The festival began as a poll, and the poll began as a brainstorm: How The Denver Post might introduce readers to the many quality bands on the fringes of a local music scene that, in the past decade, has since come into its own.
The idea: Ask local music experts to name the region’s top 10 underground bands.
But what was “underground”? Bands most deserving of more mainstream recognition. That haven’t been signed to a major label or become household names. That play area venues consistently but don’t get mainstream radio play. And thus was born one of the most hair-split, punched and mutilated definitions in the local underground music scene (whatever that means) for the past 10 years.
The poll, which last week revealed its 10th winner to be Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, has been a barometer and a lightning rod from the start. But we look at it as an annual commitment to offer our readers a credible snapshot of the local music scene in any given year.
Without it, suggests Jme White — whose band Acrobat Down finished No. 9 in that first poll — 2009 winner Ian Cooke might have been living all this time in San Francisco.
“Back in 2001, Denver did not support its local music,” said White, who now contributes to The Denver Post’s music blog, Reverb. “For the most part, back then, Denver exported all of its talent to the coasts.”
A week before that first poll was published in 2001, the Gothic Theatre’s Mary Robertson was confronted in the lobby by a patron who demanded to know: “Why hasn’t there been a good Colorado band since Big Head Todd and the Monsters?”
The answer was: There have been. Dozens. She just hadn’t heard of them. Our goal was to change that.
Our initial panel of 25 industry pros favored 16 Horsepower, self-described as “quasi- Southern Gothic hillbilly rock tempered by overtly Christian punk.” At the time, frontman and Littleton native David Eugene Edwards could routinely draw 5,000 in Amsterdam, and yet not be recognized in a Denver coffee shop.
“Two things happened when The Denver Post started its annual poll,” White said. “It validated hundreds of hard-working Denver bands — many of which were well-known nationally or internationally, but ignored locally. And it validated the incredibly hard-working independent club owners and promoters who struggled to get good national acts to come through a town that was then really just a rest stop between L.A. and the Midwest.”
White remembers thinking of that initial poll as the first mainstream, official record he had ever seen of Denver’s rich but inherently volatile music scene. “It’s like we’d all been kicking a ball around a field for years,” he said, “and suddenly (The Denver Post) came along and organized a league.”
That first poll was published to coincide with a scheduled 16 Horsepower concert at Boulder’s Fox Theatre. For Year 2, the idea struck for what seemed then a Herculean task: Release the survey in conjunction with an accompanying live showcase made up of bands finishing in the top 10. Read the paper that day, then go see some of those featured bands that night. Four bands, five bucks.
In retrospect the effort seems positively quaint, now that the since-monikered Underground Music Showcase, or UMS, has grown into a 325-band musical orgy that this year plays though Sunday at venues all along South Broadway.
Our first headliner was 2002 poll winner DeVotchKa, a mariachi polka punk band named after a line in “A Clockwork Orange,” and featuring a sousaphone lined with Christmas lights. A band that went on to earn an Oscar nomination for scoring the 2006 film, “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Trumpeter Shawn King remembers that ‘02 showcase at the Bluebird as a rite of passage.
“We’ve all got a ‘once-in-a- lifetime’ story from seeing shows there — mine being the Flaming Lips,” he said. “So taking that stage carries some weight. When The Post award came about, it just felt like we were hitting a stride. Accolades can encourage your broke (butt).”
Subsequent showcases, which turned into a multi-day festival in 2006, each have produced hilarious memories. Like when Friends Forever, a Devo-like band known for playing hit-and-vroom sidewalk shows out of their van, agreeing to play their first real indoor date at the 2003 showcase — which included a big blue tarp and wrapping unsuspecting Gothic patrons to the theater’s support poles.
Local promoter Dan Rutherford says nightmares of ear-rattling 2003 winner Planes Mistaken for Stars’ Bluebird set “have never escaped my brain. I’ve been scarred ever since.” Isaac Slade of the Fray electrified the 2007 UMS when he came to watch friend Patrick Meese, and agreed to play a few songs himself.
The poll, by its very nature, always raises questions over its ongoing need, scope and inherent fairness. But take the list of winners — 16 Horsepower, DeVotchKa, Planes Mistaken for Stars, Dressy Bessy, Matson Jones, Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots, Born in the Flood, Hearts of Palm, Ian Cooke and Snake Rattle Rattle Snake. Throw in frequent top finishers like the Czars, The Swayback, Mr. Pacman, Bad Weather California, Maraca Five-O, Bright Channel and the Hot IQs, and the poll represents a credible, if subjective, record of Denver’s underground music scene over the past decade.
It’s an arguable archive that can be looked back at in 40 years as a reasonable reminder of what we, as an underground community, found most interesting to listen to here in the first decade of this century.
And The UMS has been a live mirror to that history.
John Moore founded The Denver Post Underground Music Showcase in 2001 and is now the paper’s theater critic. If you care about such things, follow his theater ramblings at www.denverpost.com/theater. Find him on Twitter here.