If you’re wondering what Ponder the Albatross will play when they open for Shawn James, you’re not alone. Even the band doesn’t know.
“We're very ‘on the fly,’” says bandleader, vocalist and mandolin player Josh Bower. “We have kind of an idea of the songs we're going to play, but we don't have a strict set list. For most all of our shows, we just show up. New things will happen with these songs that we just create on stage. There's some songs that we do the same every time, but most of them have this freedom in them and can kind of take us to a different place.”
That same spirit of spontaneity and creativity seems to have been part of the very genesis of Ponder the Albatross. Although the band has strong and obvious influences from disparate music genres like folk, gypsy punk, bluegrass, rock, country and even metal, its music doesn’t exactly fit into any.
“All my guys just come from weird different walks of life and stuff and different musical backgrounds,” says Bower. “Like the bass player [Eric Vrtis] kind of got his start in reggae and jam stuff. He played in a jam band for years. The fiddle player [Luke Lindholm] was classically trained. He started playing fiddle when he was like four years old. The drummer [Will Schiesser], he's got a pretty big rock background.”
Bower himself started out playing guitar in heavier bands, but gravitated toward non-traditional, folk-infused music — thanks, in no small part, to one instrument.
“I always had kind of a rock background and stuff,” he says. “What kind of changed me musically and what brought me into bluegrass was the mandolin itself. Once I started playing that instrument, the songs that I would write on it tended to have a different feel, more of an older feel to them.”
The infusion of rock, however, is especially evident in the band’s rhythm section. Unlike most bluegrass or folk bands, the drums and bass are in the fore, imbuing the bluegrass elements with more driving energy. And while that mash-up approach might spell chaos for some bands, Bower says it’s a huge part of what makes Ponder the Albatross such a fun band to see live.
“When we all came together, we all really love what we do, and we're all forward thinking,” he says. “The birth of my love for music started in heavy music like Tool and Metallica. That's why I started playing guitar. I'm the type of person that ... like the Beatles's "Let It Be," when the ride comes in on that song, I headbang.”
Playing music with such a frenetic pace can take a toll, though, so staying limber helps. But for a band that plays more than a hundred shows a year, getting rusty isn’t normally a problem. When Ponder the Albatross had a rare weekend off recently, Bower says he needed a little time to warm up before the next show.
“We played an hour-and-a-half set, and my right arm, I could feel it,” says Bower. “There's a part in one of our songs where I'm just strumming really fast, and my left arm started to tense up and lose its feeling. It was just funny, because if we're playing every weekend, I wouldn't have felt that. But just having one week off I felt the strain.”
All the hard work is starting to pay off for Ponder the Albatross. The band has had the opportunity to open for big-name acts like Squirrel Nut Zippers and MarchFourth, gigs that exposed the group to audiences they might otherwise never have played for. But it’s the Mountain Fair in Bower’s hometown of Carbondale that sticks out in his mind as one of the biggest thrills of the group's musical career.
“This had been a dream of mine to play since I was in high school,” says Bower of the fair, which draws crowds of around 20,000. “We actually did a radio performance when we were up there this February. The girl that does the booking for that Festival, she was on the other side of the glass while we were playing, and during our last song she looked at me and gave me a thumbs up. It was a very ‘VH1 Behind the Music’ moment.”
Ponder the Albatross wound up headlining the 2019 Mountain Fair, and Bower says he couldn’t have been happier.
“The energy the crowd brought to me personally was just insane,” says Bower. “Music is my lifelong passion, so it's just a dream coming true. It's awesome.”
While its popularity continues to grow among music fans of all walks of life, Bower says Ponder the Albatross still has trouble fitting into any of the established Colorado scenes. Too rock for bluegrass, too folky for rock, Ponder the Albatross has had to swim upstream toward success.
“Our style of music fits in a lot of places, and it also doesn't some places,” says Bower. “For instance, the bluegrass scene — we haven't played that much of some of these traditional bluegrass festivals. Some of it boils down to just instrumentation, because we have that rock-and-roll rhythm section. We're basically like a rock group or a fireball of energy that stumbles into a bluegrass deal. None of us are bluegrass players. I just kind of happened upon the mandolin, and it changed everything for me.”
So where most bands write with a target audience in mind, Bower says Ponder the Albatross doesn’t have narrow expectations for who will enjoy its music. Instead, the bandmates shoot for drawing in anyone who likes to move and isn’t tied to any one genre.
“As far as a target audience, I'd say we kind of fit in well with the gypsy kind of feeI,” says Bower, “just people that want to dance and have a good time and get kind of rowdy and stuff. I think it's people that love to get up and have a good time and dance and get wild.”
The response to the music, he says, is as motivating for the band as the music is for the crowd.
“What's great, too, is that I feel like, with how much energy is in the music,” says Bower, “there's obviously times where we'll be playing and, for me personally at least, I'll be dog sick or have no energy from being on the road or whatever. But once we get going and the trance kind of sets in, the music brings it all out. It gets wild, and we love that.”
Ponder the Albatross opens for Shawn James along with Sam Houston and Blk Odyssy at 9 p.m. Saturday, October 26, at Cervantes’ Other Side. Tickets are $18 to $20 and available at the Cervantes' website.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.