Over the Weekend... Moonspeed, Ross Etherton and the Wheel @ hi-dive

Photo by Tom Murphy.

Moonspeed, Ross Etherton and the Wheel Saturday, June 28, 2008 hi-dive Better Than: Every space rock show I’ve seen since last summer when Bright Channel last played.

Ross Etherton opened the show with a Son House song done in his own earnest, inimitable, dignified style. For a guy who is a natural comedian with a playful, rapier wit, Etherton is capable of performing songs with a surprisingly level of emotional depth, exorcising despair as though he can never quite expunge the memories of life’s lowest moments from his soul. Fortunately for all of us who get to see him perform his music, he does all of this with grace, magically weaving beauty out of existential darkness.

For his entire eight-song set -- which included especially affecting renditions of "A Few Crummy Memories" and the heartbreaking Red Cloud classic, "Love, It's Not Working" -- he showed what a single person with a simple acoustic guitar can express given imagination and more than his fair share of talent. It’s rare that anyone writes a song like "Love, It's Not Working" that's that powerful, much less being able to carry it off so masterfully.

Nathaniel Rateliff took the stage next, also alone with an acoustic. The guy doesn’t really need more than that. His rich, musical voice and deceptively simple guitar playing has always been able to create a mood and an atmosphere on its own. His guitar work throughout -- gentle textures and aural shading he applied during the quietest moments in songs -- was impressive as he shifted from Spanish guitar styles to folk and country with ease. Playing quietly as opposed to loud is challenging and a skill that not enough have mastered, but Rateliff pulls it off with admirable ease. Lyrically, his sentiments and execution were spot on, even if his phrasing and meter tends to become a bit repetitive at times.

Sadly, Rateliff's set was marred by all the background chatter from the crowd. I’d heard about this phenomenon indirectly from quiet performers from outside of Denver who don’t come here for exactly this reason. Too bad these people had to miss out on another excellent show from the Wheel.

Earlier in the day, a friend asked me how Moonspeed would get eleven people on the stage at the hi-dive, and I flippantly replied, “They won’t.” Turns out the act did fit all of its members on the stage -- and what it a lineup it is, with Darren Cheek on Moog and a synth, Kit Peltzel (Space Team Electra etc.) on one drum set, James Barone (Moccasin, Mothership etc.) on another, Shannon Stein (Bright Channel) on a keyboard synth, Ryan Sniegowski (Moccasin) on electric guitar, Jim Sweeney on acoustic guitar, Matt Brown (Pinkku) on acoustic guitar, Jeff Suthers (Bright Channel) on electric, Hayley Helmericks (Monofog) on melodica and percussion and Doug Spencer (Monofog) on chimes and other percussion.

With that many members, things could have easily turned into a self-indulgent, unholy mess with so many sounds on stage going, at points, all at the same time. Instead it was a space rock orchestra the likes of which I’d never heard before in my life. In that swirling skyscape of melodies I heard hints of early Roxy Music,had they gone on that journey into experimentalism with their soon-to-be-ex-bandmate Brian Eno, Spoon in generous helpings of even more vibrant, sonic hues, breezy rhythms and the most inspired moments in the best krautrock.

Whereas Bright Channel was expansively dark, intense and visceral, Moonspeed is heady in a way that suggests sunshine, endless vistas, the first flush of spring where everything is green and new again. Of course there were moments when the music dipped into ominous tones and Ennio Morricone-inspired balladry, but it never really lost its forward momentum. Suthers and Stein and company have raised the bar for everyone else in Denver once again.

-- Tom Murphy

Personal Bias: Jeff Suthers and Shannon Stein have never disappointed me with any of their music going back to the late 1990s. Random Detail: Ryan Sniegowski had a pedal that flickered blue and red lights from deep within through a tiny round window. By the Way: A modern temperance movement might find sterling examples for their campaign among the hilarious stumble drunks on south Broadway.

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