Reverend Deadeye, above, was one of the many acts that played the recent Denver ONE Fest. Reverb file photo by Jason Claypool.
There are some artists that need to be alone, and then there are those that just plain can’t play with anyone else. It’s the latter group that put themselves on stage as a one-man-band — performing with total musical independence, total responsibility. Local record label Pygmy Mountain Music joined with 3 Kings Tavern on July 12 to showcase a few of them in the first-ever Denver International One-Man-Band Fest, reportedly the only one of its kind in the world. The ten performers on the schedule showed that all you have to do to rock is do it all, and add a smidge of creative flair to stand out.
Most of the lineup fit the traditional one-man bill perfectly. The Limbs thrilled a smallish crowd with his simple setup, spitting vocals as he smashed his hi-hat with the neck of his guitar, which only made the guitar’s heavy sound even more crunchy. Reverend Deadeye serenaded us for a while with mock fire and brimstone, and encouraged us to keep on getting “drunk on Jesus.” Austin’s Tom Vandenavond took a traditional approach with acoustic guitar and harmonica, and offered some respite from the other performers’ attacks. His set also inspired some discussion on the difference between one-man-band and singer/songwriter (the latter, it seems, is under no requirement to appear onstage alone, with multiple instruments — as far as we could figure).
Yet, these only proved that most one-mans fall into an all-too-similar vein — a style built from elemental blues riffs piled on top of simple, 4/4 rock rhythms, interlaced with so-sloppy-it’s-brilliant slide guitar work, and various styles of screaming through old-fashioned microphones. That, and just about anything that looks cool onstage that the performer has a limb or two to make contact with, and a little personality (preferably acerbic, and the meaner the better) is all it takes to fit in.
At least I thought it was. As the night progressed, I found I had a lot to learn.
One case in point, and the performer who veered most off the conventional path, was Cleveland’s Christa Ebert, in the guise of Uno Lady. Ebert’s performance was all vocals, and a few snippets of found audio, looped and wrapped into and around themselves and drenched in reverb and sometimes fuzz or chorus. It recalled the giant, dramatic sounds of bands like This Mortal Coil or Cocteau Twins: dreamy, psychedelic and sparse.
Another case was Kerry Davis of Two Tears, who completely stole the show. As she set up, it looked at first like she’d fit nicely into the standard one-man fare. And then she opened her mouth and unleashed a fiery attitude that exploded from every pore, compounded by each brutal thrust of her knee-high, boot-clad right foot on a bass drum pedal.
Davis was anything but “just traditional,” and seemed anything but satisfied. Her style wrapped the power of all of X inside of a cocoon made with the pelts of Jon Spencer (more from Pussy Galore days) and Jack White. “Senso Unico” (“one way” in Italian) may have defined the whole festival in its few short minutes: one way to go, one way to do it and only one person worthy of the task.
The performers who traveled farthest — Reverend Beat-Man from Bern, Switzerland, and Honkeyfinger from London — didn’t do a whole lot more than making the “international” in the name legitimate. Honkeyfinger played a thick-with-fuzz blues that really had trouble standing above the rest of the traditional stuff, and Beat-Man, aside from his Swiss inflection, also added more of the typical one-man fare. Overall, PMM did an enviable job, though, attracting so many one-man-bands, from so many places, for an event that (I hope) will grow for years to come.
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Billy Thieme is a Denver-based writer, an old-school punk and a huge follower of Denver’s vibrant local music scene. Follow Billy’s giglist at Gigbot.
Jason Claypool is a digital photographer from Lakewood. He specializes in concert, music and event photography. His work is available as large-format prints. His complete profile, with contact information, is here, and his collections are here. Track his show calendar on Gigbot.