Concert Reviews

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

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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.

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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.