Concert Reviews

UMS Travelogue: Mercuria and the Gem Stars, Zebroids, Bad Luck City, Piña Chulada and more

UMS on S. BROADWAY | 07/23-24/11
An especially hot summer day made navigating various venues an enervating experience, not to mention the humid heat indoors at times. Nevertheless, it didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits in performing the music, even in the early slots like the one where Mercuria and the Gem Stars (or "M and the Gems") played at Indy Ink.

With guitars glimmering in spirals of melody and jazzy, sinuous rhythms, the band sometimes sounded like the best end of Throwing Muses with countrified edges. Maria Kohler has always been a good singer, but this show confirmed she has become a confident and commanding performer once the music gets going, especially when she and the rest of the band seem to throw themselves bodily into the songs.

The highlight of the set was the song "Fancy You." Multi-stage in structure, like it's telling a story ala "The End" by The Doors or something Sufjan Stevens might write, that song increased in intensity before it broke into a section with a Bossa Nova structure the evolved into something paradoxically sultry yet blazing in sound.

Walking to another performance, I stumbled across the tail end of Piña Chulada's set at Illiterate Gallery. It was hard not to be struck by the layered, organic percussive textures amid heavenly melodies and Jen Villalobos' lilting vocals. It sounded like there was just a hint of the influence of the solo Panda Bear material, but it was also clear the duo were making the kind of music that had absorbed the current state of experimental electronic pop and took it in an interestingly different direction.

At the hi-dive, Blue Million Miles, new bass player in place, sounded more coherent and confident than ever. Jeff Shapiro and Sam McNitt have clearly worked on the sonic spaces each occupies rather than just layering on top of one another. McNitt's gift for delicate yet intense emotional expression was still in place, as was Shapiro's sense of rock theater and his wide, wild gestures and Johnny Lundock's ability to be both a dynamic drummer and the kind to reign in the sprawling atmospheres created by the rest of the group. Seemed like mostly new songs but this new batch is among Blue Million's most interesting and well-crafted.

Running into Ian Gassman of Spires outside of Illiterate, I was convinced to check out Cotton Keys from Fort Collins. At first it seemed like they were yet another indie rock band who had listened to a bit of Elvis Costello via some modern descendent with a more lo-fi sensibility. But ultimately, with the reverby vocals, Cotton Keys were reminiscent of an especially good C86-era band with the chiming and angular guitar work with a touch of atmosphere.

Later at Illiterate, Alameda brought a strong reminder that simple, stripped-down songs can be powerful even if you know how they're "supposed" to sound. Sterling Miles, formerly of Strangers Die Every Day, has the kind of unexpectedly and unconventionally versatile voice and delivery that allows for a broad range of emotional coloring without being too obvious about it.

Alameda's fragile yet strong melodies seemed to progress with a delicate touch like a breeze. The band's rustic sound had a wistful tone at times, and displayed an Old World sensibility that's been tried by many a Denverite and Portlander. But with this trio, the songs sounded like they were written by candlelight when the power's been out all night, without the invasiveness of electric lights. Certainly, there was a grace to the music that seemed very welcome with the sweltering climate creeping in off the street.

At the Irish Rover, Ross Etherton and the Chariots of Judah began its set with an a capella version of its song referencing "John the Revelator." When the band kicked in to "Any Port in a Storm," it became obvious that much of the power of the music that followed came from bassist Jeremy Ziehe and drummer Trevor Morris. Their insistent and flexible rhythms perfectly framed Etherton's songwriting.

But the whole band was in high form, and it was easily the most spirited performance I got to see this day. Part of that was because Etherton is one of the few people playing music around here whose sense of humor and stage persona embody the profane and the sublime in nearly equal measures with the balance tipped toward the latter.

Etherton seemed completely unmindful of looking goofy or silly or uncouth in his facial expressions, just completely caught up in the moment. He was a holy fool, like a precocious child unselfconscious of the impact he was making, and instead put himself out there emotionally regardless of the consequences.

This no more true than in the song about Etherton's grandfather, the devastating "Goodnight Everybody." Etherton wrote some of the saddest, most deeply affecting songs of all time when he was in Red Cloud. "Goodnight Everybody" is a capstone in that wing of his compositional oeuvre. Finishing with a blistering version of "Hot Wyoming Sun," the three guys seemed like Neil Young gone punk or Merle Haggard taking a trip through the same with a side step into noisy psychedelia.

Angular guitar work tempered by upbeat melodics have always been one of the great strengths of Finn Riggins from Boise, Idaho. The group has been one of the consistently best underground rock bands going in terms of its lively performances as well as its impressive musicianship in all its players.

But all of those players seem to know how to mix things up and reconfigure its core sound informed by classical structure as blended with nearly frenetic indie pop with keyboardist Eric Gilbert playing as intensely as guitarist Lisa Simpson and drummer Cameron Bouiss. Finn Riggins has perfected the art of the tasteful build and sonic exuberance.

Before taking off into the night to catch Tollund Men, Hot White, Xander Harris, Vitamins and King Mob elsewhere, I made it over to the South Broadway Christian Church to catch the Raven and the Writing Desk. The beauty and dignity of the setting, like a sound stage, was perfect for Raven, because that band is practically a miniature orchestra as it is, and its lush sound never seems forced; the songs sound like they're written with all members and their sounds in mind and not just adding elements because it would be cool.

Each part of a Raven song seems essential to the overall mood of each, and that was clear here. Julia LiBassi sounded like a jazz singer and that, along with the ability of the band to create thick, organic sounds as well as a melodic ambiance, made Raven's music occasionally feel like Flying Saucer Attack writ large and further into abstract sound. At other times, the outfit sounded like Crime and the City Solution backing Tori Amos if she completely shed her vocal affectations.

Late in the set, Raven brought out a surprise, and perfectly, artfully executed cover of St. Vincent's "Laughing With A Mouth of Blood," which is probably the best song from 2009's Actor. The live version of "The Haunting" deeply lived up to its name, and the set ended with one of the band's finest, "Wooden Lover." This band's always been among the best kept secrets of Denver in its relatively short time together, but this performance made it seem like the sextet was just getting started in more ways than one in 2010.

What could be better than seeing a band calling itself Kevin Costner Suicide Pact at a place called Delite? The calming, chill sound -- not to be confused with chillwave -- of the act chased away a bit of the mugginess of the afternoon. KCSP is like Mogwai without the rock, or like Flying Saucer Attack pushed further into atmospheric abstraction.

Tones hovered like motes catching the streams of morning light through a canopy of trees. Rippling white noise traveled across the room like it was panned in stereo but was in fact two members coordinating their efforts without speaking a word or gesturing. Samples of birds near an incoming tide swam through the soundscape before the samples evolved into children at play echoing like a memory resonating in an obscured part of the mind. Gorgeous and hypnotic.

After traveling beyond the fields we know with KCSP, I made my way over to 3 Kings to see Zebroids, which is made up of Matty Clark (Taun Taun and Trees), Josh Terry (Machine Gun Blues) and Mike Howard (Eyes and Ears, Call Sign Cobra, Scott Baio Army), along with two other guys. Zebroids were joined on stage by an elderly gentlemen with his walking stick, but it was like the band had him up there as an honored guest and not really as some fucked-up kitschy mascot.

The keyboard player inhaled helium and spoke/sang at various points, and late in the set, the absurdity continued as Howard and the guys thanked The Denver Daily News and the Colorado Spring Gazette in a good-natured bit of jest, and then informed us that their music was "like chillwave, but it's so hot we can't chill." This was snotty yet incredibly fun and likeable punk rock played by people who know how to play for real. The songs -- as silly and JFA-esque as they were -- are well-written bits of snarling pop.

At Indy Ink, the small block of weirdo experimental music ended with Echo Beds. Using a filing cabinet hit with a metal pipe, along with some other metal office items strewn with odds and ends and being struck with a chain and a frequency generator, among other gadgets, Echo Beds created the perfect soundtrack to a psychotic break, illustrated perfectly and terrifyingly by Tom Nelson, whose sustained, unbridled screams punctuated passages of the piece the band played. Organic yet industrial, textured and percussive, there is nothing like Echo Beds going on much in Denver except for moments of what Married in Berdichev is doing and whenever Einsturzende Neubauten is in town. Utterly unique, powerful, visceral and unforgettable.

For its second-to-last show at 3 Kings, Sin Desires Marie didn't skimp on the inspired emotional outbursts that has made its music so moving and cathartic from the beginning. Opening with "One Too Many Reasons," the band began the song with a cry of outrage and ended on a note of inward healing, a shift this band seems to make seem easy. Claudine Rousseau and Yoon Park launched off Germaine Baca's driving rhythms with passionate moments of incendiary but dead-on rhetoric about social ills and personal crisis and the compassion toward self and others to get beyond those moments.

"Slowly" found Rousseau releasing the pain informing the songwriting with such power and fervor that it was unsettling in the best way. But that could be said for either vocalist on any of the songs. The set ended with one of the last songs the band wrote together and released on a split 7-inch many years ago, the Mission of Burma-esque "The One She Likes." Part punk, part post-punk, part something three steps removed from that, Sin Desires Marie came back at exactly the right time and will be regrettably missed again after its appearance at Titwrench this week. Before heading to the hi-dive, I stuck around to catch a bit of the Fugazi tribute band End Hits, which ended up being pretty legit. The outfit's version of "Do You Like Me," while different, really captured the mood of the song.

Bad Luck City doesn't play many shows these days, so it was nice to be able to catch the group at the hi-dive. Dameon Merkl told us that we could let them know if the first song sucked because they'd played it before and the general consensus was that everyone hated it. However, the song marked down as "Cave" on the set list was an interesting direction for the band with Josh Perry's guitar sounding like a synth and the tune was even more brooding than usual.

Following that up with an old song, "Night Town," Andrew Warner's drums thundered to Merkl's free-flowing spoken-word lyrics. Hearing "Chop Tank" made me think of what it would be like if Cormac McCarthy tried re-writing a classic Edgar Allan Poe story. Merkl tells great stories, and with the dual guitar texturing by Perry and Greg Kammerer under Kelly O'Dea's soaring violin, coupled with Jeremy Ziehe's funereal bass lines, Bad Luck City never seems quite as offhandedly hilarious as Merkl's between song banter can be. The band ended the show with "The Blood Trail of McCulloch Gulch," and its powerful middle section, driven by one of Perry's leads, is as haunting as music like this gets, which is plenty.

Broken Spirits, who followed Bad Luck City, is like a latter-day Screamin' Jay Hawkins who decided to honky tonk things up a bit, and the group, fronted by Reverend Dead Eye, really got the crowd going. People were throwing fists in the air and at one point Aaron Collins and some others did some crowd surfing. Dead Eye's ability to run the gamut of emotions like a preacher was fully present, and Bobby Jamison and Alex Hebert helped to create a rhythmic dynamic like something off a Sam Cooke record. Even though Dead Eye has lyrics that reveal a deep and abiding existential disappointment, there is an underlying triumphant hopefulness to each of the Broken Spirits song. At the end, the rowdy crowd asked for an encore and got one with "Backslider."

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.