When Planes Mistaken for Stars made its return to Denver over the weekend after a long break, it attracted an assemblage of old fans and new. This included some people you don't much see at shows anymore -- a true testament to the enduring impact of Planes. There wasn't a song during which more than a few people in the audience knew the words and sang heartily along. Perhaps "audience" isn't the right word, though, for Planes, because the band treats those who show up as friends and partners in going through the internal struggle which its songs articulate so powerfully on record and on the stage.
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In the recent annals of Denver underground music history, Planes is one of the few that could rightfully be said to have maintained its roots with the real underground while touring nationally and even internationally. At the height of its national popularity, Planes played at DIY venues like Monkey Mania and Pancho's Villa as well as clubs and theaters. And you could practically feel that grassroots connection at the show.
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Although the set list was relatively short, Gared O'Donnell told us the band would be back soon. But even with the short set list, Planes hit some of the real songwriting high points across its career. "Sicilian Smile," "To Spit A Sparrow" and "Knife in the Marathon" definitely got the crowd going. But it was early song, "Copper and Stars" that got more people singing along and surging forward more than with anything else that night. What made "Copper and Stars" even more impressive was not just how the band reworked it slightly for its current sound or that people seemed very excited to get to see it. It was how this crowd didn't take that moment as an excuse to run roughshod over other people at the show. There was an almost unspoken sense that we were all there to enjoy the band collectively and not to ruin some other person's good time with an grossly aggressive display. In that sense it was like seeing Fugazi -- a lot of enthusiasm but not really anything at all in the way of actual violence against each other. The band has always told its fans to take care of each other and meant it, and that's probably why its shows have so often been intense and dynamic and wildly energetic without ever straying into messing other people up. You hear that ethos in the music and from the stage.
Without being preachy, without being sanctimonious or pretentious in any way, Planes put on its typically furious and inspiring live show, reminding us that as human beings we're all in this together and that we can purge our demons and our angst without having to make victims of our fellow humans. That kind of rock and roll alchemy never goes out of style.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.