Thirty-year-old Denver bluesman Robert Louis Cole grew up in Manitou Springs in the late ’80s and ’90s before leaving home to wander the roads of America as a musician and all-around rambler.
He landed in Denver a decade ago because it was “the biggest piece of concrete next to the piece of concrete I grew up on,” he says. Now he lives in the Baker neighborhood, where he’s part of one of Denver’s most thriving music scenes.
Cole, who works as a line cook at Sputnik, has the look of a man who has weathered more than a few street fights. He has a small frame and a booming voice — one that could have come straight from the Mississippi Delta.
A veteran of bawdy jazz-punk act A. Tom Collins, Cole released his debut full-length album, Money for the Milkman, in the summer of 2017, but he’s been a favorite among Colorado songwriters since releasing his brooding Long Darkness of the Night EP in 2013 and Live From Cherryvale, an epic recording of a Boulder house concert, in 2015.
Money for the Milkman marries Cole’s Skip James roots with a wicked Tom Waits weirdness, all backed by a band that can groove, rock and swing.
“It was a nice transitional record, going from lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff to a little bit of a bigger sound, and it’s been good to transition into our new, much more rock-and-roll material,” explains Cole. “Each song is, in its own way, a little microcosm of one little aspect of my wheelhouse, as well as little snippets of different influences ranging from Black Sabbath to Bill Callahan and back and forth across the universe.”
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Cole’s music, which he describes as “amorphous,” has flowed out of the blues and into twisted rock and roll and high-energy soul. All of those elements come together in his newest project, The Hell You Say, which formed in 2017 and will record its first album this spring.
Andy Wild, who plays sax for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and The Hell You Say, “did a little demo for us after about six months of workshopping, and we sat down and listened to it, and we were like, ‘Whoa!’” says Cole. “We did this transitional thing into sort of first-wave British Invasion rock and roll, which was kind of perfect, because what they were doing was, you know, taking black American blues music and transferring it into that up-tempo sound that we know nowadays as rock and roll.
“So there’s certainly this heavy, underlying tone of sort of ’60s first-wave Brit-invasion rock and roll,” Cole continues. “And then we also have some psychedelic influence, some Latin surf influence and, of course, always American R&B, reaching into early soul.”
As a kid, Cole listened primarily to punk and metal before settling in Denver and “coming to blues” with the help of friends from Denver’s music scene.
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“They introduced me to all these country and blues records and stuff like that,” Cole recalls. “And after spending years on the road, you know, hitchhiking and riding freight trains, I was like, ‘Oh!’ The most transmutable things to me are all these songs about riding freight trains and whiskey and murder and love and stuff like that. And so I sort of found my sonic influences, really, from my own experiences. And then, as I’ve grown a little bit as a musician and grown a little bit as a songwriter, I’m trying to get back to that high-energy element of what I loved about seeing live music that really enriched my life when I was younger.”
Through his brief career, Cole’s live shows have transformed from captivating old-timey blues revivals to frenetic rock-and-roll fireworks without sacrificing any soul. The Colorado native’s songs have been covered by local bands for a while now, and have even made their way to Red Rocks’ storied stage. Now it’s Cole’s time to shine — not just as a songwriter, but as a headlining performer. For him, aiming for that kind of growth doesn’t mean competing.
“We’re all figuring this out together,” says Cole. “I love that right now, in our industry in Colorado, we’re doing this together. And we’re watching so many people say, ‘Let’s do this. We’ll do this together and we’ll help each other.’”
R.L. Cole & The Hell You Say, Thursday, March 1, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, 303-733-0230.