It would be hard to have picked the star attraction for this show because the crowd changed and switched throughout the show with some people sticking around for everything. But chances are, no one had seen Spell since its last show in July of 1995. Without much of an introduction, Spell suddenly sputtered to life with a splintery exuberance on "Little Kings." While the music had an obvious immediacy and physical presence, it took everyone back a couple of decades in hearing it, back to when rock bands didn't worry themselves over genres and specific styles so much. If Sonic Youth had cut its teeth on garage rock instead of No Wave, it might have sounded like Spell last night.
Before going into the second song, drummer Garrett Shavlik told us that the last time Spell had played the Bluebird, "I moved to Seattle two days later." Then the trio went into one of its hits, the bouncy "Dixie." Throughout the show, Shavlik goofed between songs with odd references or inside jokes, but that was just par for the course at a performance where Tim Beckman and Chanin Floyd also seemed to be having fun playing this music again like the intervening years never happened.
It wasn't just a monolithic sound and the moods, tenor and dynamism of the songwriting was varied even in the context of harder-edged '90s rock. The band played a great deal of the material you can hear on its excellent 1995 album Mississippi, including "4-B," "Safe," "Straight to Hell" and "Hazel Motes." Before the last one, Chanin Floyd asked the audience if anyone knew about Flannery O'Connor and didn't get much of a response. But the spiraling momentum of the song sure did.
The set ended with another of the band's most popular songs, "Superstar," in which Shavlik proved that he's been one of rock's great all time drummers in terms of sheer power and versatility. Floyd and Shavlik both put in strong, melodic vocal performances that allowed each to display an ability to create beautiful harmonies and individual moments of raw power.
Shavlik said, "We'll say we love you, and we'll be right back" after "Superstar" ended. After a handful of minutes, the trio came back on stage for an instrumental and then called Arnie Beckman back to the stage. Tim Beckman played the familiar strains of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by The Stooges and Arnie was a convincing frontman, but he brought on John Henry and Orie Bender at one point to join in. He tried to get former Speedholes guitarist and singer Dan Merrick to come up, too, but Dan wasn't having it. But it didn't matter, those three guys gave it their all alongside Spell, and while it was in good fun, it was also powerful.
The show opened with a performance of the Buckingham Squares. Sam Schiel was apparently sick and couldn't make it but he got someone worthy to stand in his place, Rich Grosskopf of Boss 302, the Agency, the Geniuses and a new band whose name got kind of muffled amid the sounds going on. Grosskopf has always been a bit more of a crooner than Schiel, and he was during this set as well. He has an undeniable presence, the kind you want in a frontman.
The set was made up of the usual great garage rock and early psychedelic covers from the '60s. Halfway through, someone good-naturedly heckled Grosskopf, and he just replied, "Life is hard and rock and roll is harder." Later in the set, Arnie Beckman joked how Sam just had surgery to get a different body and a different voice, and, of course, Grosskopf went along with it, because it's always funnier to go along with a bad joke.
During the cover of "L.S.D." by the Pretty Things, Grosskopf fell down after one of his many mid-air twists and dancing but bounced right back up amidst cheers. The Squares are a cover band, but it's one that has always understood that it's not enough to just know which chords to play. Without the attitude, it doesn't work, and these guys brought that aplenty.
Matt Bischoff pulled double duty. After his set with the Squares, he came back up with '57 Lesbian. Bischoff dedicated the first song to Boris and Natasha Badinov, and the song itself was a noisy, garage-flavored instrumental akin to something Link Wray might have written. When the three-piece brought in the vocals, Bischoff was reminiscent of Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu, only less warped. He, Dave Stewart and Chanin Floyd had stripped back conventional rock and roll to something far more raw and seemingly fun to play because there was no shortage of smiles. Toward the end, the band played one of its best songs "Keith Black's Mummy."
For this band, Bischoff's guitar work was a bit like that of Greg Sage but without the melancholy tone. Maybe it's the practice these people have been getting in for the last year, but '57 Lesbian's unvarnished, spirited performance seemed incredibly fresh and vibrant. Fortunately, we'll get to see these people again soon.
The Knew has always been a solid band. But last night it was easier to spot where it's been doing its most work as a band over the last several years. A lot of bands tapping the classic rock vein seem to want to be their heroes rather than create something new. These guys just seemed to have figured out who their heroes are and rather than emulate a sound, forged one of their own.
You can hear a bit of the jangle of New Romantics bands alongside American bands like the Call and R.E.M. Jacob Hansen may not be influenced by power pop and the likes of the Call, but it sure sounds like he is. But the performance itself was so impassioned and energetic, it looked like part of an unlikely sequel of Urgh! A Music War. The sound was so unique and the visual presentation of the music was vivid as the music itself. A younger band not related to someone in the band, nevertheless, the Knew acquitted itself graciously and seemed to fit in perfectly with such a line-up.
Personal Bias: Never got to see Spell of '57 Lesbian in the '90s and always wanted to so, this was a great opportunity to do so.
Random Detail: Ran into Garrett Brittenham and Tony Weissenberg of Boss 302 at the show, as well as Orie Bender of both Purple Fluid and Ascending Lines.
By the Way: People coming together to do these reunion shows and the like hasn't just been a way to help out Rick Kulwicki's kids. It's been a way to remind people of their old friendships and to let a younger audience that comes to these shows know that great bands existed in Denver more than ten years ago and that the people in those bands really still have it in them to put on a great rock show.
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