The HomeVibe “in the round” stage was one of 20 venues at the Denver Post’s 8th annual Underground Music Showcase. Photo by Laurie Scavo.
The Denver Post’s 8th annual Underground Music Showcase (UMS), which took place Aug. 1-2, brought to mind a song from Colorado’s underground history: “88 Lines About 44 Women” by the Nails (from the Boulder underground in the mid 1970s). As I ran between the nearly 20 venues and caught sets from 22 local bands over the two-day festival, I used that song’s structure to try to capture my experience below.
As cool as seeing 22 bands in two days might sound, that represents only a fifth of the total acts at the UMS this year. I’ve tried to boil down my impressions of each, hoping to start you on your own journey through the eclectic Denver music scene.
At the opening of my UMS experience Friday evening, stony electronic music from Women Gathering Gems emanated from the Hi-Dive stage like echoes from a cave. This was one of five bands starting simultaneously, setting the small opening crowds on their way to what would turn into an unforgettable event.
Down the street, American Relay regaled the crowd at 3 Kings Tavern with an explosion of surly blues. Nick Sullivan’s vocals are a seasoned taste of two other rock ‘n’ roll Jo(h)ns — Fogerty and Spencer — mashed up with his guitar crunch and the garage sound of Alex Herbert on drums.
After that assault, I broke into the sanctum of the South Broadway Christian Church to catch a sacred and serenely passionate Dang Head set. Jamie Smith, alone and bare on the stage, delivered peace-wrapped desperation to a small evening crowd.
Back at the Hi-Dive, Sleeper Horse’s Josh Friedman and Mike Herrera deftly screamed between their guitars’ jangling duels, building a complex sonic tapestry of loud emo-punk. At the same time, the Still City spun more sweet-strung synth emo at the Skylark. By now venues were starting to crowd, and drinks were flowing more freely.
In my first stop at the Kabal Rug Kilm, sitting among the $2,500 woolen rugs and $4,500 tapestries, Reed Foehl, Eric Forsythe and Dave Preston treated the crowd to one of HomeVibe’s many “in the round” series that took place that weekend. These lineups are quickly gaining popularity at festivals across the country. They involve gathering three (or more) artists from different bands in the same room for a few songs in collaboration, or just to pass the mic. These three passed one guitar chord, as well as the mic, in a game of mixing their styles into song after solid song.
I ran next to catch the Jim Jims’ set, where the band was pulling some Joy Division into a bowl of Mission Of Burma at the Skylark. Screams from the band’s singer, known only as Adam, left us hungry again.
Thankfully, Aaron Hobbs’ Popwreck was next up. Hobbs, with mandolin accompaniment, poured out a brilliant set of “acousti-punk” melodies.
I was off next to the Hornet to catch a reunion set from the inimitable Maraca 5-0. The boys proved yet again that everyone hungers for surf twang, maybe even more so in a landlocked state such as ours. The band remains sorely missed on the Denver scene.
Maraca 5-0 fueled my enthusiasm for the first of two weekend sets by Hearts of Palm, voted this year’s No. 1 band in The Denver Post’s annual poll of music experts. Hearts nearly packed the Hi-Dive with their infectious, cathartic groove, and left all of us drenched with sweat.
Up next was Ian Cooke and his cello, accompanied by members of at least four other acts (Julie Davis of Bela Karoli, and Joshua Novak among them). Cooke kept us entranced with his mathematically precise tunes, and his rousing rendition of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5″ resulted in a few upturned brows.
The final Friday night party for me was the Orangu-Tones reunion. This is the perfect “Animal House” band, and their frat party-powered, nostalgic tunes whipped the Skylark crowd into a tired frenzy.
Too much UMS on Friday got me off to a late start on Saturday. Nathan Meese, playing solo and out from behind his brother Patrick and their band Meese in the South Broadway Christian Church, gave us a bright set of songs. Nathan had to read from his lyric book to perform a few, they were so new.
Next I went out to catch some Hot IQs in the outdoor afternoon heat. They always win the “cutest band” award, and their sound still captivates. But everyone was wondering: Where’s the new album?
Back for another “in the round” session at the Kabal Rug Kilm, where Rachael Pollard, Julie Davis and Gregory Alan Isakov traded tunes and added to each other’s. Pollard’s Cat Power-like vocals were well met by Davis’ Stereolab-scientific groove. Both voices mixed well as Isakov’s lilting backup vocalists on a few songs.
Downstairs, I caught the end of the Messengers’ set at Blue Ice. Their loud, psychedelic instrumentation expanded as it went on, and the venue seemed to grow larger along with it.
At the Irish Rover, the audience was treated to Elin Palmer’s dual-accordion and standup bass set. It was a selection of gothic noir that brought back visions of films from a young Orson Welles, while wavering in and out of a deft arrangement that recalled the Lee Lewis Harlots.
On to catch some Pee Pee at IndyInk, where the band stepped ever closer to perfecting their Flaming Lips-styled cathartic live celebrations, fueled by super-chunky funk beats, balloons and a touch of chaos. All that was missing was the confetti.
Surviving that, I stumbled onto a fierce, rockin’ set by Eyes and Ears in the constantly buzzing 3 Kings Tavern. This band spewed out fast, thundering rock, close to reaching the noise and fury of Sonic Youth.
Back at the Skylark, I caught Joshua Novak and his band delivering pop tunes that recall a little Postal Service, a little Magnetic Fields, with high, lilting vocals rather than Stephin Merritt’s saucy baritone.
I rallied back to The Hi-Dive, where Monofog blew out the room with Hayley Helmericks’ Grace Slick/Lydia Lunch vocals. The band backed her with a Teenage Jesus-meets-Iron Butterfly drone, pushing the sweaty crowd to exhaustion.
Red Orange Yellow closed out the UMS with its sonic innovations recalling Loop. The band worked with guitar, drums and multiple Moogs, interlaced with screaming vocals. It was a frenzied end to the festival.
After taking it all in, I sat amazed at the size and weight that the UMS, and the overall Denver music scene, have become. I saw a mere one-fifth of the acts, and was both exhausted and piqued. My appetite was merely whetted for a chance to catch the other four-fifths I couldn’t fit into the 20 hours I spent crawling up and down Broadway.
I can’t wait to get started.
Billy Thieme is a regular Reverb contributor and Denver-based writer.