The 14th annual Underground Music Showcase opened with a score to settle on Thursday. Well, one venue did at least.
“Show Austin TX what is up UMS starts Thurs,” reads the sign outside of The Hornet on South Broadway. Groups of fans walking to shows or arriving to pick up their wristbands stood in front of the sign, cell phones pointed to the sky, taking pictures of Denver’s bold statement about its music scene.
From humble beginnings with one venue and one headliner in 2001, The UMS has grown in the last 14 years to more than 400 performances, more than 20 venues and is increasingly drawing comparisons to South By Southwest in Austin, the country’s biggest music festival and industry showcase.
Who has more venues? Is The UMS the next SXSW? These are a few of the questions thrown around every year comparing the two music and art-progressive cities.
“What’s UMS trying to be?” A friend — and a UMS virgin — asked me as we walked by the sign on our way to the first 8 p.m. show of the showcase this year.
The truth is, The UMS was inspired by SXSW, but I don’t think that’s what it’s trying to be — not exactly anyway. Because, while The UMS is the region’s biggest music festival, it still remains in its heart a champion of Colorado music. And it was obvious early in the night as the eager first day groups flooded down the street to catch local supergroup Somerset Catalog.
By 9 p.m., during the second song of the second timeslot of UMS 2014, Somerset Catalog played to a packed Irish Rover. Members of the Denver six piece were already bouncing on stage and playing instruments in the middle of the crowd as if the band had been pumped up by days of live music.
The set brought a rough-around-the-edges New Pornographers style, complete with intelligent songwriting and lyricism. Though the band passed around whiskey and warned the crowd that they would fight, the set was anything but a drunken brawl. Instead, Somerset played calculated indie-rock as photographers shoved to the front, cameras in air. Showing its taste and some of its own hyper-smart influences, the band covered a quick and garage rock version of The National’s “Apartment Story.”
Down at the Hi-Dive at 10 p.m. Homebody made its UMS debut to yet another packed venue. The band weaves clever construction and guitar lines into an unassuming package. It could be taken with little thought as relaxed slacker-rock, but a second listen, and watching the members switch instruments, shows Homebody’s music is more of a puzzle than a collage. Which makes it disappointing that there was so much chatter filling the Hi-Dive during Homebody’s set — the music certainly rewards a close listen.
But among this chatter at the Hi-Dive, rumors were already starting to float around about possible surprise performances on Friday night. (Be sure to follow our Twitter for any announcements when and if they’re confirmed.)
A hike down to 4th and Broadway to Brendan’s brought another relative newcomer, Male Blonding. Like the Smiths, Interpol, Joy Division and many of Male Blonding’s influences, the band takes itself seriously on stage. Noah Simons’ dramatic, theatrical vocals were sadly lost in the mix on Thursday. But that left room to focus on Male Blonding’s intricate, jangling multiple guitar lines. When the band could fit them together, it showed moments of brilliance, and will likely be the case more often once it gets more experience on stage.
Typically, Thursday crowds aren’t huge at The UMS, as fans ease themselves into the long weekend of music. But by midnight a line had formed down the street outside of the Hi-Dive. And here’s where the SXSW comparisons start rolling in. In The Whale was set to take the stage, but as maybe 50 people waited outside, the crowd inside was a comfortable size. Why were so many people stuck in line? It was hard to say, but by the time ITW were nearly wrecking their instruments during the first song, the line had transitioned inside.
Over at 3 Kings, also closing out the night in the midnight slot, Florida’s Roadkill Ghost Choir gave the best performance of UMS 2014 day one. Spending the weekend in Denver for two more UMS shows — Friday at 11 p.m. at Skylark and Saturday at 6 p.m. at The Hi-Dive — the band grabbed the attention of Denver audiences.
Dressed in all denim, his long straight hair hanging over microphone and guitar like a grunge version of the girl from “The Ring,” RGC frontman Andrew Shepard led the band through a morphing set of folk-rock. While the band’s debut record “Quiet Light,” plays like a softer Southern album with trumpet, banjo and lap steel, live the band takes on a more garage rock sound. With two members working effect pedals, the guitars crunching with distortion and Shepard yelping and yelling, the band is more early Radiohead than Decemberists. It’s certainly a show worth making an effort to see as UMS continues on Friday and Saturday.
Seth McConnell is a member of YourHub at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.