Photos by James Mitchell Evans, Soren McCarty and Bert Ross.
Westword Music Showcase Saturday, June 14, 2008 Outdoor Stage Better Than: For the cost, any show in Colorado this summer
On a blisteringly hot summer day, the outdoor stage at Westword’s 2008 Music Showcase reverberated with a consistently blisteringly hot set of rock music that sent its tremors all the way down the jagged corridors nearby Denver Art Museum. It was a steely monster of rock that rose out of the parking lot like Daniel Libeskind’s design rises out of the Denver cityscape.
The Chain Gang of 1974 started the day off right with its enthusiastic set of disco-punk jams. The crowd was sparse in these early afternoon hours, but the outfit's dirty Brooklyn vibes got some of those in attendance bobbing their heads, if not full-out dancing. Chain Gang makes goofily simple music that sounds extremely similar to the (now-defunct) heavyweight of their genre, Death from Above 1979, and if it’s more melodic and less aggressive than that band, you might just say they’re bringing the Colorado vibe to the New York brand.
The Heyday and its melodic FM-radio friendly pop brought the mood to a different place. The band seems to take itself a bit too seriously for how fleetingly superficial of an impression it makes on the ears. The songs kind of blend together and lead singer Randy Ramirez’s voice is pleasant but not too memorable. It’s music that’s as disposable as Chain Gang of 1974’s, but not nearly as fun or danceable. The crowd didn’t seem to know exactly how to respond to their music, though they clapped as approvingly as they did to the Chain Gang of 1974.
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The response to Laylights was more enthusiastic. Their energetic, sweaty set was filled with swirling guitars and aggressive work from the rhythm section that brought the best of what indie rock is about. The angular bursts and cathartic swell that the band alternated between reminded me of a less maudlin (and more badass) version of the Walkmen. They were more quietly, broodingly charismatic and interesting than either of the previous bands.
The Swayback brought a similar vibe, though its singer had a sort of tragic-comic Morrissey-esqe vibe that struck an appealing contrast against their dark musical background. The area in front of the stage was starting to fill up by this time, and it continued to do so during the finishing touches of The Swayback’s set and into Born in the Flood’s.
I had to get some respite from the sun, and since I refuse to pay for bottled water (which came in attractive but still wasteful containers at the showcase), I headed home for a bit. When I returned at a quarter to seven, I found I had missed the entirety of Born in the Flood’s set. The crowd had noticeably more energy, however, so I’m assuming that they were as powerful as ever.
Ra Ra Riot, which started right on time half an hour later, wasn’t exactly epic or arena ready- but it was probably the most energetic live band I’ve ever seen. Energetic seems to be a unworthy adjective to describe the outfit's enthusiastically twitchy stage presence and stellar musicianship, just as “similar to Vampire Weekend” doesn’t do their sound the justice it deserves.
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Singer Wes Miles does bear a lot of vocal similarities to his friend Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, but his songs are less a collage of riffs than summery anthems with lovely string melodies and solid indie-rock rhythms. The band's slower songs didn’t translate as well: one that Miles introduced as a “winter song” just felt boring compared to the otherwise frenetic pace.
As Ra Riot Riot finished its set, the sun began to set and the crowd got -- as Drive-By Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker put it -- “loose.” The Truckers walked out of their van right on time (Westword was batting a thousand for the day on this seldom-met standard), and after everyone in their band took a few more pulls from their drinks before launching into six of their most explosive songs to start it off.
The Truckers' live prowess is well-documented. After twelve years as a band, they certainly seem to be raging gracefully into their elder statesmen (and woman) status. They’re still as challenging as they are skilled, whether their songs sound closer to a Crazy Horse stomp (“The Man I Shot”) or a more standard country tune (“Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”). The only drawback -- and it was a small one at that -- was that the band was so explosive at times, they overpowered the voices of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, both of whom have written some of the best songs in popular music right now. But this was only an issue in the beginning. By the fifth song in the set, “The Man I Shot,” you could hear every harrowingly effective and provocative word that came out of their mouth.
-- James Anthofer