
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Watt's incredible versatility and creativity on the bass, not to mention his sheer prowess with the instrument, was breathtaking to watch, and he was definitely matched by his bandmates (otherwise this music wouldn't work). Watt often cried out lyrics with a precise eruption of emotion, whether that was anger, frustration, an overwhelming intensity of feeling, or joy, and while practiced, none of these moments seemed anything less than authentic.
At the end of the show, the crowd was so into everything, the guys came back on stage and performed a mini-set of Minutemen songs sung mostly by Tom Watson, including "Toadies," "Black Sheep," "The Glory of Man" and closer "Anxious Mo-Fo," with Watt on vocals. All in all, it made for one of the most thrillingly relentless sets likely to happen around here for a long time to come.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Mike Watt's music got me through some rough times this past year. Random Detail: Watt walked to the stage and was helped up by photographer Mike McGrath and me because of his knee brace. By the Way: Hyphenated-Man is, from beginning to end, vintage Watt and an impressive artistic achievement.