Letting it Flow with The River Arkansas

Is Mike Clark a one-man Colorado music institution? Seems that way sometimes when you consider his much-loved bandography: The Ghost of Michael Clark, The Haunted Windchimes, and The Sugar Sounds.

Mike Clark

Mike Clark

Not to be outdone by himself, Clark now fronts a band called The River Arkansas (he lives beside said river) with some of our state’s best players, including members of Clouds + Mountains, Spirits of the Red City, and Princess Music. “Golden Light” is the band’s debut, and it tips the hat to Clark’s previous endeavors, drawing from rock, Americana, soul, and gypsy folk.

The River Arkansas is Clark, Macon Terry, Robin Chestnut, Rachel Sliker, and Danah Olivetree in whose lithe hands banjo, drums, violin, guitar, cello, upright bass, and more make a mighty noise.

The sound of this band is absolutely at home at any mountain festival, but don’t assume it to be another one-trick folk pony. No way. This’ll play in the city.

Just to mention a couple of my favorite tracks … “Cold Lonesome Feeling” rolls along with a loose R&B tempo and gets a little zing from some jangly lead guitar licks. Sample lyric: “Well I try my best to be kind / But my heart’s somewhere down the line / Breaking free, shaking loose, and busting out / Well there ain’t no love left in the city / Ain’t no heart in the walking dead / A cold lonesome feeling in my head /

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Contrast that with the title track, a slow-burning and mournful missive in which violin and cello soar over some truly reflective lyrics. I’ll take this one with my 6 a.m. coffee or my dram on the porch when the sun’s going down. It is a beauty.

The album’s getting its proper Denver debut at Mercury Cafe on April 1st. In the broadest terms, this band sounds like Colorado. That alone ought to get you in the door, but the nuanced performances throughout the recording will keep you coming back and maybe even haunt you. Just a little.

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Four Questions with The Devil Makes Three

[image by Meredith Powell]

BEHOLD: The Devil Makes Three is back in Denver, baby, with a killer live show and a musical fire in the belly. Hard to believe it’s been a year and change since they released “I’m a Stranger Here” to widespread critical acclaim (and the howls of derision from the bands who ape their sound). They’re going to put the new songs deep in ya this Saturday night. TDM3 is just about elbow-deep into a winter tour, putting their Ameripunkana spell on very willing audiences. They’re a long way from Santa Cruz living rooms now, but this band still gives a damn about the fans, the music, and putting on a wicked live performance.

In advance of the show, Pete Bernhard has taken a minute to field four hard-hitting (not) questions. I love him for it.

SS: Any standout memories of past touring moments in Colorado?

PB: Playing Red Rocks with Trampled By Turtles and Deer Tick and also playing there with Yonder. The most beautiful venue we have ever had the pleasure of playing! 

SS: What keeps touring and making music interesting for you?

PB: Writing new material and having musicians we love sit in with us. Getting to share the stage with people who are heroes like Willie Nelson. 

SS: Who are you listening to – musically or otherwise – at the moment?

PB: I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and Buck Owens. 

SS: What can the Denver audience expect to hear and see?

PB: They can expect some secret musical guests and to have their faces melted completely off by banjo fury.

The Devil Makes Three, with Joe Pug, doors 8 pm Saturday, Fillmore Auditorium. Age 16+

The Stubborn Sounds Top 10 Songs of 2014

Drumroll please … I now present the 10 best songs I heard this year by Colorado bands or those with a close Colorado connection. My ears were bursting with so much great local music in 2014! Thanks to everyone who got in touch to share what you’ve created. I love writing about the Colorado sound. Please note some, but not all, of the songs on the list were released this year. In some cases I only first heard the track in ’14. Let’s get to it.

10. Prize, by Plume Varia (Denver). Beautiful, tripnotic dream landscape. As heard on their Prize / Enable e.p. My original review is here

9. Ocean Floor, by The Wild After (Denver). The ultimate melancholy pop song. I love the lyrics. Saw these guys in late spring as their tour was commencing. 

8. Until the End, by Churchill (Denver). This soulful tune puts a lump in my throat. I’m a huge fan, and I felt very bad in my soul when the band quit. I can’t embed the song here, but it is a doozy. Back in May, I interviewed bassist Tyler Rima. Read here.

7. My Ground, by Esther Sparks & The Whiskey Remedy (Lafayette). Disclaimer: I’m in this band. But I love this song that my friend and bandmate Esther wrote. My wife (also in the band) put down some sick drums on it, too. 

6. Flammable Parts, by Rough Age (Colorado Springs). Fans of Elvis Costello will love this. Great whistling section, killer moody vibe. I love it. My original review is here

5. Riding the Ripple, by Glowing House (Denver). Singer Steve Varney recorded this in Jack White’s Voice-o-Graph booth in Nashville. It’s badass and on their new “Balance With Me” e.p. 

4. Known & Loved, by Joel Ansett (Denver). This gorgeous song has layers. Give it a few spins and you’ll hear, as I do, the work of a serious songwriter. Joel recently crowd-funded a new album. 

3. What You Want To, by Ark Life (Denver). A band I reviewed when they were very new to Denver in early 2013 stormed forth with a killer full length album (“The Dream of You & Me”) this year. The piano riff and great harmonies bring me back. 

2. I’m Not Enough, by All Is Not Lost (Woodland Park). This duo, featuring my nephew Russell Patterson and Benji Hobson, put me on notice this year that the kids are gonna be running the show soon. Or maybe they already do. Don’t believe it? Listen to this.

1. Movement is True, by Run Spirit Horse (L.A./Boulder). West Coast music man Aaron Ferenc regularly comes home to Boulder County to visit family and friends. His e.p., “The War,” blew me away this year. “Movement is True” has been my healing song for months. It’s not on soundcloud yet (click HERE instead). 

Glowing House is Breaking the Music Mold (and I love it)

{featured image above by Merne Judson III}

Have I mentioned that I love local music? That’s not to say that my local music is only heard around here. Oh no no. Denver’s music travels. It innovates. It resteth not on its laurels. It … well … it never sleeps. And since I’m listening to so much of it, neither do I.

So we must discuss Denver’s Glowing House, a quintet featuring Michael John McKee (drums); Neil McCormick (bass); Phil Parker (cello, also cellist for Gregory Alan Isakov); and at the helm married duo Jess Parsons (vocals, keyboard, accordion) and Steve Varney (vocals, guitar, banjo, also guitarist for Gregory Alan Isakov). The band is freshly back from some European dates and ready to soak Denver in its tunes.

Glowing House is in the thick of an e.p. project of sorts. Every two months or so, they’re releasing a studio version of a polished track (the single) and a couple of B-sides (live recordings, reworked older tunes). The first songs have dropped; the latest e.p., “Balance With Me,” is released TOMORROW so get to Hi-Dive Friday night for their gig with The Centennial and Kyle James Hauser); and a third offering is planned for January.

BalanceDigital

Varney explains: “We’re early in the project, but it’s been fruitful so far. Our first release, ‘Your Own Devices,’ has been received really well. We’re watching our audience grow because of it so we’re really excited to keep it going. It also makes us work our asses off rehearsing, writing, recording, making videos, booking … we’re experiencing everything that makes a band better in a much more dense way than if we disappeared for a year and a half to make a full length record. And that’s why we’re doing it this way.”

You have to stay active and present in the minds of your audience, especially in today’s vast, immediate music culture. – S. Varney

Stop. Reread what you just read. Is it me or is this a genuinely refreshing approach to releasing new music? And speaking of music, Glowing House’s sound is delicate and sinewy. The harmony is my weakness. Accomplished instrumental touches, yet nothing showy. Poetic lyrics. Beautiful.

I have heard the new songs, and I want very much to tell you about them. But I shall not do it. That privilege belongs to the band. Do yourself a favor. Get to the gig. Listen well. Glowing House should be on your radar.

You’re on theirs.

She Walks in Beauty

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and that is not lost on me. My mother went through it and survived. I think about this with relief and gratitude in my heart when I see a pink ribbon. It’s mixed with a sorrowful awareness, though, that so many families have lost mothers, wives, partners, sisters, and daughters to this disease. So that’s my grid for October. I even wrote a song about my mother’s experience a few years ago.

She Walks in Beauty Cover Final (1)

It was a fantastic surprise then to hear from a Denver songwriter who has done the same thing! Joel Ansett’s mother toughed out two bouts with breast cancer, once in the early 2000s and then again in 2011. Joel’s song is called “She Walks in Beauty,” and I invite you to listen to it below. Far better yet, buy it HERE. Through November, all of the profit from song sales will be donated to Little Pink Houses of Hope. After that, another charity will be chosen to receive funds from the song, and another charity after that.

I want you to know the touching story of this song, in Joel’s words:

“The lyrics were inspired by a poem of the same title written by Lord Byron. My sister, Margaret Dowers, used that poem as inspiration to write a poem that could encourage our mom in her own battle with breast cancer. Once that poem was complete, I did my best to put it to music. The basic storyline of the song is that it was not physically beautiful to watch our mother go through breast cancer. As the lyrics attest, her body was at war with itself. She lost her hair and her glow. But through it all, there was beauty. The real kind. The kind that lasts, the kind that is deeper than what our eyes can see. That’s what this song is about. Real beauty.

“We decided to release the song to the public in hopes of encouraging more women who are walking through cancer. The goals for the song are: 1) for every woman who is battling breast cancer to hear the song and find healing and hope in knowing that they can walk in beauty even as their bodies fail them; and 2) for the song to be a fundraising engine for charitable organizations helping women fight through breast cancer. The song promises that ‘She who walks in beauty, walks on.’ We want this song to be an anthem of hope for breast cancer patients.”

Find Joel Ansett here. And please buy “She Walks in Beauty” here.

The Lone Bellow: Boulder, CO 14th Oct 2014

I’ve been unlucky when it comes to witnessing The Lone Bellow in concert. Both of their shows that I planned to attend in recent memory (Hi-Dive, Denver, March 2013) and Boulder (last summer) were sacked. But my friends, apparently wonders won’t ever cease. The Lone Bellow did in fact take the stage at the Fox Theatre last night, and I wish they were still on it.

If you turned up at the Fox to strut; if you planned to enjoy the visceral experience of live music through a screen while ignoring the stage; if you were a hot mess; or if for any other reason you were too full of Boulder baloney to listen … then God knows you were in the wrong room last night. The Lone Bellow hold nothing, absolutely nothing, back. If their music teaches anything, it’s a twofold lesson that goes like this. 1) Passion counts. 2) Be relentlessly faithful to your gifts.

Elmquist and Williams find the groove. by @stubbornsounds

The boys find the groove.                  @stubbornsounds

It’s a rare band that is chock-full of solo superstar talents so generous to each other as an ensemble. Several times lead singer Zach Williams removed himself from center stage to allow the spotlight to fall squarely on mandolinist and singer Kanene Pipkin. Not even the hardest heart in the room could withstand her take on Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away,” which was performed in the encore. Impeccable three- and four-part harmonies (we heard you, too, bassist Jason Pipkin) were in abundance throughout the set. This of course is a hallmark of The Lone Bellow’s debut album, which was produced by Nashville’s Charlie Peacock.

The show itself kept a fast pace, as did the live delivery of the familiar tunes. I don’t know why, but I was expecting things to be quieter, on the whole. Sure, there were delicate moments when the band’s three principal members gathered around one mic, but songs like “Bleeding Out,” “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” and “The One You Should’ve Let Go” were absolute beasts at full bore. Drummer Brian Griffin and singer/guitarist Brian Elmquist had the most surprises in store, with huge shotgun blast beats and scorching leads, respectively. In fact, Elmquist’s first surprise came when he stagecrashed, shirtless, the set of opening band Hugh Bob & The Hustle. It was Hugh Bob’s last night on the tour and first time in Boulder. They took no prisoners. Great set, fully of chunky, bluesy riffs and some very well written, thoughtful lyrics.

Williams and Pipkin credit @stubbornsounds

Williams and Pipkin
@stubbornsounds

So, let’s see. I’ve basically told my readers that it was a great concert by talented musicians. What is so much harder to describe is the look, the feel, the sound of a band going all in. It’s sweat flying off instruments. It’s singers gasping for air between songs. It’s water bottles littering the stage. It’s the joy on the band’s collective face when the audience sings the chorus back to them. It’s generosity, like when Williams pulled a wild, bare-chested Jeff Fenholt lookalike on stage for a massive group hug. It’s photographers who should be shooting but can’t because they’re dancing. It’s strings breaking. It’s egos kept in check so that the music may touch hearts without manipulating them. All of these things are unpacked by The Lone Bellow night after night. One can appreciate that when tours last months, it’s not easy to be “on” all the time. But this band will give its fans everything it can. After all, it was only four years ago they were sitting around a diner, asking if this is really happening.

The band is touring through the end of the year, mostly in the Southeast and with a few Midwest dates. Go. Go. Go. Come January, we’ll all be blissing out to the new album. If it has half the melodic power of the first or can strike even a little of its balance between folk and pop, we’ll be in for for something special.

Rough Age: Musical Boundaries be Damned

Let us now point our ears south down I-25 to Colorado Springs, a city whose music scene has been called many things but is never boring. As with any other reasonably big urban center, some COS bands languish in obscurity, some gain a regional following, and still others do exactly what they want to do, no matter who is listening. That’s what I think is happening with Rough Age.

“He’s at that rough age.” Get it? Pretty clever band name.

Rough Age flashed lean and hungry onto the scene two years ago, the collaboration of songwriter Nathan Archer with Tracy Santa and Michael Salkind (also a duo called Wild Hares) on bass and drums, respectively. The band’s full length debut, Before It Comes Apart, is available here and here.

It’s a very cool album, not what I was expecting, although it must be said I don’t know what I was expecting. I couldn’t pinpoint a central theme, so I made what I thought was a very levelheaded decision: ask the songwriter what it’s about.

Rough Age, two seconds before they jumped up, grabbed their instruments, and melted your face. (courtesy of

Rough Age, two seconds before they jumped up, grabbed their instruments, and rocked your face. (Image by Sarah Milteer)

“It’s much more of a collection of songs than a concept album,” says Archer. “The common thread seems to be portraits of people losing their shit or struggling in one way or another. A lot of those people are versions of myself or people I’ve known, like ‘Chemistry’ or ‘Tumbling Down’ and others are pure fiction, like in ‘Great Awakening’ or ‘Flammable Parts.'”

Speaking of Flammable Parts, let’s do a wee dissection of this tune. Gentle minor strumming, a touchy bass line sticking largely to root notes (thank you), and a very patient beat, some whistling, some organ. Sparse on lyrics, but they’re delivered in a pensive style that has to be compared to Elvis Costello, which should be taken as a compliment.

In over your head / But then you knew it from the start / She’ll tug and you will tear / Into a thousand flammable parts

In another life, this might have been a hidden track on King of America.

Archer readily confesses the Costello influence, but there are others that we would all be so lucky to have on heavy rotation. “I’ve always loved songs with a sense of drama and danger, however gratuitous – stuff like Nick Cave, the Toadies, and especially Richard Thompson lately,” he explains. “We all love that early punk/pub-rock era, too – Elvis Costello is a huge (and probably obvious) influence of mine – I actually played keyboards in a Costello tribute last fall. I like to think I picked up a little of his vocal delivery, or his ability to deliver edgy, bitter lyrics with a sweet melody.”

Before It Comes Apart takes its name from the lyrics to “San Gabriel.” Grant me this indulgence to be dredged out from my heart / Before it comes apart

roughage

Archer: “I guess it’s both an accurate description of catharsis for me and an admission that some of the autobiographical stuff has been simplified in the lyrics.”

The album was recorded and mixed by a band friend, Dan Nelson, who runs Rainwerks Studios out of his house. Archer says more than half of the album (especially drums, bass, and electric guitar) happened live, much of it in one take. So if you’re looking for something as polished as your church shoes, keep looking. The mix is edgy.

I further asked Archer and Salkind how they would describe their music to someone who has never heard them, without making comparisons to other bands.

NA: “Smart-ass, catchy rock and roll with a touch of country.”

MS:  “A lot of power pop, some new wave (the non-synth variety), and some R&B by way of London in the late 70s.”

Another song from the album, “Al Jazeera,” seems to have some buzz. Acoustic driven, with a strum pattern that is part Sea Shanty, part Horah. A true head bobber about, well, I don’t know. It’s sorta cryptic. Holed up in your castle /You swear you’ll never leave / You’ll be replaced tomorrow with a new regime / Now, all around the world are shiny new facades / I saw it all on Al Jazeera

I’m a lyrics lover, and I am not satisfied with a song unless I know what’s being sung. In fact, I don’t appreciate the music bed as much if I am frustrated by not “getting” the lyrics. I like Archer’s writing. He describes his process: “It’s weirdly important to me that lyrics read well. I probably overthink them a little bit, but I want every song to have a setting, some kind metaphor or imagery, and some kind of narrative flow that directs the dynamics. A lot of these songs have several pages of backstory that never made it into the lyrics, which is why I can’t seem to write anything under three minutes. Too many verses. Hell, some of them have two bridges. Once I hit on a sound that really excites me, I’ll work backwards from it and think of a half-dozen stories I could build around it. It takes me a long time.”

The rock crowd will get into opening track “Adelita.” Santa has a rolling beat going, and there’s a dynamic shift late in the song that could easily free form into epic jam madness in concert.

“Achilles” is catchy as hell. It’s poppy. The bass and lead guitars compete to stay memorable, and they both win. Musically, this might be my favorite. There are numerous cross-genre moments on the album. You’ll listen to it a few times before you get a “sense” for it.

So where is Rough Age playing live? Next show is Aug. 31 at the Commonwheel Arts Festival in Manitou Springs.

I’ll give Nathan Archer the last word, and it’s about being in a Colorado Springs band.

“I think the local show experience sums up the good and bad pretty clearly: a bunch of great bands playing mostly to each other. I think we have a fantastic amount of talent here, but it does feel like there’s a pretty limited audience for original music. We’re probably better off than most; we’re not completely alien to the typical bar band and can play a few places the more experimental bands can’t. But there’s still this expectation with most people that a bar band should be playing classic rock covers and formula blues, and if you want to get out to where the ears are, you always have to fight it.”

(And fight it, they do!)