It was snowing on Saturday, seriously snowing, hard enough to cover the signs and turn the city into a giant, hushed bobsled track. You would not have known this, though, if you were taken and plopped in front of the stage at the Larimer Lounge around 10 p.m. The room was in high spirits, with people yelling, getting drunk and standing shoulder-to-shoulder like no one was concerned about getting home. Although each band acknowledged the mess outside, briefly -- only Action Packed Thrill Ride's Mark Cawthray really noted the difference, when he said late in his set, "This is kind of fun. I feel like we're all snowed in together," he observed with a laugh. "Feel that kinship? This is a memory you'll never forget," he said, pausing briefly before adding with more laughter, "We're all dead." It was the musical equivalent of a cheap sunset and cheap beer.
If you were picking a house band for your life, you would have to take a serious look at Action Packed Thrill Ride. The band has always outshone its Americana label and lately the designation feels completely unnecessary -- the new stuff is carefree rock and roll for the young and roadbound, simple songs and instrumental breakdowns you can hum along to. There's still just a touch of a honky-tonk past, enough to give the music a grounded feeling.
On stage, Action Packed plays like a band that's been here before, comfortable and competent. But the outfit has lost none of the thrill of performance, literally laughing into the microphones and, particularly in the case of Lucas Johannes, sparing no equipment malfunction or overrated cool at the expense of freaking the fuck out up there.
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As the group finds its sound, its music is starting to really take off, which is to say that there are moments when the guys have layered enough parts together and built the song to the edge of a cliff and the downward drums fall away and the song floats through the air, unbridled. You will never regret having seen this band. The Knew are a very slick band that I would have no problem never seeing again. To be sure, there's talent all around -- Tyler Breuer is a wonderful guitarist, blasting the accumulating musical dust of so much roots rock with caged feedback and righteous distortion. And Patrick Bowden has, at the very least, impressive coordination, clicking out forward-falling drum riffs and blowing a brazen harmonica, often at the same time. I even like Jacob Hansen's voice, breezy and carefree and cool. It's just that so much of their show feels like posturing, so many moves copped from so many better bands, and no one is a greater offender than bassist Tim Rynders, who plays the easiest instrument in the band and struts around the stage like he's earned the mandate of millions of screaming fans instead of the appreciative head nods of a couple hundred locals. The Knew had a tailored country dress code this weekend, and it seemed at times like they might slip straight into narrow-vision hee-haws at any second. Houses debuted their cold-weather sound on Saturday with the release of the Fall EP, their third in a seasonal set. I wasn't sure where they would head after the heady sounds of Summer, but that's because I wasn't thinking clearly. There were signs all along that Houses loves the '70s, and now more than ever they sound like modern Denver's classic rock kings, our answer to (can't take credit for this observation, but it's so true) Neil Young. The breeze has left the band now, and their live show has mostly lost its pandemonium. In its place is a band sure of itself and of its role, clicking together.
The downside of the increasingly seasoned Houses is that, on some songs, the band seems to be mailing it in. I don't know whether it's that they're tired of the tunes or they're just evolving too quickly and the old stuff doesn't suit them.
The upside is that they can absolutely crush you now. The power of most of the new stuff (notably "Red Feather" and "Black Hawk," which is just completely epic) is such that they don't need the absurd charisma at their disposal. They just need the tunes, more solidly crafted than ever. Whereas before they'd just repeat a phrase louder and louder and come crashing down on it, now they'll add little wrinkles, little bent variances in the dueling guitars of Andy Hamilton and Mike Marchant. Johnny Lundock has stepped into a full-time drumming role within the band and the new stuff allows him to flex some truly absurd chops, the sort of massive drumming that you listen to on record and swear is the result of four arms and a heart pumping steady rhythm. Eric Peterson plays a more jarring keyboard on the new stuff: think the organ sound of The Doors. Matthew Till has a few ominous bass lines now (notable on the aforementioned "Black Hawk"), and he muscled his way through some technical issues, continuing to help give the band its fullness. Stephen Brooks helps with that, too, adding an extra set of keys or some random percussion -- congas and shakers. And there's a lot more of that this time around, cowboys and indians style. The front three: Hamilton, his wife Kinsey and Marchant, do the rest; their vocal parts almost menacing, sometimes spoken now. But they still sound like a damn choir of voices, and you still want to sing along to every chorus. And those guitars. Oh those guitars. All told, the results will leave you covered in goosebumps and ready to fucking wrestle a buffalo.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Personal Bias: My devotion to Houses is well documented at this point. By The Way: The pictures are subpar because I had to use the b-team camera, and I am not a good photographer anyway. Sorry about that. Random Detail: Hamilton prefaced a patch of new songs by announcing that they'd be playing a bunch of stuff we hadn't heard before. This is never a good idea, and the place thinned out considerably. Maybe it was just the weather, but still: people generally prefer to hear the stuff they know. Not that they shouldn't have played from the new EP, obviously, but I probably wouldn't have bunched it together and then alerted the crowd.