Concert Reviews

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

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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.

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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.