Leave it to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, who have put on one of Denver’s best live shows for more than a decade, to be the only band that could outdo their own reputation. That’s what happened last Wednesday at the Bluebird in the first of two New Year’s Eve celebratory shows. The six-piece not only proved their consummate showmanship, often sardonically tongue-in-cheek, but also a grasp of drama, playing as the cast of the classic cartoon Popeye. And they added some new tunes to their set — the first in more than three years.
Amidst a stage transformed into Popey’s surrealistic seaside town, detailed down to stacked cans of spinach and fish netting, the Auto Club played a 90-minute set that put this first night of their ninth consecutive year of back-to-back Bluebird shows in a class of its own. As the lights dimmed to the sounds of a foggy marina — including foghorns — drummer Chadzilla crawled out wearing footed pajamas, the not-quite-spitting image of the infant Swee’Pea. The rest of the band then filed on, each another character from the sea-based cartoon.
Danny “Pants” Grandbois was Popeye’s nemesis Bluto, complete with pillowed girth, and Rev. Dwight Pentacost played Wimpy, the constantly penniless hamburger junkie, on his own mini-stage in front of a burger stand mockup. The star of the cartoon was played by John Rumley, at the pedal steel for most of the set, while Slim topped off the cast as a hilariously apropos Olive Oyl. This left an positively rotund (relatively speaking, of course) Munly, as a generic yet perfect extemporaneous sailor.
They played a set of their classics, from the ultra-gothic country of “This Is How We Do Things in the Country,” “Jesus Is In My Body — My Body Has Let Me Down” and “This Land Is Our Land Redux,” to the happily sacred church tent service feel of “He, Roger Williams” and “Magalina Hagalina Boom Boom.” As dramatic as was their performance of “Red Pirate of the Prairie” and “That Fierce Cow Is Common Sense in a Country Dress,” there was something special about an Olive Oyl’d Slim leading the cast in “Children of the Lord.” As usual, most of the (less-than-full) house was swept up in its charisma.
The band added three new songs to the familiar set, all of them excitingly loud, poppy constructions, whetting our appetites for more of these Denver sons’ brilliance. Slim also announced that the band had been recording in previous weeks with local producer/engineer Bob Ferbrache, and quipped about the next record taking a mere “four years.”
Paper Bird, another Ferbrache project that’s quickly ascending in the Denver scene — and deservedly so — opened the show with a too-short set of their originals as the place filled up. The trio of female lead vocalists offered arrangements that are unmatched by anything else Denver has to offer, atop an Appalachian-tinted folk from the backing band, and recalled just a bit of the Avett Brothers in spirit.
Follow Reverb on Twitter! Here!
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.