This Weekend: The Wheel, Gregory Alan Isakov, Porlolo and Bela Karoli @ hi-dive

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The Wheel, Gregory Alan Isakov, Porlolo and Bela Karoli Bela Karoli CD Release Party October 6, 2007 hi-dive

Denver’s singer-songwriter scene currently enjoys more support and recognition than it has seen in many years, and Saturday night’s Bela Karoli CD release party was further proof. A sold-out show without a filler on the bill, this jamboree of melancholy white folks – convened at one of the city’s finest hipster outposts – felt like the place to be and the show of the year. At 9 p.m., the hi-dive was already filling up. By the lineup’s midpoint, the club was officially at capacity and ardent fans were forced to wait outside or seek alternative diversions.

First on the bill was the Wheel, comprising this evening troubadour Nathaniel Rateliff and pianist James Han. Since we’ve covered this act recently, we won’t devote a lot of pixels this time out, but suffice it to say that – as both a songwriter and a performer – Rateliff just keeps getting better and better. Born in the Flood is his pop outlet, but the Wheel will be his life’s work.

Gregory Alan Isakov took the stage next, joined by drummer Jen Gilleran, cellist Philip Parker and violinist Jeb Bows. This outfit has also been covered recently in this very blog, and Friday night’s set was equally affecting and impressive. The strength of Isakov’s songwriting and the stage presence of the entire outfit made for a compelling set that seemed over far too soon.

Isakov and company, however, had to make way for the next heavy hitter on the night’s bill – Porlolo. Longtime Denver favorite and KBUT program director Erin Roberts showcased a number of new songs during her brief appearance, joined only by a second guitarist. Roberts hardly touched her famed trumpet, but she debuted a new instrument – the ridiculous Suzuki Unisynth XG-1, which looks like a Guitar Hero controller and sounds like a toy. While this was not one of Porlolo’s strongest performances, a particularly moving version of “Clinton and Elva” was a highlight.

By the time Bela Karoli appeared, the hi-dive was packed to the gills and my legs were throbbing from standing for so long. However, the pain and the wait proved worthwhile. Though I always preferred Bela Karoli with live percussionist Mike Hall, this was the best show I have seen from this stunningly talented trio. All three musicians were in top form and the sound was exceptional. Since Bela Karoli combines pre-recorded beats and tracks with live instrumentation and vocals, the group frequently encounters sonic issues that negatively impact its performance. Friday night, however, Helmet Room Recording’s Randall Frazier, who engineered the band’s debut CD, manned the board and achieved a nearly flawless balance in the mix. Performing almost every song from the new album, the trio held the audience’s attention with its unique blend of electronics, gypsy music and smoky jazz, with some of the lyrics on loan from Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot. Bassist/singer/chief songwriter Julie Davis and accordionist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Brigid McAuliffe played with their customary grace and passion, but Carrie Beeder provided one of the evening’s most memorable moments – switching from cello to violin mid-song for a fiery solo. When adoring fans demanded an encore, the trio insisted they had played all the songs they know. However, they managed to pull out a mesmerizing cover of the Church’s “Under the Milky Way,” a fitting end to a night of a thousand shimmering stars. -- Eryc Eyl Photos by Doug Beam

Critic’s Notebook Personal Bias: While Bela Karoli’s album is undeniably exquisite, anyone (and I mean ANYone) who doesn’t admit that part of the group’s appeal is visual is either lying or legally blind. Random Detail: Lion Sized’s Josh Bergstrand stood at the front of the stage for all of Porlolo’s set, singing along with almost every song. When Erin Roberts broke out the Unisynth, he quipped, “Look, it’s Ms. Pac-Man.” By the Way: Sarah Levin, who manages both Bela Karoli and Gregory Alan Isakov, was largely responsible for organizing this show. In recent months, she has also taken responsibility for booking at the fabled Lion’s Lair.

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