As Gov. John Hickenlooper introduced Denver band and Underground Music Showcase headliner Born in the Flood on Sunday, it became clear that this year’s festival was out to prove something. Thinking back on the weekend — the increased pre-sale tickets, crowds and lines, the SXSW-like day parties and now, our governor’s pep talk — maybe there was some sort of takeaway from the beer, sweat and late nights.
From the main stage, the Loop gushed about his love of Nathaniel Rateliff (even predicting that the singer-songwriter will become “one of the biggest musicians in this country”), the number of venues in Denver, the music community and drew more comparisons between The UMS and SXSW. And worn out after four days, it was easy to get worked up with the guy.
Earlier on that very stage, things had kicked off with SHEL — a mystical, rocking bluegrass band of sisters — who drew one of the biggest crowds all weekend for an early Main Stage set. SHEL likely could have filled one of the smaller side venues, but perhaps the woodsy folk music is best suited for the outdoors. Complete with mandolin shredding, Led Zeppelin covers and charming stage banter (all sugar, they requested a giant umbrella for the crowd), SHEL left a good first impression.
Wandering along, it was no surprise that the Irish Rover was packed thanks to the Yawpers, who had been drawing crowds all weekend for an assured dose of All-American rock. This set was part of the SpokesBUZZ showcase, which earlier that day had hosted Esme Patterson and later that night Sour Boy Bitter Girl.
It turned out to be a blessing that the Irish Rover was too packed for comfort, because it became an excuse to get to the Punch Bowl early for a set by the Dirty Femmes with Gordon Gano. It sounds like the plot to an ironic indie comedy: Local Violent Femmes cover band ends up playing a show with the lead singer and songwriter of the Violent Femmes, but he doesn’t even front the cover band (Starring Ellen Page and Steve Buscemi). With that narrative, it was impossible to pass up seeing the Dirty Femmes. The band can bring it, too — Jen Korte on vocals channels the guy next to her, Gano, who graciously sings backup and takes only a few incredible fiddle solos. But the best part was the crowd. A legion of Femmes diehards sang every word during covers of hits like “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone.”
From there it was a bit of an electronic interlude — a genre I realized I had for the most part neglected this weekend. This gave me a chance to catch Denver producer RUMTUM. It’s good to see a new generation of producers graduating from the “press play” style of music making. RUMTUM is a multi-tasking 2013 type of one-man-band. On top of running his electronics, he sings and plays the guitar — slinging his instrument across his back when he turns to the mic and the knobs. He fits all the parts together nicely, weaving complex, experimental rhythms into what ends up being a dance song.
Later in the night (well, what felt really late, but was in reality only 8 to 10 p.m.) brought sets from Petals of Spain and Codename: Carter. It seemed obligatory to catch Petals, whose member Nic Hammerberg had been promoting the set all weekend by walking around in the heat in a black, furry gorilla suit. That, and the band is a group of excellent performers, who gave the strong Illegal Pete’s crowd an entertaining set. Then Codename: Carter brought one of the more technically impressive sets of the weekend. It was easy to let your inner music geek free while hearing the band’s spy tunes complete with shockingly precise drumming and even two bass lines at one time.
The night wore down (thankfully) earlier than it had the last three, and as UMS 2013 came to a close, Hickenlooper’s musical challenge from earlier in the night seemed to hang around: “I dare any other city and state to compare to Denver and Colorado.”
Evan Semón is a Denver freelance writer and photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his work.