by Jeff Allison
The Denver alt-country scene developed in the mid-Nineties in a city not really known for it's music. There was a small hardcore scene in the Eighties (check out the Rocky Mountain Low or Local Anesthetic comps), John Denver, and some folk music, but for a long time the city was best known for the show Dynasty! Dean Reed (the Red Elvis) was also from Colorado before he left the States to become a huge rock star behind the Iron Curtain and then die mysteriously in East Berlin (there's a great book about him called Comrade Rockstar—apparently Tom Hanks has the movie rights!).
Anyhoo... lots of great music scenes have started in places one wouldn't really expect them to, in somewhat off the beaten path locales, i.e. Cleveland in the late-Seventies, Athens, Georgia, in the late-Eighties and then again in the late-Nineties, and of course, Seattle. And for those who've never been to Denver, it really is sorta in the middle of nowhere (no offense Denverites, but it just is; and this from a guy who grew up more or less in the soy fields of the Midwest). After all, the nearest major cities (Kansas City and Salt Lake City) are hundreds of miles away. So, yeah, you could say it's fairly isolated. And like those other scenes, Denver's music scene started with some great venues and a few sympathetic radio stations.
The first band that I'd heard of from Denver was 16 Horsepower. They combined fire and brimstone Christianity with accordion, banjo, drums, and upright bass to create a very "backwoods" sound. I only saw them once (at the Abbey Pub—one of their last American shows), and live it made for a very hypnotic night. They put out a couple of albums on A&M in the mid-Nineties (including their best work, Low Estate). They then switched to indie labels for a couple more really solid albums and somehow became the biggest band in Holland (?). They broke up around 2002 right after releasing a fantastic live album, Hoarse, and later issued a DVD though Alternative Tentacles, 16 Horsepower Live. Both albums hint at how great this band was! Their front man, David Eugene Edwards, has since formed Woven Hand. Not quite as backwoods sounding as 16 HP, still a great band that has been putting out consistently great albums. Check out Mosaic or their S/T!
Slim Cessna's Auto Club. The first time I saw the Auto Club was in Austin in 2000, at the SXSW fest. I'd just gotten paid vacation for the first time, and I really dug their latest album, Always Say Please and Thank You, so I figured, "What the hell, I'm heading to Texas!" The show turned out to be one of the best shows I've ever seen. Also on the bill was Wesley Willis, Jad Fair, Victims Family, Black Kali Ma, and the Pattern. Jello Biafra was MC and also did spoken word about the then recent Columbine shootings. At the time I was pretty much just into metal and punk. I rarely went to shows (unless Sepultura or Motorhead came to town), but this show (and the fest in general) really changed my mind about live music. Slim in particular turned in a fantastic performance and was the only band I've seen at SXSW to get an encore, outside of some arena band playing a "secret" show. I saw Auto Club a few months later at the Hideout (another great show), and now I keep seeing them whenever I get the chance, even road tripping to Denver, Pontiac, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Detroit when necessary! A good night at a Slim show is kinda like a backwoods Baptist tent revival (but with a lot more beer). People sweat and groove, the band plays up-tempo banjo songs while wailing about sin and sinners, and all the while the two front men continually accuse each other with pointed fingers. Their albums (and they've made some really good records) hint at their greatness, but live is definitely where it's at! Theirs was the only show I've ever seen end in a giant free-for-all fight (though it did happen in Pontiac where pretty much everything ends in a giant brawl). However, their live album, Jesus Let Me Down, doesn't quite convey the live experience, and their newest album, Unentitled, is a bit of a let down after their career best Cipher. But still I haven't bought a better album yet this year. Also, various band members are involved in a side band called Tarantella, which is very atmospheric "spaghetti western" type music. They put out a album on AT a few years ago that is highly recommend.
Speaking of Auto Club side projects, their other front man, Munly, has quite a few albums out. His earlier CD's were strange folk albums (stripped down, violent lyrics, baritone voice; Galvanized Yankee is the best of them) until a couple years ago he worked up a old-timey type band (two fiddles, upright and drums) called Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, which is a great throwback to pre-bluegrass-style country while still retaining some of the violent/cryptic lyrics of his older albums. I saw them a handful of times during their tour and they were hit or miss. However, seeing them at the South Side Arts Center in Chicago (in an old church, seated on old pews) made for a great show. At present, I'm not sure if the Harlots have broken up (whenever I ask him Munly's typically cryptic on the matter... and in general). His most recent album (and by far his best) is Petr & the Wulf. Petr is one of those albums you always want to crack. And though I'm pretty sure I'll never "get it," it still makes for an enjoyable try every time. My favorite song of his has been done live but never recorded. So here it is!
The other big band (and the best known) band from Denver is Devotchka. I saw them open for the Auto Club the first time I saw them at the Hideout. They sounded/looked like a mariachi band playing Buddy Holly (and I mean that in the nicest way possible). I borrowed most of their CDs from my friend Bill a week ago knowing I was going to be writing this, but I still don't feel qualified to write about them. Maybe some other time when I've more of a grasp on what they're doing.
Anyway, that's all I've got to say on the subject of Denver and its quirky goth-country music scene. See you all at Slim next week. And until then, sing us out Munly!
Click here to have Munly sing us out.
Click HERE for nothing to happen while Munly stares off into worlds simple folk like us could never possibly fathom.