Every year at the Westword Music Showcase, we enlist our army of Backbeat wordsmiths to host various stages. In addition to their emcee duties, we ask them to pull double duty by submitting a travelogue of their individual stage. A.H. Goldstein hosted at the Curious Theatre this past Saturday. Keep reading for some of the highlights from that stage.
Anthony Ruptak kicked off the Curious roster with an innovative approach to guitar voicing, musical contours and sly catches of phrase. Joined by stand-up bass, violin, drums and electric guitar, Ruptak handled his acoustic guitar intimately and expertly. There was the unamplified megaphone he placed next to his vocal mic. Though he used it sparingly, the voicing of megaphone offered a different contour and context to his strong tenor voice.
Ruptak showed the same talent for sound in his approach to the fretboard: His chords played out up and down the neck, and his balladry benefited from a careful, studied approach to playing. Add to that the use of mallets, brushes and sticks by the drummer; the guitarist's nod to Jimmy Page in using a violin bow on his strings; and the hand clapping breaks by the entire band, and it was a range of sounds to be reckoned with.
The Raven and the Writing Desk were all about impressive interplay. As soon as the sextet's set kicked off, the band showed an eerie kind of musical chemistry in their tight melodies, odd time breaks and frantic runs. Julia LiBassi lead the charge on vocals and keyboards, spelling out eerie imagery as she picked out speedy and dizzying lines on the keys and the rest of the band never missed a cue - they followed the difficult lead with intensely complex input of their own. The effect was energizing. Indeed, the band offered a carefully crafted orchestral sound with enough drama and theatricality to fit into the theater setting perfectly.
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John Common's set hinted at new steps to come. The set was composed almost entirely of new material, and it was clear that the quintet has pushed to move past the era of Beautiful Empty and Side 3, his most recent releases. On lead guitar and lead vocals, Common offered new songs about loss and love found in airport bars. The new material will likely show up on a new release scheduled for later this year. As in past Showcase appearances, the rest of the band offered the perfect complement to Common's introspective and intense brand of songwriting. Jessica DiNicola was Common's ideal vocal complement with her cooing lines and careful harmonies. A tribute tune by Common for DiNicola was a highlight of the set.
I'm With Her, the duo of Angie Stevens and Haley Rydel, took turns on guitar, with Rydel picking up the mandolin for every other song or so. The string work was consistent - while the pair stuck to basic forms up and down the neck thanks to capos, they showed a skill for finding the perfect complement to fit their harmonies -- and their harmonies were the star of the set, with the two consistently delivering impressive vocals. That vocal prowess made the set truly memorable. It was what turned a cover of Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" into a brand-new tune, one that drew out every ounce of loss and regret in the lyrics.
Talk about a happy family. The four sisters comprising the band SHEL (an acronym for the players -- Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza Holbrook) showed a jaw-dropping brand of chemistry and skill from the first strains of their debut instrumental tunes. The quartet showed an unbelievable amount of skill on each of their instruments: drums, piano, mandolin and violin. From the very first song, it was clear that this is a sisterhood of virtuosos.
But the band's technical skill didn't meant there wasn't any soul in the quartet's set. Sarah's violin runs, Eva's astounding mandolin work, Liza's double duty on drums and hand drums and Hannah's role as bassist and lead player on piano all showed a captivating amount of passion. The four also laid down harmonies that sounded downright angelic, a dynamic that was especially captivating on the group's cover of Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore" and the original tune "Moonshine Hill."
Chimney Choir didn't have access to their trademark brand of performance art, but the quintet still played with the joy and energy of street performers. David Rynhart cooed and crowed lyrics from his perch at the piano as percussionist Carl Sorensen went to town on bottles, cow bells and other non-traditional additions to his kit. Kris Drickey showed a similar zeal on her vocals and guitar runs as the rest of the band ventured between instruments and sounds. While the folk and Americana strains were clear on tunes like "I-25," the performance showed that a big part of the band's appeal lies in their pure presence.
Champagne Charlie notched up the energy on the Curious Theatre stage. Ryan King sang with enough power and conviction to bring down the walls. In a growl that echoed the best vocal work of Tom Waits, King emoted to the fullest. His insistence came on top of a compelling soundtrack from trumpet, banjo and drums. King even took turns on the trombone, standing back-to-back with the trumpet player and treating each line like the most important musical statement of his life. The group's energy gave the small theater the feel of a circus, a mood that would come up again in the next set.
Aaron Collins didn't mess around in introducing his band. He exhorted the people sitting in the front row seats to stand up and dance and followed the order with a simple statement of purpose. "We're a dance band, not a standing band." That much was clear in the powerhouse performance that followed. The group's combination of lounge piano, vintage soul and old-timey gospel had people on their feet across the theater.
The chorus of "Hospital" had people singing along in unison. A guest appearance by Snake Rattle Rattle Snake's Hailey Helmericks and Doug Spencer drew even more participation and craziness. By the end of the set, Collins was on top of his piano, singing a blues tune about the fact that he had no home. Judging from the frenzied response of the crowd, this was clearly an exaggeration.
If anyone had any doubt about Ian Cooke's status as a venerated member of Denver's rock royalty, the huge crowd that poured in to Curious for the penultimate set of the night would clear it up pretty quickly. In a performance that spanned old and new material alike, Cooke appeased a rabid and massive audience, one that filled up both the floor and the balcony.
Switching between his now-familiar cello and piano, Cooke mused about dinosaurs and cassowaries. Those fantastical verses came on top of impossibly complex and dense melody lines, runs that guitarist Ian O'Doughtery and the rest of the band voiced with precision. As always, Cooke's distinctive style of singing and accenting his words came together seamlessly with his intense harmonic style. It's a dynamic that remains breathtaking even after many years and many listens.
It was impossible to escape the feeling that history was being made on the Curious Theatre stage on Saturday night. The joint performance between members of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and a slew of special guests, including Nathaniel Rateliff, Otis Taylor, members of the Hollyfelds, Joseph Pope III and Julie Davis, had the feel of something brand-new. Of course, part of that was because of the nature of the collaboration itself. It was the first time a professional orchestra had tackled selections from Beck's Song Reader project, tunes released only through sheet music.
But it was more than that. There was hardly room to breathe as the orchestra broke into its first selections from the group of tunes. Listeners sat rapt in front of the stage and crowded the balcony. The vocals of the Hollyfelds, the stark guitar lines of Otis Taylor, the cooed lyrics of Davis and the ambient guitar of Pope -- it all had the feel of something unprecedented. That feeling only intensified during Rateliff's performance of "Do We? We Do."
Sure, the songs had the stamp of their auteur -- the music echoed the best moments from albums like Sea Change and Mutations -- but the music gained something more in this unique interpretation. The mark of the composer existed with the brilliance of the Colorado Symphony players and these paragons of the Denver scene. The performance showed that Beck's experiment was successful in a very profound way -- that with the right amount of technical skill and soul, sheet music can offer more innovation than the latest in digital technology.
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