2006 Articles

by Tim Van Schmidt

Rolling Stones, Super Bowl broadcast from Detroit, February 5, 2006.

To make any bowl game “super,” there have to be sparks of excitement that distinguish it from just any other game. That the two best teams in the NFL square off on the field at the annual Super Bowl- this year the victorious Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Seattle Seahawks- sometimes means that the playing itself gets tough- neither team willing to give up an inch to the other, each waiting for a mistake of any kind that they can take advantage of. It’s often cautious, hard hitting football- sometimes without exciting break-out plays.

That’s why the Super Bowl entertainment line-up has become an important element to the broadcast. If the teams on the field aren’t “entertaining,” just wait until the halftime show. Scoring the Rolling Stones as this year’s featured act was brilliant- the biggest band in the biggest entertainment venue in the world. It also gave viewers across the world something to look forward to while Seattle and Pittsburgh pushed the ball back and forth, straining for points of any kind. Little snippets of Stones music came often during the first half broadcast. After a generous amount of commentary once the teams had left the field, the cameras revealed a huge, red tongue and lips stage with lucky attendees crowded around the perimeter. To even better effect, the red tongue was pulled away to reveal more fans on the inside of the stage.

Mick Jagger then had a walkway all around the perimeter of the lips and tongue and after greeting the crowd in Detroit “and everybody out there,” he used it to take control of the crowd around him- pointing, waving his arms, shaking and shimmying, but also projecting into the stadium. Who would’ve thought that really some of the most exciting athletes on the field for the Super Bowl would be Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts. While Watts propelled the music with his intense steadiness, Jagger never stopped working the crowd- more so than any quarterback could. Jagger was the perfect man for the job- electrifying the Super Bowl and programmers must have known exactly what they were doing.

It was a short set, of course. “Start Me Up” was followed by “Rough Justice” from the latest “Bigger Bang” album, then a revved up “Satisfaction.” Guitarist Ron Wood stepped out front several times during the first two tunes, adding concise, gritty licks. Keith Richards finally cut loose with some of his own gritty licks during “Satisfaction.” But between the stage and how Jagger used it, the rest was icing.

Football and rock and roll? Why not? The Rolling Stones are like a championship team of rock and the flashy video intro to the band’s appearance cut together Stones images and football images with ease. They’re both about an explosion of energy and about survival on your own terms- winning the big one- like Steelers coach Bill Cowher. But Jagger and company have been doing it for decades.

It is notable that the band evidently is willing to trim their material for the general audience. Jagger left off some key words to two of the songs, probably in deference to the all ages audience. In “Start Me Up,” Jagger did not complete the lyric “you make a dead man come,” simply trailing off with “you make a dead man…” Also in “Rough Justice,” Jagger blanked out the ending of the lyric “now I’m just one of your cocks,” singing “now I’m just one of your…” No lyric malfunction this year.

That the Stones filled the bill in terms of stoking up the Super Bowl is laudable- finding that edgy rock and roll works indeed in the football environment. But programmers can be especially congratulated on producing an excellent pre-show concert featuring Stevie Wonder with a full band, robed choir, dancers and an all-star roster of guest vocalists. Wonder freely wheeled through an upbeat medley that touched on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Dancing in the Street,” “In the City,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Superstition,” and his new one “So What the Fuss.”

But it was the little spoken word tag that Wonder placed over the swelling music at the end of the quick set. Wonder said that peace was something that we should “demand,” and that we needed to “come together before we are annihilated.” These were strong sentiments in an environment not known for its general sensitivity. That’s why the Stones worked so well- sensitivity? Not necessary. But to appreciate what Wonder said means something else. He can be thanked for adding this kind of meaning in the midst of the musical celebration around him.

Added to this was the moment of silence given for the late Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Then, in respect for the trials of the damaged city of New Orleans, thanks to Hurricane Katrina, pianist Dr. John lead a band that backed up vocalists Aaron Neville and Aretha Franklin for the singing of the national anthem. Their voices soulfully honored a troubled nation, then it was kick-off. Super Bowl? The Steelers prevailed in a bulldog contest with a lot of punting and stopped up plays. Super entertainment? Absolutely.

Ailey II, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, March 6, 2006.

Men’s dance took center stage when the Ailey II dance company came to the Lincoln Center on March 6 as part of the Dance Series. A large part of the program- six continuous pieces- was devoted to spotlighting the male dancers who worked solo and in combinations. This served to establish a tone for the rest of the show that, despite including women dancers, could be defined as male as well. Or maybe it’s just that the Ailey style suits the physicality of males so well that it seemed to be gender oriented.

Throughout the evening, dancers of both sexes applied themselves to a style of dance that must demand plenty from them physically. Every movement seemed to be just slightly exaggerated or extended, but also very smooth and precise. This was typified by two pieces. The first, “Mourner’s Bench,” was a solo performed by Marcus Willis with arms not just reaching up, but thrust up in wide arcs, making the one dancer seem larger. The second was the solo showstopper featuring Gregory Sinacori, “Takedeme.” While recording artist Sheila Chandra produced rapid fire vocal sounds over the p.a., Sinacori created rapid fire movements, connected by sinuous writhing.

All of this then came together in the dramatic and intense group piece- featuring six male dancers- “The Hunt,” combining primal tribal costuming, raucous percussion music and those big, wide but quick movements for the single most arresting piece of the night.

The final section of the concert- “Revelations”- was supported by raw gospel recordings which helped underscore the athletic Ailey style with a consistent urgency. After “The Hunt,” the final sequence with stylized period costuming and parasols- “Move. Members. Move.”- seemed kind of quaint, but company members matched the urgency of the music with urgent Ailey physical movements- layers of body riffs filling the stage. The result was an appreciation for the hard work Ailey company members- male and female alike- must put in to not only keep up with the rigors of the choreography, but to also turn it into artifice.

Cats, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, March 9, 2006.

Write a review of “Cats,” the venerable and POPULAR stage production that stayed forever on Broadway and in London? You mean the show featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the words based on poet TS Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”? Whatever for? It’s kind of like reviewing “Oklahoma” or “The Wizard of Oz”- it has become a standard of contemporary entertainment that perhaps needs no more reviews.

However, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of when the show first opened in London in 1981, “Cats” is on tour and playing to thousands of people who have probably never seen the show. To many along the tour route, “Cats” is actually a NEW show. So why not take a look at how this stage classic fares in 2006? Let’s let the fur fly.

The good news is that “Cats” remains an impressive production- even in its touring form. Rousing group numbers and feature solo spots feature a balance between operatic vocalizing and sinuous dancing. The stylized urban stage setting is versatile- offering multiple exits and entrances for the characters. Colorful lighting is strung up above the audience beyond the stage area, and the boundaries between performers and audience members is blurred as characters occasionally make their way off and on the stage.

However, in watching the production at the Lincoln Center, I had to wonder what the value was of an entire show devoted to the personalities of cats. A kind of story emerges from the show, but it is not particularly engaging beyond the swirl of costumes and the often times frenetic stage action. Just for comparison’s sake, when you place “Cats” side by side with something like “Rent,” a more contemporary hit, I’m afraid the yowling confessions of cat characters just doesn’t mean very much.

Or does it? Maybe this is where TS Eliot comes in. Eliot’s cat poems are a far cry from the serious dryness of “The Wasteland.” Their whimsical nature, however, may simply be masking the underlying meanings. It becomes obvious that the cats reflect human personalities and values. Their trials, met with a certain feline slant, are like human trials. Bad mixes with good, triumph replaces disheartenment and the wisdom of community prevails over destructive influences. That the show seems a little light in the saddle bags philosophically is actually a misconception.

If there was a real problem from my seat for the March 9 performance, it was the sound mix. I found myself leaning forward often to try to catch enough of the singing to follow the story. Defective mikes at times further disrupted the sound. However, this problem was limited to the singers. The live band performing in the orchestra pit was coming through loud and clear. In fact my favorite parts of this entire production were the innovative instrumental segue parts, often very atmospheric and musically progressive.

Probably the most anachronistic thing about the whole deal- not counting the stage show mini opera form itself- was the cheesy synthesizer parts that occasionally dominated.

So does “Cats” work in the 21st Century? The answer has to be yes, because basically it IS working- I mean the show is currently on tour, isn’t it? The wonder of the younger members of the audience was probably just as fresh as when I took my own daughter to see “Cats” on Broadway 12 years ago. That the show has a kind of innocent way of introducing more complicated subjects is perhaps kind of a relief- it’s just for fun with maybe just a little something to think about in the end. Not particularly heavy, not serious and not disturbing, “Cats” still manages to remain memorable by the sheer creative force of the original vision. Cats are like people? They can be, thanks to Eliot’s musings- and great costumes.

A Certain Urgency, The Starlight, Fort Collins, March 9, 2006.

Here’s the short of it: There once was a Fort Collins band named You Call That Art? Now there’s a band called A Certain Urgency, one that has been doing its wood shedding in Fort Collins, but is preparing to move to Wisconsin sometime this year- for a brand new start?

Well, at the Starlight on March 9, A Certain Urgency certainly had the feel of a brand new start. Though the band shares two main characters from You Call That Art?- namely guitarist John Furste and manic vocalist Sven Severin- as well as some of the previous band’s choice material, the group has come a long way already in establishing a new character.

This can be heard on A Certain Urgency’s debut CD release, “Stories from the Big City.” Produced by Jason Hickman, the album is a fresh mixture of guitar rock, punk and pop styles seamlessly forged together with a fistful of confidence. Furste, who wrote or collaborated on all the tunes on the record, is responsible for the guitar rock. Now, the sounds he plays with range from heavy metal Metallica type power chording to some spicy classic Southern rock leads. His tone and approach change throughout the arrangements and it keeps things lively indeed.

The punk influences come from Severin’s vocal stylings that not only handle the rigors of the words and melodies, but also manage to put some infectious personality into the music. As for the pop stuff, well, A Certain Urgency is not afraid to work the same bag of tricks successful bands have been using for years- including great melodic hooks, distinctive guitar riffs, upbeat tempos and a positive attitude. (By the way, A Certain Urgency is also not afraid to do a- gasp- ballad.)

On stage at the Starlight, Furste’s guitar raged, the set paid attention to an ebb and flow of energy, throwing in a few slower tunes here and there, and Severin proved to be not only an able but a riveting front man. Including a little You Call That Art? material as well as a cover of the Who’s “The Seeker,” the set of course plowed through the new stuff. My favorites were “Crush” and the showstopper number, “Big City.”

Now this is the kind of power this band wielded: A Certain Urgency’s performance and new material is so strong that in front of a small hometown crowd, there were actually some awkward moments of quiet in between songs. In between tunes, Severin often found himself chatting amiably with the crowd about not much in particular. Maybe some of the urban sound effects that preceded and ended “Big City” would come in handy in some of these down moments elsewhere in the show? Don’t get me wrong, down moments aren’t bad, but it’s a little hard to accept a room devoid of electricity when the other moments of electricity sound so good.

The Fray, Moby Arena, Fort Collins, March 26, 2006.

The power was definitely turned ON in Moby Arena on March 26. Not for sports and not for world class speakers, but for a good dose of contemporary music- as in the popular Denver-based pop rock band the Fray.

But more than just electricity and songs, there was something else turned ON in Moby. That something was a certain spirit that is often lacking at most concert events. You see, the “concert industry” is exactly that- a big business. But the show in CSU’s campus arena was outside the mainstream. That is, it was a show that was conceived, developed and produced by CSU students who saw the event not just as business, but as an opportunity to DO SOMETHING.

Dubbed “The Night” by Power On Productions, the student team that brought the Fray to Moby, the evening was a refreshing mix of music and community outreach. That outreach wasn’t just tagged onto the event like so many benefits, but was an integral part of the production. The concert, the first show in years at Moby, benefited the Sam Spady Foundation. That organization was created to memorialize the late CSU student Samantha Spady, who died from alcohol poisoning, and to “educate all parents and students on the dangers of alcohol,” according to the slick, informative program distributed at the show.

In fact, the opening page of the program proclaimed a Power On Productions philosophy: “Keep dreaming, keep striving, and have the time of your life.” I personally don’t know many professional concert promoters that include PHILOSOPHY in their business, so this was a unique event indeed.

Sam Spady Foundation board member Reza Zadeh spoke during the set break between opening band Set Forth and the Fray, telling personal stories and encouraging the crowd to find their “passion”- but with responsible care. Zadeh is the founder of the Lighthouse, the outreach facility housed in the building near the CSU campus where Spady was found, as well as a pastor at Timberline Church.

In a press conference at the Hilton earlier in the day, the student who started it all, Power On Productions President Kevin Buecher, admitted that right from the start, it was part of the plan to make this concert special: “This was six months in the making and it was our idea that we wanted to do something more than just put on a concert, we wanted to do something better.” Buecher got the ball rolling by renting out Moby and gathering major sponsors like University House at Ram’s Pointe and One Tribe Creative, as well as the help of organizations such as the CSU Marketing Club, CSU C.R.E.W.S. and the Student Health Advisory Council. He also tapped Zadeh as “a voice of change.”

The response from the community was very positive. Moby had a nice full crowd- the first 1200 concertgoers let onto the floor, everyone else spread out in the upper seating on either side. I saw one squashed girl taken out of the crowd along the front of the stage and one young fellow tried to get onto the floor by sliding off the edge of the upper seating, but was apprehended and ejected. However, the general mood on the floor was buoyant- there was an electricity in the air that wasn’t plugged in. The youthful crowd seemed truly excited to be there and it seemed like the social event of the year- just like concerts used to be, and obviously still can be thanks to fresh thinking from ambitious non-mainstream promoters.

Even better than the intensity of the event from a strictly news angle was the Fray itself. The band has a full, thick sound that is real fresh and making headway outside of their home state. Lead vocalist Isaac Slade is a riveting figure in the band, supplying passionate, emotive vocals, meaty keyboard parts and a visual focus that worked even in the back of the arena. The rest of the band builds a sonic wall around Slade’s singing- including narrow precise harmony vocals- and the generally melodic nature of the songs. The crowd knew the songs too, waving their cell phones in the air and belting out the words. At Moby, the Fray supplied a good dose of its full, introspective pop rock, compacting it into a set that might have been a little longer for a headliner.

At the press conference earlier, Slade admitted that even though the group has been experiencing national exposure on radio and television, that they hold a special place in their hearts for Colorado: “We’re standing on the shoulders of the fans here.” VIP fans then lined up to get their pictures taken with the group, another part of the job of the popular musician.

The Fray seems worthy of the popularity. Their music projects a kind of sincerity that was matched by the efforts of Power On Productions. That made the Moby Arena concert something bigger than the usual entertainment event. Buecher seems to have accomplished his goal. It was “something better.”

Break! The Urban Funk Spectacular, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, April 1, 2006.

Things got down right rowdy at the Lincoln Center on April 1 when “Break! The Urban Funk Spectacular” turned the performance hall into a loud, energetic hip hop club. Between the action on the stage- measuring equal parts of attitude against slick, amazing body movement- and the whoops and hollers coming from the audience, there wasn’t a quiet moment during the show. This added to the delight in experiencing something NEW at the Lincoln Center.

But be certain that “Break!”, a New York City based performance troupe currently on a world tour, is not just about the dancing. While various forms of break dancing were showcased, the rhythmic skills of live musicians DJ Shake and drummer Peter Rabbit were also spotlighted. These long sections of grooves- at times a little tedious compared to bodies flying across the stage-  served as spacers between the dancing numbers and underscored that hip hop first and foremost is based on the beat. But then add the dancers and the show becomes a party that many in the usually staid venue were willing to join. Heads were bobbing enthusiastically to the incessant rhythms and cheers were plentiful.

Now, the physical accomplishments of the dancers- including Doc, Aquaboogy, Flashback, Dizzy, Jumping Bean and Locking Q- were significant. Flipping, spinning and diving to the beats, these performers are more like acrobats than dancers. And it was wonderful to watch because there was a real sense that this show is not just artifice, but something these people might be doing together anyway at a party somewhere- or on a city street corner.

But more than just cool body work, “Break!” also is a breath of fresh air thanks to the attitude of the performers. Flashback in particular seemed to be in control of the proceedings and he brought a cool, yet slightly irreverent air to the stage. And this is where the roots of “Break!” seem to be revealed. It was easy to imagine that Flashback’s stage presence- confidence cut with friendliness- was developed on the street. Street performing is different from being in a theater in that on the street there is no barrier between the performers and the audience, who gather just by happenstance. A certain kind of crowd control is necessary in the open air to keep things interesting and involving and Flashback seems to be a master. He talked to the crowd at the Lincoln Center like they were passersby, strong in the knowledge that the dancing will impress, given a little time to create magic. Here, a well-developed personality is as important as physical talent in capturing a crowd’s attention.

“Break!” was perhaps one of the best shows to come to the Lincoln Center in several seasons and it was precisely this mix of personality and movement that made it succeed. This wasn’t just another touring show but a vivid experience with lively characters. The audience, with probably very few break dancers among them, was delighted and if “Break!” came back to town, many would probably go again- even if the show was out on the street or in a parking lot somewhere.

Dinosaur Jr., Fox Theatre, Boulder, April 14, 2006.

On April 14, at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, a contingent of rabid fans greeted the reunion tour of Dinosaur Jr.- featuring original members guitarist J. Mascis, drummer Murph and bassist Lou Barlow- with slamming, shouting- and complaining. Some loud audience members along the front of the stage kept bitching about the sound- that they couldn’t hear the vocals. Both Barlow and Mascis explained that the offended audience members were in front of the main PA speakers, so how could they expect to hear the vocals? Barlow even turned one of his monitors around to placate some.

It’s funny how some of the most aggressive fans are the ones who miss the point. Like really, how big of a deal is it to hear the vocals when experiencing Dinosaur Jr. live? I’d say not much really- I was at the front of the stage, I couldn’t hear the vocals and I just didn’t care. What I did care about was the intensity of the ragged, raging electricity this power trio was stirring up. I saw people mouthing the words- just as I watched Mascis and Barlow mouth the words- but when a runaway freight train is loose right in front of you, you can’t hear a thing anyway, so why complain?

Now, let’s be honest about this, Dinosaur Jr.’s music is not very precise on stage, especially in the beginning of the set. At times it was really hard to tell if Mascis and Barlow were even playing in the same key and the guitar breaks often wandered. Fortunately, the upbeat rhythms- and Murph’s athletic performance- served to keep things generally in line no matter what tune was up.

But without fail, there would come a time in every song when Mascis would touch a button with his foot and the guitar sound would jump into overdrive. He might use just one mighty sound, or a combination that really twisted his snaky solos into something above and beyond just guitar playing- it was an explosive force. Meanwhile, Barlow and Murph were thrashing their parts in a great cacophony of primal rock.

Finally, by the end of the evening, the real power of Dinosaur Jr. was revealed. That is, all the thrashing around, the messing with keys, the piledriving pace all came together into a fury of sound, Mascis digging in and nailing the moment with rapid fire accuracy and full-on musical abandonment. It turns out the magic of Dinosaur Jr. is a cumulative effect. The songs themselves are just stepping stones to a larger, grander release- this massive build-up of frantic energy finally channeled into a sharp climax.

Now let’s also add the weight of the bands that opened the night as well. Monofog, now from Denver and formerly from Fort Collins, began the evening with their own ragged electric music- dark and deep. Priestess, from Montreal, followed with a bulldozer mix of metal and hard rock. Each act was geared toward the same kind of energy build up as the headliner- coming from different angles- and between the three, this was a very large dose of rock radioactivity.
On my way out of the Fox, stunned and kind of drained, I heard a fan say that this was the best concert they had ever been to- and he was one of the guys complaining about the sound. So I guess even the hardcore fans had to agree that Mascis, Barlow and Murph have not only reignited the flame that was Dinosaur Jr., but have made it blast like a blowtorch.

Cris Williamson, Boulder Theater, Boulder, April 15, 2006.

Singer-songwriter Cris Williamson had some very strong help in celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of her landmark women’s music album, “The Changer and the Changed,” with her current tour that stopped at the Boulder Theater on April 15. Joining her on stage in Boulder were Barbara Higbie, Teresa Trull and Vicki Randle, all accomplished women musicians in themselves.

In fact other than a pair of tunes from Williamson at the beginning and end, the rest of the first set was given over to featuring each of her compatriots. The second set, as promised, was a reading of the entire “Changer” album, Higbie, Trull and Randle adding impassioned backup to Williamson’s still inspiring songs.

Now, if this were a “regular-type” artist, a fan might be disappointed. After all, Williamson was the initial draw and it could have seemed kind of cheap to offer such a limited amount of her material. As Williamson herself said during the show, she has written a lot more music than the “Changer” and a fuller retrospective would have been appropriate. Also, that these women have been touring together so much recently created a gregarious atmosphere among the performers that resulted in a lot of laughing and kidding over inside jokes and, well, whatever else came up. This tended to eat up more time, making less space for music- Williamson’s or anybody’s.

But this was not a “regular-type” artist. More than a musician, Williamson is a cultural icon whose strength goes beyond just writing and performing songs. Her music itself- songs crafted to easily accommodate the addition of other voices- is an invitation to sing along. But further, her personality is warm and humorous and at the Boulder Theater it seemed just as important to spend time listening to the artist muse about love and aging in between songs as it was to hear those great emotive tracks from the past. At least the Boulder audience seemed to think so, greeting just about anything Williamson and company said with whoops, laughs and cheers.

The jokes about Williamson’s age- referring to herself as “grandma” and trading comments with the other performers about being a mature woman with such problems as “losing nouns”- seemed superfluous and even kind of tedious, because when the quartet got down to making music, there didn’t seem to be an age problem at all. However, this line of commentary seemed to resonate with the crowd, who mostly appeared to be longtime fans themselves, and they laughed along.

All that said, however, the show at the Boulder Theater was an excellent showcase of women’s music, above and beyond the “Changer” theme. Higbie served as the multi-talented instrumental anchor for the evening, playing violin, grand piano and keyboards, as well as adding plenty of vocals. Her communication with longtime collaborator Trull, whose striking looks, strong voice and perky personality remained center stage for the entire show, was well-honed and very effective. Randle- who added vocals to the original “Changer” album- was also a superb vocalist and at times kicked some of the songs into a kind of soulful ecstasy. Each woman shined brightly whenever featured.

But this was Williamson’s show initially and what finally happened was that Higbie, Trull and Randle trained their considerable talents on filling out and enriching Williamson’s “Changer” material. Not only did this make for great, dynamic versions of the songs, but it also made it easier for the audience to join in. Who wouldn’t want to sing along to touching, meaningful music that was being presented in a vibrant way?

While Williamson’s voice remained strong throughout the second set- still very haunting and effective on the deeper tunes such as “Wild Things” and “One of the Light”- and her “backup band” was right on the money- this music wasn’t complete until the audience stood and swayed together to “Sister.” And that really becomes the point- that the music becomes a reason to come together and share the moment. This sharing then supersedes the music itself.

Williamson and company accomplished their mission, even with the rather relaxed pace of the presentation. This wasn’t just a concert but a big group hug, meaningful as much for its emotional value as for its musical value. The crowd soaked it up fully and when the performers left the stage and quickly reappeared at the product table in the lobby to sign merchandise, there was an excited crush of fans crowding the area- proof that once again Williamson’s vision of music for, by and with women had been fulfilled.

Virgin College Mega Tour: Mae, Yellowcard. Moby Arena, Fort Collins, April 22, 2006.

The Virgin College Mega Tour pulled into Moby Arena on the Colorado State University campus on April 22, bringing to town a couple of musical tornadoes- not destructive, but powerful nonetheless. Both headliner Yellowcard and opener Mae were mighty contemporary bands, armed with a full battery of lights, energetic, dramatic music, lots of stage movement, big sounds and big ideas. A small sea of excited music fans- on the floor of the arena and spread out in the seats above- greeted their efforts with cheers, arms frequently waving, people jumping up and down, crowd surfing and even starting up one big circle pit, shoes flying through the air.

Now, at one time Yellowcard was known as a punk, or pop punk, band- so let’s get this straight right away. While frontman Ryan Key’s insistent vocals recall punk styles and the quick chugga chugga chugga rhythms of seminal punk informs the songs, this is not a punk band at all. Yellowcard is a raging progressive rock group with plenty of ambition. Their performance at Moby was full of peaks, each song, no matter what tempo, reaching for something more than just a groove and melody. This something more is the power that can be achieved when you plug five guys into the same outlet- it’s a musical vision, a thing achieved with the right kind of teamwork. Yellowcard is a band that, on stage, is transcending the songs themselves and blasting out into the stratosphere.

Perhaps a key part here is the work of violinist Sean Mackin. The sound of the instrument itself creates textures that change the nature of the music from the start. But Yellowcard has not only incorporated the sound, but has let it influence the arrangements and even the songwriting, the violin creating the most identifiable counterpoint to the prominent vocals. Let’s also add in some tasty guitar work from Ryan Mendez, who not only offered creative soloing, but also teamed up with Mackin on some key passages. This all serves to make Yellowcard reach for more and it seems that especially their new music, from the recent release “Lights and Sounds,” has helped them go beyond whatever they were in the past and become something new and strong.

Okay, so one of the most entertaining segments of the show was when Yellowcard dug back to their “oldest” song, “October Nights,” and not only nailed the tune with confidence, but also used it as a springboard to get the crowd circulating in a big circle pit. While that was fun, however, what really ended up resonating afterward was the final fifteen minutes of the main set- three songs blending into each other, “Breathing” giving way to two new ones, “Lights and Sounds” and finally “Holly Wood Died.” This revealed where Yellowcard is going- the music had a dramatic, almost epic quality and the band pulled out all the stops. The result was a sweaty, crowd-rousing swirl of sound, triumphant in its obvious achievement.

After an opening set early in the evening by Over It, Mae took the stage and cranked into their own version of this same kind of dramatic, triumphant new rock. Also with some punk influence in the vocals, Mae also paid attention to musical textures, full keyboards meshing with searing lead guitar. The success of their release, “The Everglow,” was evident. The crowd jumped and sang along with Mae’s tunes just as easily as they did for Yellowcard. This meant that between the bands and the fans, this show expended a LOT of energy- positive energy, at that. With bands like Yellowcard and Mae coming up, rock still has a bright future in the 21st Century.

Francesco and Friends, Manno’s Grille, Fort Collins, May 3, 2006.

Finally, I made it to Manno’s Grille (at the Collindale Golf Course) for the regular Wednesday night jazz jam headed up by Francesco Bonifazi, also known as the “Jazz Whistler.” Bonifazi is indeed a unique musician, whose most startling talent is turning himself into an instrument (the “puccalo,” as coined by famed whistler Ron McCroby) and whistling clear, sweet melodies as well as solo runs which another instrumental artist might find hard to match.

But Bonafzi, whose recent CD release, “Air Play,” has garnered quite a bit of that on the airwaves, has even more to offer. He plays guitar and sings as well as leads a jazz jam that draws regular players as well as drop-ins. The jam, which on May 3 included standard jazz tunes as well as familiar pop pieces, is currently held in the Manno’s bar area on Wednesday nights from 6-9, but will be moving outside onto the veranda when the weather finally warms up and stays that way.

Meanwhile, Bonafazi, a world-class whistling award-winner- first in the popular category of the 2003 International Whistling Convention- is also busy playing and recording with other musicians throughout the country. For example, he recently jammed with jazz funk pianist Mose Davis in Atlanta. On the local scene, Bonafazi has also performed with progressive bluegrass band Whitewater Ramble. Throw in the weekly jazz jam and this is a busy musician. In a brief phone interview, Bonafazi admitted that jazz is one of his favorites genres, however, because “it’s not just the music itself, it’s the way you improvise.” Bonafazi not only has achieved a unique way to improvise music, he has also been able to improvise an interesting musical career

A Prairie Home Companion, Budweiser Events Center, Loveland, May 6, 2006.

I had to chuckle to myself this morning as I took my daily walk. A little light puff of “cotton” from a cottonwood tree went drifting by on the ground and it made me think of Garrison Keillor’s little story last night at the Budweiser Events Center about the felling of a cottonwood tree in an excerpt from his ongoing monologue “The News from Lake Wobegon.” What made me smile is just how right on Keillor’s humor is- based on common experience, like the cottonwood phenomenon- the stuff gets everywhere and while no one likes to hurt a tree, there was a sense of relief in Lake Wobegon when a certain cottonwood disappeared, and it might not be a bad idea in my neighborhood either.

What’s funny is how Keillor ropes you in with his soft melodious voice and common day experience, but then he starts tinkering with the facts, adding a little extra flight of imagination along the way. Like the mosquitoes in Minnesota aren’t just big, they’re as big as hummingbirds- or at least dragon flies- and they are even responsible for strange behavior in people, depending on who they bit just before them. A late night talk under the stars on the trail becomes a conversation with a motherly ghost. Keillor even takes on the dread of a recent widower- about how hard it is for an old man to adjust to late changes in life. Keillor works that dread until it becomes funny- a warm, even kind of sad I-know-what-you-mean funny. The widower died a year after his spouse, not from a broken heart, but from bad housekeeping.

This personality was at work throughout the entirety of the May 6 live show and broadcast from the BEC- the venue’s fastest selling show to date- a 13 minute sell-out. Keillor is a frail kind of crooner as a singer, but that frailty served him well on material that could even be called old fashioned- like “Home on the Range” during a warm-up walk around the venue, or “You Are My Sunshine.” Whether participating in stream-of-consciousness skits with actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell, with Fred Newman producing sound effects, or kind of wheeling around the stage, wryly commenting on facts and observations about the Loveland/Fort Collins/Greeley…and Boulder area, Keillor was omnipresent as host.

But more impressive in a way than the well-oiled production- and personality- that is A Prairie Home Companion, was the way this production easily included a variety of local artists. Rather than bring in a national name of some sort to sweeten the deal, Keillor and company sent out a call to area artists and evidently, the response was huge. In an e-mail to respondents after the selections were made, Keillor wrote “We had no idea of the extent and depth of musical talent in that little quadrangle north of Denver and we visited a lot of websites and listened to hundreds of songs and pondered and debated.”

The choices the show ended up making were excellent in terms of fitting right in with the flow. Acoustic duo Jimmy Sferes and Jennifer White offered an energetic blending of voices, the Greenes played an acoustic Celtic music, Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams added some electric country swing, and Kelly Aspen, who Keillor mentioned had graduated from UNC earlier that day, was a featured solo vocalist. With only a few days notice, these musicians not only stepped up to do their thing, but they also did it within the tight timing framework of a live radio broadcast. A Prairie Home Companion made it look smooth and the variety of music- all somehow folk or country related- fit in seamlessly.

This emphasis on local talent is actually in keeping with the nature of the show itself. Whereas Keillor’s humor lets us look at common experience and laugh a little, the local talent aspect of this show lets the audience look at and celebrate the fine talent right in their own backyard. Homespun talent is right.

It must be said that the indisputable core of the show, above and beyond Keillor’s dominant presence, is The Guys All-Star Shoe Band: director Rich Dworsky along with Pat Donohue, Gary Raynor, Arnie Kinsella and John Niemann. The band was right on the money, filling in cracks in between Keillor and company’s antics and the musical acts- even backing up Aspen with authority.

Sometimes, when a show is getting to the end, anxious audience members start filtering out of the arena. But this did not seem to be the case at the end of this edition of A Prairie Home Companion. Nobody seemed to want to leave even a second early after basking in the warmth of this production. Keillor is a unique and even valuable figure in our contemporary culture- offering some heart-warming and some belly-laughing all in the same package. That we recognize that he is actually looking into US to find his material actually makes him more appealing. A lot of entertainment is about the performer, but Keillor allows the spotlight to stray all over the place and people just like to be close to that kind of light- because sometimes it happens to shine on you, on what you’re feeling, or what you’re going through- or at least it might shine on a neighbor who happens to be a talented musician. It’s great to know there are others out there who know what you mean- and who can make you chuckle about it.

The Few, The Starlight, Fort Collins, May 13, 2006.

At the front of the stage at the Starlight on May 13, with Fort Collins hip hop group the Few in full gear, it was hard not to be overwhelmed. The kinetic energy of five MCs, innovative soundtracks and a crack DJ was tremendous and exciting. Celebrating the release of their new CD, “Heavy Life,” the Few ruled the stage with a confident swagger.

The criss-crossing voice play was dizzying at the Starlight and the stage movement was constant. But the Few not only demonstrated that a rather large hip hop unit can stir up a mighty sound, they also can inspire. There’s a positive sense to their raps, something that became more apparent at times when the bulk of the group laid back and let one guy let loose. One of the most riveting moments of the night was an a cappella solo. This shows that despite the excitement of the band’s presence itself, there is something more- sharp messages- underneath. The group also brought in a pvc pipe for a twist on something that’s already twisted: beat box throat singing. Add in alluring soundtracks and right on DJ work and you have a very satisfying show, diverse and thought-provoking.

But more, the evening also featured sets by other regional MCs including Ape 9, Time, Input and others. Each brought a little something different to the table: Ape 9 reflected a strong, energetic personality in between tunes and during them. Input displayed a solid mastery of the stage and crowd. And Time, whose recent CD release is titled “Litterture,” was intensely passionate in his delivery. This turned the Few’s release party into a showcase for the many, a highly appropriate approach for this forward-thinking band.

My favorite piece on the Few’s “Heavy Life” EP is the fourth track- “Equality,” where words, beats and serious concepts are counter-pointed to a classical violin soundtrack. It’s simple, direct and very effective. The refrain “Peace, love, unity, respect. Open up your mind, expand your intellect,” has my vote. The rest of the disk features plenty of cool soundtrack work and other stand out combos of honed messages and funky grooves include “Falling down, getting up, and other sequals.” It sure doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the basics: “When you fall down, get back up.”

At the Starlight and on record then, the Few has emerged as a strong voice and a strong act. The turn out was kind of light- understandably on a busy weekend night with graduation in full swing and Ministry down at the Aggie- but those who were there seemed to be supportive of everybody on stage and all of the performers played like it was packed tight. That seems to be in keeping with the spirit of the Few- those who are there have got to rock.

The New Cars, Blondie 2006 Road Rage Tour, Coors Amphitheatre, Denver, May 30, 2006.

I discovered a lot of things at Coors Amphitheatre last night. The first thing is just how much I liked the music of the Cars. To prepare for the show, I got out my old Cars LPs and found some really great songs, full of energy and edge. But as presented by the New Cars, the same material was much, much better live. I didn’t know how great it would be to see “Candy O” performed before last night. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is a catchy tune on record but a raucous showstopper on stage.

Now I was never what you would really call a Cars fan and I don’t have a lot of emotion tied up in the band member list, so a touring version of the band featuring two original Cars, Todd Rundgren and a new rhythm section sounded interesting. But I was shocked when the concert was scheduled at Coors Amphitheatre. I asked myself how could a reconstituted band that hasn’t existed in years suddenly expect to pull a full amphitheatre audience? The answer wasn’t in the number of fans who showed- and the amphitheatre was hardly half full- but the answer was in the music. The Cars’ music was custom made for a big arena with great gritty guitar riffs, distinctive arrangements and plenty of sing along vocal hooks to keep fans involved. The New Cars, stirring up a sizable amount of musical power, BELONGED in an arena. The fans that came out reacted like any arena crowd would- they got up and rocked.

Another thing I gained last night was a brand new appreciation for Todd Rundgren. He was not just a stand-in for original vocalist Ric Ocasek, Rundgren was his own artist taking charge of a body of material that I have to say must be pretty fun to perform. He added a few shimmering moments of his own music to the set list- including the pop tune “I Saw the Light” and the crowd-rousing “Bang On the Drum All Day”- and not only covered Ocasek’s vocal parts with credibility (his vocal characteristics being similar) but added inflection and passion of his own. He wasn’t aping the Cars songs, he was making them growl. But more, his stage presence also provided a focus for the audience and a sense of leadership for the band. Okay, so his band member intros could use some work, but just about everything else Rundgren approached during this show was done with a veteran’s confidence. A raging success was the result.

It also helped that the New Cars had some good stage gear. Six huge round screens were suspended over the stage, displaying occasional sets of images and were also striking on stage just by themselves as the lighting shifted.

The evening was a double treat as Blondie opened the show with an hour-long set that eventually achieved it own intensity. That was another thing I discovered at Coors is just how distinctive Blondie’s music was. What I admired was the melding of vocalist Deborah Harry’s smooth, polished voice with energetic electric music raging from pop to rock. Harry maintained her cool while the band provided some fireworks and when they met about two thirds of the way through the set, everything synched in and the group achieved lift off. It was great to see there’s a little new wave punk left in the band’s attitude while being suave enough to pull off a pleasing version of “Rapture” complete with a new rap section delivered by Harry with outspoken passion.

So there. Despite a little rain- not enough to soak, but enough to justify the gear- the outdoor concert season began with a roar. Deborah Harry and Blondie still breathe a little fire and whoever thought up the idea of the New Cars should be congratulated- it was definitely a good one.

Taste of Fort Collins, Civic Center Park, Fort Collins, June 11, 2006.

It’s not officially summer yet, but Fort Collins got a good dose of hot summertime sun for the 10th annual Taste of Fort Collins in Civic Center Park on June 11. This was my first time attending the event and thanks to an infectious set of savory rock by the BoDeans, I’ll be back to check it out again next year.

Of course, the Taste of Fort Collins is a street fair that not only pushes food, but also beer, crafts, art, games and rides. Oh, and entertainment too, mixing prominent regional bands with national headliners.

On Sunday, I was able to catch three bands. The first was Something Underground and they were impressive indeed. This four man band, fronted by two brothers, played an energetic progressive pop rock that achieved a more exotic sound when the bass player shifted to cello. Less convincing was the next band, Brethren Fast, a longtime rockabilly unit that probably is much more comfortable in a nightclub rather than in the bright sunshine in the middle of the day.

But then the main attraction, the BoDeans, came through with a good chunk of their powerful combination of close harmony vocals and simmering rock grooves. But this was not accomplished without a special effort. Two songs after the BoDeans took the stage in the crowded park, the set was interrupted by a power glitch that had killed the PA. The twenty minute or so wait temporarily put a damper on the festival’s finale performance. A friend in the audience told me “I’m starting to lose interest.” Meanwhile the sound people in the backstage area were frantically trying to restore power. But it turned out that the wait was worth while.

When the BoDeans finally took the stage again, it seemed to me that they were instantly ready to play- no more warm-up, no getting your bearings, just straight rock business. Soon the area in front of the stage began to fill with dancers and the celebration was in full swing. The BoDeans- featuring longtime musical partners Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann plus a three-piece band- underscored their veteran rocker status by maintaining a perfect pace, moving fluidly from tune to tune, slower to faster, eventually filling the dance area and rousing a lot of the crowd on the grass to their feet.

But more than just professional pacing and some instantly listener-friendly songs in the classic rock vein, what the BoDeans- or more specifically Llanas and Neumann- offer is that same close blend of vocals that has made some other famous pairs of singers- like the Everly Brothers and Lennon and McCartney- stand out. In the case of Llanas and Neumann, when their voices mix together, a strong, warm and distinctive sound is the result. That mix is not just good harmony, but a special timbre that can rise above all else- the rest of the band, the grooves and even the songs themselves.

By the time the BoDeans played their buoyant encore, “Good Things,” it was clear that this band survives for a reason. They have something- at the bottom basic a distinctive vocal sound- and it strikes listeners in a positive and even inspiring way. That, even despite the power glitch- reflected well on the downtown festival. A good taste of the BoDeans made for a good Taste of Fort Collins.

Buckethead/Bernie Worrell, Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Poudre Canyon, June 16, 2006.

The Poudre River was swollen and swift from this year’s snow runoff and you might say those conditions applied to the proceedings on stage at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre when the latest odd couple of rock, super guitarist Buckethead and funky keyboardist Bernie Worrell, brought their current mini tour to Colorado. The music came “swift”- virtuoso soloing running rampant through both headlining sets- in an evening that also included several regional acts. And it was “swollen” with electricity and piledriving grooves.

The grooves are perhaps what Buckethead and Worrell and his crack band the Woo Warriors have most in common. It doesn’t matter if the groove is hard funk like the Woo Warriors lay down, or the intense metal chugga chugga chugga Buckethead is fond of, the effect is the same- the bands lock in on that groove, then apply some pressure, intensifying it until full musical strength has been achieved. Both Worrell’s band- experts at working the crowd- and Buckethead- stepping back in his wordless mystique- each succeeded in stirring up a storm of sound and getting the crowd on the move in the process.

Personally I didn’t mind the vocalizing in Worrell’s set too much- a lot of exhortations to rouse the crowd and some soulful singing- but I sure liked it that Buckethead’s main thing is playing guitar- no words, no pandering, just nothing but fingers and strings. And play he did, leaving ample room for bass and drums to roam and solo too. But once Buckethead kicks into shredding the fretboard, you can only drop your jaw and let the hundreds of notes keep coming in swirling layers.

As mesmerizing as Buckethead and Worrell were, the evening also included some interesting regional acts. That included Octopus Nebula, a progressive jam jazz fusion unit. Next was Diagnosis Awesome, a fascinating experiment in mixed media performance: a live bassist performed in synch with a video taped performance by a drummer in Germany.

Now, I have been a long time Mishawaka patron and the venue has always been known as a great place to enjoy live music, particularly for lots of old touring favorites. But recent years have added a certain new edge to the bookings, allowing more and more diversity to the schedule, until it seems safe to say that Mishawaka is a great spot to visit as a busy destination for contemporary progressive music. The Buckethead and Worrell show is only one example- a mighty good one.

John Hiatt and the North Mississippi All-Stars, Aggie Theatre, Fort Collins, June 25, 2006.

For me, the most indelible image from last night’s John Hiatt show at the Aggie was this great big grin Hiatt was wearing throughout most of the show. Now if I were Hiatt, I’d be grinning too because the guy just has a lot going for him. He’s got a huge sack full of great songs, he’s got a lot of soulful vocal power to apply to those songs and he’s touring with a really great band right now- the North Mississippi All-Stars. What’s not to be happy about- and that happiness is contagious. I mean, if Hiatt seemed to be having a great time- as did the guys in the All-Stars- why shouldn’t the audience? At the Aggie, it seemed everybody in the room caught the Hiatt happiness fever.

When Hiatt took the stage, after a fairly short opening set by the All-Stars, he cranked right into “Perfectly Good Guitar” and when you see this band play, you have to agree with the sentiment- it’s far better seeing someone like Hiatt play that instrument than destroy it. Then it was a skillful pendulum swing from full-out rockers to medium tempo grooves to even a few slower pieces. Hiatt sprinkled in some new stuff, like the dramatic title song from the new record, “Master of Disaster,” and the stunning blues work-out “Ain’t Ever Goin’ Back,” but spent most of the evening sorting through his catalog of winners, each piece in the set just as characteristically effective as the next.

How do you pick highlights for a class act like this? You don’t when you have a set list that includes: “The Tiki Bar is Open,” “Lincoln Town,” “Child of the Wild Blue Yonder,” “Real Fine Love,” “Paper Thin” and the great set closer “Slow Turning.” While I loved all the rocking stuff- and Hiatt offered plenty- the most emotionally satisfying moments of the evening were some slow burners. “Feels Like Rain” and “Have a Little Faith In Me” both aimed straight for the heart and connected.

What makes Hiatt’s songwriting great for me is its friendly worldliness. This could best be reflected by the song “Your Dad Did”- a wry accounting of just what happens when you grow up and take on your own responsibilities. Inside all of his songs, Hiatt not only works at turning the phrases around creatively, he also infuses in them a certain personality that is distinctive, humorous and warm. That he can apply that personality to subjects other than romance is a plus. That he can reveal the irony of life- with that Hiatt grin attached- knocks down all defenses. This is a guy you enjoy hearing muse about life and, if you could, would probably be an entertaining fellow to hang out with.

Putting the great songs themselves aside for a moment, the other major talent Hiatt displays is his vocal work. While listening last night, I thought of the word “soul” a lot of times- as in Otis Redding, or maybe Sam and Dave. Hiatt doesn’t just sing, he growls, he squeals, he puts inflections into the phrases that go way above and beyond just the melody line. At the Aggie, Hiatt’s vocal power made him a riveting figure and at times seemed almost too big for the room. But that Hiatt grin seemed to say he was enjoying it anyway.

But let’s not forget that the North Mississippi All-Stars were a crack back-up band for Hiatt. The trio- Luther Dickinson on guitar, Cody Dickinson on drums and David Hood on bass- helped Hiatt record his latest release (“Master of Disaster”) and on stage they have developed what seemed like a close affinity for Hiatt’s material. In a way, the question comes up- what would a good band in their own right be doing backing up somebody else for? Well, it didn’t seem that was an issue for these guys because they all seemed not only competent but to be having some real fun with it. I know I’d be having fun if I was playing with Hiatt, so it is understandable that the All-Stars also can’t resist the inherent quality of Hiatt’s material. So many times during the show at the Aggie, Luther stepped up to add blistering guitar solos- slide and otherwise. I watched Hood singing just about every song to himself.

So what more can be said? This was a first class rock show full of electricity and heart- one of the best shows in memory to hit the Aggie. In fact, I’m still wearing my John Hiatt grin.

Pearl Jam/Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pepsi Center, Denver, July 2, 2006.

The Fourth of July came early to Denver when the two great American rock bands- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam- joined forces for a powerful and dynamic show at the Pepsi Center on July 2. Petty and Pearl Jam- both top notch attractions in themselves- pooled audiences and musical resources in a stunning four hour performance that swung from a classic rock stance to a newer, grittier version, meeting in the middle in a swirl of lights, rhythm, melody and electricity.

Petty said it himself when he took the stage- “We’ve got an all-American rock and roll show for you tonight” and the meeting of these two bands is significant in a very positive way.  It served to bridge a gap between two generations of rock and the result was an upbeat celebration. It seemed to me that a lot of the crowd that surrounded me at the packed Pepsi Center were Pearl Jam fans- the type of people and age group that were pretty scarce at last year’s Red Rocks shows. Still, there were plenty of what I would say were more obviously Petty fans sprinkled throughout, so just the mix of generations in the crowd was healthy and positive.

But even better, this meeting mixed different musical visions together and the crowd at the Pepsi Center met all of it with a roar. While the Petty set included a few more unfamiliar tunes, the crowd belted out the words to most of the entire concert- Pearl Jam and Petty songs alike.

But then add in the cross-pollination that happened last night on stage at the Pepsi Center between the two groups. Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench took the stage to sub in on several numbers during Pearl Jam’s set and guitarist Mike Campbell also joined Pearl Jam for a version of the old Byrds’ tune “So You Want to Be A Rock and Roll Star.” Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder also joined Petty and the Heartbreakers for two tunes, including the rousing encore finale- “American Girl.” (It’s appropriate, I guess that the evening ended with “American Girl”- I mean, if you aren’t going to have any female musicians on stage at all, you should at least sing about them.) This served to bring not only the musicians, but also the MUSIC much closer together.

The shifting around of personnel kind of begged the question of who might be dubbed Most Valuable Player of the night.  Benmont Tench would perhaps have to be the top choice. But then again, Mike Campbell contributed plenty and guitarist Michael McCready continues to make the Pearl Jam sound sizzle. Vedder also was an impassioned presence in both sets. However, my vote goes to the crowd itself. The most exciting moments of the evening had not only to do with the blasting music from the stage, but also with the thousands of voices joined together, singing the songs.  While the musicians are at the center of this- stoking it up with expert ease- this is something much bigger than just them. The crowd at the Pepsi Center was pumped up for this and they joined the stage action with relish and abandon.

Pearl Jam seemed like a better band than the last time I saw them at the Pepsi Center in 2004. Not that it was bad before, but last night at the Pepsi Center, Pearl Jam seemed to be more positively invigorated. The bottom line was that they seemed to be having fun as a band. Vedder attacked the performance with intensity and McCready created that necessary sonic counterpoint. Maybe that the band had an “opening” slot and had to hone in more because of limited time served to tighten things up. But it just seemed that the band as a unit was fresher and more cohesive- not that the crowd probably would have noticed while writhing in ecstasy to a set list that included “World Wide Suicide,” “Better Man,” “Corduroy,” “Bee Girl,” “Black,” “Alive” and “Evenflow.” Still, that Vedder wheeled around the stage a little with a wine bottle- filling fan’s cups along the front of the stage- wasn’t alarming, it was more like just good rock and roll spirit.

Petty’s set included plenty of his well worn favorites- tunes like “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Free Fallin’,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” However the most musical moments of Petty’s set were when the band veered from the hits and tried some other stuff on for size- such as the new “Saving Grace.” The tune “It’s Good to Be King” was a slow simmering success, building in strength and intensity. A big welcome surprise was the inclusion of a couple of golden oldies, “I’m a Man” by the Yardbirds, and particularly a juggernaut version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” The set list also included “Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “The Waiting” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

But Petty favorites still provided the final one-two punch that secured the evening. That is, “Refugee”- with a particularly incendiary solo from Campbell- and then a few tunes later, “American Girl.” Both of these songs, some of Petty’s earlier hits, are happily engrained in the culture and Pearl Jam fans and Petty fans alike joined in. You couldn’t blame all those musicians for walking around after the final chord was struck, soaking up the applause. It was an exciting and rousing finish to the evening and I think everybody in the arena was reluctant to accept that it was over. Vedder was grinning from ear to ear.

An interesting moment occurred just as Petty, Vedder and crew were leaving the stage. Vedder just naturally shot his fist in the air in reaction to the triumphant climax to the evening. Petty took a look and he shot his arm into the air with a peace sign. A fist and a peace sign, a mighty meeting of music, fans and ideology.

During the break between the two bands I heard some pertinent comments. One was in the restroom where one fellow was raving “What do you think of that? The guy walks on stage to play four songs with Pearl Jam and he makes them sound BETTER. Benmont Tench! Benmont Tench!” Overheard back in the seats: “Oh, I like Tom Petty, but I really love Pearl Jam. Tom Petty is just like icing on the cake.” (This person sang and gyrated to the entire Petty set.) After the show in the restroom, one guy yells out, “Alright, how many are coming back tomorrow?” Almost everyone who wasn’t busy raised their hands.

The hottest show of the year? Well, I want to say that, however in another way, there’s lots left to the year and I’d hate to think the best has already passed me by. So let’s just say it’s the kind of rock and roll show that helps keep you living- your heart pumps just a little bit stronger as a result.

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Big Rock and Roll for the People, July 8, 2006.

Today’s article in the Rocky Mountain News by Mark Brown- “Sale of concert company may put Coors ‘shed’ on ice”- really struck a chord with me- a big bad dissonant one. Brown’s article revealed that as Live Nation, a concert corporation he calls “the world’s biggest promoter,” negotiates to buy out House of Blues, they are also eying what will happen to Coors Amphitheatre. According to Brown, Live Nation stands to be in control of nearly all of the major concert venues in the region and Coors is just too big anymore to be profitable in the current concert atmosphere. And it is exactly what that concert atmosphere is that is bugging me enough to write.

That is, as big rock and roll- the big promoter corporations, the huge venues, the juggernaut commercial bands, and the ticket corporations- continues to raise ticket prices while tightening up on profitable venues, they are turning it into something other than pop music. Pop music is for the masses and what the big concert heads are doing is making many acts exclusive. “Exclusive? Why, anyone can buy a ticket!” you might say. But no, not everyone can a ticket anymore- not even close. The reason artists are no longer filling “sheds” like Coors Amphitheatre is because basically only the wealthy or the rabid fan can afford tickets anymore. Pleasant days of hanging out in the sun with a big crowd of a big cross-section people are very few and far between. For those who can afford tickets, smaller venues have become more fashionable- why cram 4,000 people paying $50-75 each into a big 18,000 seat arena when a smaller one will do just fine.

What has happened is that since Barbra Streisand came out and boldly charged $200 a ticket for exclusive dates- a large sum some years ago- and the Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over Tour” introduced higher prices to the masses, everyone has jumped on the band wagon. Now promoters and bands have figured out that they do not have to sell out big venues to make profits, they just have to sell a more comfortable amount of higher priced tickets.

The bottom line is exactly that- the bottom line. Nobody seems to care about the community aspect of rock and roll, which years ago was very important. Now, a crowd isn’t a happening anymore, it’s one big accounting ledger.

Now, I’ve been hiding my head in the sand for a long time because I really LOVE rock and roll. I LOVE the feeling of big electric music and big crowds getting tuned in together. And it still happens- I really was moved by the vigor that Pearl Jam fans sang along with every song PJ and Tom Petty did the other night at the Pepsi Center. I shell out bucks for shows I think will be good, but at the same time I get this sick feeling that I’m just part of the exclusive crowd. Concerts today- the really big shows- are for the upper crust.

I’ll admit that I have been quite lucky through the years. As an active music journalist and photographer, I have covered hundreds and hundreds of top shows in the area, thanks to comps. At one time, I qualified for photo passes for just about every group that came through. However, the “no’s” started coming several years ago and today, I no longer qualify for most shows in the Denver area. I learned that if I really wanted to cover a show, I had better buy a ticket. What this does is extend the exclusivity of rock and roll. I mean, not only can a lot of people no longer afford to go to the shows, but now they can’t even read about it in the local papers. Like big rock and roll, music journalism has become exclusive for the biggest media outlets.

But the very same Pearl Jam/Petty show that I still got a charge from emotionally, may also be a dividing line. I paid over $100 to sit in a lower level pretty far from the stage. While I like rock and roll, I’m starting to think the electricity I SHOULD be paying for instead is my electric bill at home. Add to this the fact that even though ticket prices are high, people in the crowd can still be jerks. One fellow in the row in front of me at Pearl Jam was all over the seats in front of him, next to him and above him as he danced spasmodically, constantly bumping into his girlfriend and blocking the stairway aisle most of the time. I paid $100 for my seat and I wanted to see the show, but people like that make the investment questionable. When you used to pay $20 for a seat, irritations in the crowd were a little easier to take. But when it’s bigger money, you hope it will be a relatively better experience. Not so, I have found out. To be quite honest, it’s a lot harder to pay over $100 for a ticket and still get stuck next to some idiot. Pearl Jam or not, wealthier people are not necessarily better behaved. They may actually be WORSE because maybe since they feel they can afford it, they can also afford to muck it up for those around them.

That’s what may shut down Coors Amphitheatre- the profitability of rock and roll. As much as people like Pearl Jam want to believe they are a band of the people, they are really just a band for SOME of the people- the well-heeled who can afford to purchase tickets. Same for everybody else out there who is tapped into big money. Sure I went to see the Rolling Stones last year, and even enjoyed it, but $190 for a “cheap seat” is getting out of reach. I probably won’t see the Stones again.

So what’s the answer? No answer for big rock and roll. It’s just going to keep getting more expensive and more and more people are going to get cut out of the live music experience.

Or are they? There are many music fans who would respond to my above ravings with a simple statement- forget big rock and roll. That means supporting the smaller independent touring bands in the smaller independent venues. That’s not a bad plan at all. After all, what is it that is so important- the music itself, right? So if I don’t get to see Prince next time, or Pearl Jam, or the Who, or whoever, so what? There’s a thousand other bands that can play great music as well if not better than those mentioned- they just aren’t being touted as much by all the big corporations that profit from pop culture mania. On the music journalism side it also makes sense to cover independent bands too because for one thing, many of them still seem to APPRECIATE publicity. Surely Tom Petty and Pearl Jam don’t care a bit for independent publicity, and neither do the corporations who are selling them.

So Mark Brown laments the passing of the “shed” era of rock and roll in the News. Maybe that’s because in the process of cutting out the unusable big venue, maybe they are also cutting out the disposable big audience.

Chuck Pyle, Avogadro’s Number, Fort Collins, July 8, 2006.

Western singer-songwriter Chuck Pyle, along with violinist Gordon Burt, brought their easy mix of melody, acoustic sounds and wise words to Avogadro’s Number once again on July 8. Pyle comes through on a regular basis it seems, whether playing Avo’s or the Unity Church or elsewhere, but that does not diminish in the least his ability to share evocative material with a fairly gentle, sincere approach.

Now, Pyle has long been associated with the music of Colorado (even though he originally came from Iowa- hey, we all had to come from somewhere,) but I’m afraid after listening to Pyle last night, I can’t really say that the state should claim him. That is because even though Pyle’s songs were full of Colorado references- and he is well able to sum up both humorous and poetic visions of the Colorado lifestyle in his music- it is perhaps best to think of Pyle as belonging to the West in general, not just Colorado.  Just like the vistas in the West, Pyle’s songs take the long view of life, showing a genuine respect for the mountains, rivers and people of nearly half the continent- from southern Arizona up to the Rockies, down to Texas and beyond.

It’s that long view of life that has helped underscore the playful moniker Pyle has adopted as the “Zen Cowboy.” It takes a little zen to appreciate the vast reservoir of nature that surrounds Western cities as well as to not get overtly cynical about how people generally behave. That zen can be about the moment, with a little smile attached. That smile isn’t mocking or crafted in arrogance, but it is more about having an understanding about life that accepts a lot with the knowledge that things often are just the way they are and there isn’t a lot you can do about it.

At times, the zen smile disappears almost completely, especially when Pyle waxes poetically about the landscape of the West. But Pyle also takes parts of humanity very seriously and no song displays his reverence for the best of humanity than his song “Here Comes the Water,” a tribute to a police officer who lost his life saving others during the horrific Big Thompson flood. A chilling tale, complete with the unanswered CB calls trying to locate the doomed officer, “Here Comes the Water” goes deep into the heart and inspires a tear or two over the tragedy.

That isn’t to say that all of Pyle’s songs are heavy or seriously poetic, however. A song about a cowboy wandering around in the New Age bubble of Boulder is certainly funny and ironic. A tune penned by Prairie Home Companion’s Pat Donahue, “Yucki Sushi,” was just downright goofy. Add in Pyle’s predilection to deliver humorous segues between tunes, too- especially his litany of bumper sticker sayings he has collected on his travels. There’s plenty to smile about.

Meeting in the middle is the positive nature of such inspirational songs as show opener “Step by Step” and the closer, “Keepin’ Time by the River.” These tunes remain fairly light in tone, but also have a real message to deliver- that we’re really all better off working on things together than alone. That the small, yet enthusiastic crowd joined in to sing at the end underscored the goodness of the intent.

But so far in this review I have been talking about the songs and Pyle’s delivery- both excellent selling points for his music. However, one of the most important elements to the proceedings is Pyle’s finger-picking guitar style. Not only does Pyle manage to keep the higher end guitar parts flowing, he also adds a prominent line on the lower strings. These bass lines produce a solid and effective base for the rest of the material, keeping toes tapping even unconsciously through nearly every piece. The bouncy bass beat underscores Pyle’s smooth, thin, delicate voice with some infectious energy.

Above and beyond all those elements- plenty in their own ways- are Burt’s contributions to the music. Thin, sinuous solo lines weave in and out Pyle’s songs, creating an effective counterpoint to Pyle’s voice and guitar work. But Burt also adds some percussive bowing and supports the movement of the chords with savory fiddle chording that succeeds in spicing up Pyle’s material. Burt has played often with Pyle- the two have a live album together- and the familiarity between the two is obvious. They are a powerful combination.

For me, “Here Comes the Water,” was truly an emotional moment and the artistic highlight of the evening. So long after the flood, Pyle continues to pay respect to the fallen officer and it’s a story worth remembering. But then again, a lot of Pyle’s work is worth remembering.

Throwrag, Horrorpops, Reverend Horton Heat, Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Poudre Canyon, July 21, 2006.

Now how uncool is this word: “fun.” That’s the bottom basic description of last night’s show at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre, headlining the Reverend Horton Heat, but also featuring the Horrorpops and Throwrag. There was no big pretense in any of the acts to be “artists” as such- no heavy emoting, no serious navel-gazing. They all seemed to be up there just to play rock and roll.

Now the term “rock and roll” has been used so much it hardly means a lot, however, in this case, I am talking about “rock and roll” as the root form of the most popular of popular music in the last sixty years- rock and roll as in Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, even Little Richard. It’s a rough and ready, relatively simple-structured music that works as well as the blues- everyone knows how it works, everybody can feel the beat, you can dance to it and it leaves room for the musicians to if not elaborate on their instruments, at least ramp up their stage presence.

The forms of rock and roll on stage at Mishawaka last night were diverse within this basic framework and each band performed with vigor. Throwrag played “punk and roll,” speeding up basic rock and roll, then adding a snide punk twist to the vocals. They were highly entertaining, the vocalist disrobing as the set progressed. He wandered all over the region in front of the stage, including leading a sweaty, dusty conga line. The music was just fast chunky chords, a couple of guitar solos and lots of attitude. Rock and roll punk style- exactly.

Then the Horrorpops took the stage, playing a twisted hybrid of rock and roll/rockabilly/revved up country music while keeping the stage action entertaining indeed. The group features a pair of dancer/singers who lewdly act out the progress of the songs. As they writhe, the members of the band- a colorful lot indeed- churn out a quick-paced, deep and muddy Goth version of rock and roll. Front and center is the striking bass player and vocalist- kind of a cross between Mortia Adams and Devine- and her wildly decorated upright bass. The group wasn’t shy about prodding the crowd into joining the party and delivered a dark and electric ride. Underneath it all was the hammering strength of basic rock and roll.

The Reverend Horton Heat trio finished off the night in style. No excess staging, just three showmen rocking and rolling. The Reverend himself began the evening in a bright green coat with blue flames rolling up the sleeves- adding his contribution to the efforts of all three bands to have something to look at during the show- but finally he shucked the coat and got to playing guitar- which is really what’s important in rock and roll after all when you’re fronting a power trio. Heat did some verbal philosophizing between tunes- he’s some Texas character- but it was when he dug into his huge hollow body guitar and applied it to the simple tenants of rock and roll- keep the beat going and keep changing your tone- he showed some instrumental fire. The rhythm section was equally dedicated to the task, keeping everything lively.

So what’s it really about? It’s really about entertaining the people- and this show- all three bands, that is- was eager to please.  What the bands seemed to share was the knowledge that rock and roll, no matter what flavor you try, works almost every time and the crowd at Mishawaka responded well to all three treatments. So add it all up- the stage antics of Throwrag, the alluring theatrics of the Horrorpops and the timeless rock and roll grit of Reverend Horton Heat- I call that fun, plain and simple. The music wasn’t complicated, but the presentation just kicked ass. The weather was fine, the river flowed, but on this little spot in the canyon, serious rock and roll was cranking.

Sounds of the Underground Tour 2006: Evergreen Terrace, Through the Eyes of the Dead, Behemoth, Terror, Gwar, Cannibal Corpse, Black Dahlia Murder, Trivium, Machine Head, In Flames, As I Lay Dying, City Lights Pavilion, Denver, July 31, 2006.

A more stripped down Sounds of the Underground Tour came through Denver on July 31 with a roar. Last year’s inaugural tour, which ended its run in Denver exactly one year before, was a bigger, beefier and more diverse line-up than this year’s version. However, this is not to say that the focus hasn’t done the festival good. In fact, the honing of the band list has managed to help define the “sound of the underground”- a place where “metal and hardcore will rise again”- better than the first year. In this case that sound is tough and brutally aggressive, highly dramatic and forcefully direct.

Last year’s festival was a well-rounded affair mixing hardcore and metal with the spacey progressive metal of Opeth and the rough cut blues rock of Clutch. I saw 16 bands last year and I didn’t see them all. It was a huge chunk of live music. This year I saw all 11 bands- the band list minus a couple of bands who didn’t make it- and it was still a huge chunk of music. Diversity was replaced with power, placing venerable veterans like Gwar and Cannibal Corpse next to the really fresh and new like Through the Eyes of the Dead and Evergreen Terrace. What was the same was the unrelenting pursuit of challenging, bone crunching music- at times ugly and always defiant.

Thanks to top notch production, 11 bands passed across the stage in about nine hours, the evening culminating with a raw and relentlessly powerful set by As I Lay Dying. Especially at the beginning of the day, if you wanted to keep up with all of the bands, you didn’t want to take a very long break in between acts.

Now, let’s just say that it would be hard for any band to compete with Gwar for showmanship. Their show is so well-developed, so entertaining, so visually stimulating that even to compare it to the others would be unfair. This year’s version did not disappoint either and Gwar held court with a messy, bloody irreverence. That means chopping up the President, the Pope, cops, dinosaurs and fans while grinding metal rumbles underneath.

Now let’s talk about the influence of Gwar. When the band hit the stage, the front security barricades buckled. It took something like a dozen security personnel to push it back into place and ram a supporting pole across it to help hold back the surging fans. All the while, everybody- including the security people struggling against the tide- was getting soaked with Gwar’s special dyed water- shot from fleshy cannons and stage character’s body parts. But now let’s mention the influence of Alice Cooper, a progenitor of metal showmanship. After everything was chopped apart on stage, Gwar completed their set with a guttural version of Cooper’s “School’s Out” and the crowd was singing along. Lewd masters of the stage saluting another master, or just tongue in cheek (or tongue cut out of cheek), it was a rousing triumphant climax.

But then add in the swaggering confidence of veteran bands like Cannibal Corpse and Machine Head. Their presence on the bill- Machine Head playing only select dates with the tour- added the weight of metal history to the event.

But for me, I was most impressed with the charisma and progressive metal of the band Trivium. After a casual survey throughout the day I will report that I think Trivium wins the most-sold t-shirt contest for this year’s festival. At least their distinctive icon on the backs of their shirts were highly visible throughout the crowd throughout the entire day. The band earned the crowd adoration with a strong confident set- fresh and vibrant. Also fresh and vibrant was the opening set of the day by Evergreen Terrace, featuring dual vocals and plenty of spunk.

International metal was represented well by Poland’s theatrical metal band Behemoth and Sweden’s ragers In Flames. Throw in Black Dahlia Murder and the “positive aggression” antics of LA’s Terror (the only returning band from last year’s festival except for Gwar) and you have an excellent show no matter how you compare it to the previous year. I heard bands mention the metal and hardcore “scene” often on stage and there was a feeling in the crowd that despite there being fans of particular bands coming and going, a consensus seemed to be present that everybody was somehow kin in this situation.

The Pavilion itself is a superior outdoor venue in the Denver area. While the concessions offerings lacks much imagination, the huge open area in front of the stage and the wide swath of seats fanning out behind is covered by huge canvas sheets- creating shade from the sun and protection from the breeze. I might not have appreciated the searing energy on stage as much if I’d spent the entire windy day searing in the sun. It was actually a very pleasant day, thanks to innovative design.

Added to this was the ebb and flow of the festival itself. Each band’s most rabid fans crushed together in front of the stage for each set. Then when the set was over, the fans quickly dispersed. This gave the next band’s fans the opportunity to get up close and so on through the day. The products areas were busy at times, but I didn’t particularly notice much of a business crush going on at the booths or at concessions. Maybe there were fewer people attending than the previous year, or maybe it was just set up better. Whatever, but the main thing was that the hubbub surrounding the festival itself seems to have taken a more relaxed tone in general. The real reason for the thing, after all, was what was going on, on stage, and that was satisfying indeed.

Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, Swing Station, Laporte, August 5, 2006.

It looked like it was business as usual in Laporte on Saturday night- trucks and cars coming and going through the one main intersection as a gorgeous Colorado summer evening settled in. But it was NOT business as usual at the new area roots music Mecca, Swing Station. While the venue has established a solid reputation for hosting live bluegrass, rockabilly and more, someone special was visiting on this night- Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson.

Thompson, known as the “King of Western Swing,” has been influential in country music for many decades and at first it seemed kind of bizarre that such a legend would be stopping off for a show in sleepy Laporte. But when Thompson did finally take the stage, after an upbeat set by his longtime backing band, the Brazos Valley Boys, it became clear that this was not bizarre at all. The music that Thompson makes is so elemental that quite honestly it fit right in with the casual patio atmosphere of Swing Station. This form of country music isn’t about flash and big showmanship, it’s just about sharing songs and stories and getting a taste of some of that great steel guitar twang now and again- perfect for an intimate gathering of friends and fans on a beautiful night- no matter where the location was.

Thompson’s set was jammed full of familiar tunes, especially his 1952 hit “The Wild Side of Life” and “A Six Pack to Go.” Add in other Thompson hits such as “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” “Blackboard of My Heart,” “Rub-A-Dub-Dub” and “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.” Now, no song in itself was very long, taking time for only the occasional instrumental break- a couple of verses and choruses and it was done- but that is part of the charm of the music. Each song had a point to make, made it, then moved on to the next one with no big pretense.

The audience, made up of people of all ages and styles (from cowboy hats to tie-dyed t-shirts,) just soaked up this simple, honest music- sweet and to the point- and cheered everything Thompson played as well as listened intently to every story and dry joke he told. People swayed to the music and clapped along softly and gave Thompson warm applause at every opportunity. I heard someone in the crowd say “I can’t believe this- I grew up with this music” and it was clear that many at Swing Station were in the same boat. Thompson’s set- a little short perhaps by contemporary standards, but, hey, the performer is 81 years old- was like catching up with a beloved relative.

The Brazos Valley Boys framed Thompson’s set with two sets of their own, filling out the evening with style. Lead by bassist Morey Sullivan and featuring double violins as well as JD Walker’s excellent steel guitar sound, the Brazos Valley Boys were celebrating their 60th anniversary record release and easily set the stage for Thompson’s slow progress to the stage.

That Swing Station hosted the event is historic, at least for the owners. In a brief conversation, one of the co-owners, Brad Folk, admitted that Thompson’s show was a dream come true and he wasn’t sure how they were ever going to top it in the future. I’m not really sure how you “top” a performance by a Hall of Famer like Thompson, but just being in business and presenting fresh talent is a great start. Coming up at Swing Station: the Texas Sapphires (voted 2006 Best New Band of the Year at the Austin Music Awards) on August 15, the Lonesome Travelers on August 19, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys on August 20 and the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash on August 29.

Texas Sapphires, Swing Station, Laporte, August 15, 2006.

The Texas Sapphires lived up to some advance buzz. That is, that the band was recently “voted 2006 Best New Band at the Austin Music Awards,” and they took the small stage at Swing Station in Laporte with a confidence befitting an outstanding band from the West’s music capitol.  And how did the locals react? Well, some hung out at the tables in the bar, some around the pool table and others just got up and danced. The dancing in particular underscored the band’s success because despite the “advance buzz” it was a relatively small turn out on a rare rainy night and if the Texas Sapphires’ music didn’t have the right kind of heart, all that show would be for nothing.

What I mean by “show” is that there was plenty of stage action going on while the six person band kicked into a well-honed standard, if not classic country music sound. The band made some attempt to dress the part in terms of using costuming as a conscious part of the show; especially up front, where guitarist and vocalist Billy Brent Malkus and vocalist Rebecca Lucille Cannon make such a striking pair. Malkus is a striking figure alone and digs into the music with a rock star intensity. Cannon writhes, hops, dances in place, her arms twisting up into the air, her hands spread out wide. She, of course, becomes the visual center of the band’s performance.

But as mentioned, there is a lot more to the Texas Sapphires’ music than great stage presence. I really enjoyed the balance between the slippery, syrupy sound of the steel guitar and the bright, precise sound of the mandolin and banjo. The mixture of Malkus’ and Cannon’s voice was rich and savory- bringing to mind the great vocal duo in the band X, John Doe and Exene Cervenka- and the trade off work was smooth. The song selection, whether vintage covers or band originals, revealed a sense of country music’s past when songs had little stories in them and a little bit of homespun psychology, rather than just another clever turn of a phrase.

But in the end it was the fact that just about every song the Texas Sapphires played drew at least one or two dancing couples is what sealed the deal. No matter how you analyze it, some music just makes people want to dance. You can add all the elements you want in on top of it, but as long as the music is tied to dancing, it will not fail- even on a light night in Laporte. Still, you could not doubt the musical power in the room when the Texas Sapphires lit into their rocking rav up “Ladyfest, TX.” The band played other selections from their debut CD, “Valley So Deep,” including “Driftin’ In,” gospel-tinged “Bring Out the Bible (We Ain’t Got a Prayer,)” and “Dirty Me, Dirty Me (I’m Disgusted With Myself,)” a tune Malkus explained had been inspired by the Dillards.

To sweeten the deal that night was an opening set by the Milroys, a Michigan duo that also made some savory harmonies. Their music as well showed a maturity- songs telling stories with a kind of well-worn wisdom. Hearing them as a duo at Swing Station, the Milroys’ music seemed to me to lean toward a full folk music sound- John on guitar and CJ on accordion- not country as such. However, a listen to the group’s recent self-titled CD release- including guest appearances by musicians such as Sally Van Meter on dobro and the band Railroad Earth- the recordings are decidedly country in nature.

Two more interesting acts together- the Texas Sapphires and the Milroys- makes Swing Station a place to watch for progressive live music- on the country side. This was my second visit to Swing Station in just a couple of weeks- first for Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson then for the fresh upstarts the Texas Sapphires- and this club has already proven that its heart in just the right place. Coming up at Swing Station:

NewWestFest 2006, Fort Collins, August 18-20, 2006.

44 out of 55 bands- that’s what a lot of hustle did for me over the three days of NewWestFest 2006, August 18-20. You see, NewWestFest is no longer just the town’s major street festival, but it is also northern Colorado’s new major music festival. Last year’s NewWestFest got the ball rolling with multiple stages and a fresh effort to showcase the diversity of Colorado acts. This year, producers have improved and upgraded the effort to produce a first class live music experience. There were a handful of out of town headliners- namely the B-52s and Nickel Creek- but the rest of the festival, dubbed “Bohemian Nights” after major sponsor the Bohemian Foundation, belonged to the strength of Colorado music- which was loaded with talent in all genres.

At one point I was sitting on some curbing in a tiny circle of shade, listening to the easy going acoustic music of duo Third Road Home, when an acquaintance joined me and said “We just don’t know how lucky we are.” Live music seem to be cranking from every corner in the Old Town area and it would be hard not to appreciate the excitement this activity created. You could FEEL that there was something EXTRA going on, thanks to the ambitious band list.

The highlights were plentiful- each performing group generally shining in whatever it is they do, whether screaming hardcore or quaint a cappella- but some favorites made a deeper impression. Like the powerful rock of the Piggies, the female-powered funk of Glass Ceiling, the revved up slickness of Halden Wofford and the Hi Beams, the raw blues power of Jeff Stephenson, the class presence of Hazel Miller and the rumbling darkness of Until We Wake.

I was awe-struck by the massive choir of marimbas brought on stage by Kutandara, the Motet Big Band was smooth and sassy, the Drew Emmitt Band, along with guest mandolinist Chris Thile, was just big and powerful, and Tina Phillips bebop jazz singer was cool and sweet. Oh, and the B52s played “Love Shack” for some 12,000 people jamming the street on Saturday night and Nickel Creek added a set of their melodic pop bluegrass.

It was significant this year that the main stage for the festival was moved from its “traditional” location on Linden Street over to Mountain. It just made sense and the huge crowd that showed for the B52s was reasonably accommodated. I saw people dancing on the street- dancing on rooftops- and having a great time. The addition of an alternative music stage on Oak Street was brilliant. Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest this year exceeded expectations and will no doubt inspire live music fans to not only anticipate but hunger for next year.

Dwight Yoakam, Aggie Theatre, Fort Collins, August 18, 2006.

The Aggie Theatre was a sold out hot box for the much-anticipated show by country star/actor Dwight Yoakam on August 18. Despite sweltering summertime conditions in the crowded venue, the biggest temper to flare in the heat was Yoakam’s.

About three songs into what turned out to be a long evening of Yoakam’s alluring rocking country, the singer cut off in the middle of the song and stomped off to the side of the stage. He came back to the mike, then launched into a verbal harangue about some video cameras he spotted in the audience. Yoakam refused to continue- and even left the stage- until the camera equipment and the operators were removed- to the jeering of the crowd, who were obviously geared up for the show. Yoakam even told the crowd he didn’t mind people taking still pictures, but the video equipment was just too much. He then kicked back into his tribute to friend Buck Owens, “Cryin’ Time.”

Yoakam paid tribute to a lot of country music’s history- including versions of standard tunes like “Act Naturally” and crossover rock and roll hits like Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister.” His own material melded with the classic stuff throughout the evening, each song in themselves short and to the point, even formulaic if you get right down to it- verse, chorus, verse, chorus, short instrumental break, verse, chorus, maybe repeat. Each song was like a rough golden nugget that Yoakam and the band worked over. But the cumulative effect of presenting so many golden nuggets in quick succession over the course of the show was rich indeed.

I have to say that I love the professionalism of a band that can kick into a set of music and move from song to song swiftly and easily and on that score, Yoakam’s band was class A- once the video cameras had been removed, that is. The chain of songs, with rising and falling tempos, revealed a sense of well-honed control and an expert sense of timing.

But much more than songs, Yoakam and band’s sound is distinctive. It starts with a kind of grungy electric underbelly, a kind of lower register buoyancy that kind of scoops of the rhythm at key times. On top of that is Yoakam’s tenor vocals, pliant and perfectly suited to hearing above the instrumentation. Yoakam was especially fond of playing around with the melody lines, stretching lines out a little, then cut them off with a little hiccup. That they apply this to classic country material makes the sound even more timeless. Yoakam, it seems, is not just emulating a kind of country sound, he is a direct extension of it. Yoakam is, in effect, a direct musical descendent of Elvis Presley and others like Johnny Cash, and he did his ancestors proud at the Aggie.

Opening was Drag the River, a Fort Collins unit that has created a regional buzz. Fully powerful in their own right, Drag the River’s country was a little more twangy than Yoakam’s and perhaps a lot more grungy. In a Fort Collins landscape with dwindling music venues, the Aggie continues to bring in top shelf acts like Yoakam and pair them with prominent local favorites like Drag the River. It was an interesting and completely satisfying combination that turned the back end of the Aggie into a dance floor, while the dance floor up front was packed tight with constantly whooping Yoakam fans.

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Red Rocks, Morrison, August 23, 2006.

By the time rock/soul/folk dynamo Ben Harper and his band the Innocent Criminals got to the joyful and uplifting “Better Way” at the end of their long show at Red Rocks on August 23, I believed. Thanks to Ben Harper’s serious attempt to give real SUBSTANCE to pop music, I believed that there really is hope in troubled political and economic times. That hope comes from not just an ability to speak up publicly, but also from the attempt to appreciate the personal trials that affect all of our lives- like love, loneliness and just trying to stay alive. Ben Harper, it seems, sees the value in all of it, and an artist like that gives me hope.

Now, I would call Harper a serious artist. What I mean by that is that no matter what the guy does on stage, he seems to get downright serious about making something happen. That goes for his slide guitar work, featured several times throughout the evening, Harper just as willing to dig in with the bar to find some wiry solo combination as to whang the thing fully and try to get some feedback going. He was no slouch on electric guitar either. It also goes for Harper’s vocal style. Here’s a guy who doesn’t just perform a song, but breathes it, shouts it, makes it howl a little bit.

But being serious is also reflected fully in Harper’s songwriting. Whether questioning authority in the aggressively confrontive “Excuse Me Mr.” or musing about the soul in the wistful acoustic number “Another Lonely Day,” you get the sense that Harper is really focusing- intently- on whatever issue is at hand. And maybe that’s the key, is that Harper seems to see plenty of ISSUES to talk about in life.

Of course, the most dramatic of the new stuff from the recent release, “Both Sides of the Gun,” including “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating” and “Black Rain,” had a decidedly revolutionary feel to it- against the culture and the government. When an artist sums up his reaction to federal response to the Hurricane Katrina devastation in New Orleans like this: “This government business/is straight up sadistic,” there is more than just wordplay involved. “Black Rain” was perhaps the most stunning piece of the evening at Red Rocks for its outpouring of serious emotion.

Other highlights were plentiful, like the more positive exhortations of the new “Get It Like You Like It”: “Throw your hands up to the sky/and scream out loud I’m free”. Another rousing moment was when opener Damian Marley came on stage and joined Harper and the Innocent Criminals for a version of the political reggae rallying cry “Get Up, Stand Up.” Towards the end of the set, Harper also threw in a couple of covers- Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and the Marvin Gaye hit “Sexual Healing”- performed with vigor and purpose.

My favorite part of the show, however, was when Harper came back on stage by himself after the first set and performed several solo acoustic pieces. With things toned way down, you could hear just how good of a vocalist Harper is and also that all of his considerations are not political, but can be personal too- and the acoustic pieces allowed that to come through. That section included the very new piece “Lifeline.”

Harper was even serious about acknowledging the crowd, taking several moments throughout the evening to step back and appreciate the beauty of the venue and the roar of the adoring crowd. At one point, Harper stepped to the front of the stage sans microphone and attempted to call up to the people at the top of the amphitheatre- and you could hear him too.

The opening band- Damian Marley- also offered some musical inspiration. Marley’s mix of dancehall reggae and his own father’s more “traditional” approach worked fine, the words flowing while the rhythm remained up tempo. His version of “Exodus”- laying down that great infectious groove, then rapping profusely on top of it- was indeed fun to hear.

But what really made me go away smiling from Red Rocks that night was the final tune of the night, “Better Way.” It was an uplifting, perhaps Gospel inspired, triumph and real proof that Harper, as serious as he is about everything, knows what it is people need the most: hope.

Rosanne Cash, Chautauqua Auditorium, Boulder, August 25, 2006.

A cool, if not even chill air came breezing through the open side panels of Chautauqua Auditorium last night as Rosanne Cash took the stage for a satisfying set of her deep, country influenced singer-songwriter material. It’s too bad the cool air didn’t chill out the sound guy who was merrily dancing to the music while the lead guitar work of John Leventhal- Cash’s longtime collaborator, co-producer and husband- was way out of whack in the sound mix. At times, especially during the more up tempo, raucous numbers, Leventhal’s guitar sound was harshly over-modulated, marring the sound in general and overpowering the vocalist- not a good idea when that vocalist is Rosanne Cash. Maybe the guy I saw clapping and dancing around behind a sound board wasn’t the guy responsible, but SOMEONE wasn’t listening to the mix.

Fortunately, the bigger sounding tunes were spaced out by bigger chunks of Cash’s deeply simmering balladry, and that is, after all, what drew the half-hall crowd to Boulder’s fine, venerable old-style venue. First and foremost, there is a robust richness to Cash’s voice and even though she often mentioned a lack of air- not being used to the Colorado elevation- she delivered plenty on that score at Chautauqua. Her voice not only rises and falls like a swelling emotional tide, but it also conveys a kind of personal sincerity that is hard to resist.

Perhaps the sincerity part comes in more from the lyrical side of the songs themselves. While Cash is directly connected to a dynamic country music bloodline and all of that country influence has informed her music, it would not be accurate to call Cash simply a country artist. Cash’s lyrics betray a folk artist’s love for words and images and when you add in that emotive vocal style you have something that is both beautiful and effective.

Now this is where Leventhal’s guitar comes in. While Cash and Leventhal collaborate on material and recordings, it is the melding of his guitar sound to Cash’s vocal style that not only compliments but ENHANCES Cash’s songs. Again, while the root of Leventhal’s playing has become country music- and he bends notes, even unraveling the lower string, like a rowdy country player- he also adds some kind of extra something in tone and delivery that not only responds to Cash’s words and voice, but does some speaking of its own. That’s why the blockheaded sound mix was so detrimental to the show- it did not feature Leventhal’s contribution in the best light.

It actually didn’t matter a lot what Cash and Leventhal- backed by a bass/drums combination- played at Chautauqua, as long as Cash continued singing. They played several tunes from what Cash described as a list of one hundred great country songs her father gave her to learn. These mixed with a large part of Cash’s newest album, “Black Cadillac.” This material- including songs such as “The World Unseen” and “House on the Lake”- underscored the deepness in Cash’s writing. The newer stuff, about death, loss and some kind of resolution about living, was deliberately and lovingly presented- obviously important to the artist- and the audience applauded each piece like they were old favorites. Now if it could have been that important to the sound guy, it could have been a much better concert. As it was, be able to soak up Cash’s richness as an artist- sound defects or not- was enough to bring the crowd to their feet for a standing ovation.

Tool, Coors Amphitheatre, Denver, August 30, 2006.

Many times at arena shows, huge video screens inform more of the members of the audience about what is happening on stage than what is actually happening on stage. Well, Tool has taken care of that situation on their current “10,000 Days” tour by turning the entirety of their staging into the video screens themselves. At Coors Amphitheatre last night, video screens on either side of the stage were being used, but those images were a very pale representation of what was happening on stage indeed.

Now, I saw Tool at the Pepsi Center on the “Lateralus” tour several years ago and while I admired the band’s relentlessly powerful dark sound, their stage show was bare bones- you could say even dull- augmented by some seemingly random video imagery on screens to the sides of the stage. By fusing the imagery with the staging itself places the band INSIDE the video action, making them a PART of the visual landscape. When the entire stage seemed to be roiling in flames, so was the band. The imagery- from whirling planets to the gooey inner space inside the human body– also tended to enhance the tension that is already simmering in Tool’s music, of course, making for a strong one-two punch that was very hard to resist.

But then again, maybe Tool is a little bit different band now. Still the anti-heroes without much to say or do with the audience, there was a sense that perhaps Tool has more readily accepted their role as the reigning kings of alternative music. That the stage show was more fan friendly is proof of that. But I have to wonder if Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s experience in side project A Perfect Circle- a more melodic and musically rich band- didn’t IMPROVE Tool’s music. There are touches of A Perfect Circle’s refinement in Tool’s new music- a shift to a major key here, some finely textured instrumentation there- or maybe A Perfect Circle simply brought out a more enhanced version of Tool’s musical vision, then acted as a stimulus for the progenitor. Whatever- Tool’s new music seems freshly fueled and their stage show has gone from brooding shadowplay to thrilling.

Keenan, who currently sports a short, spiky Mohawk, took the stage at Coors without a shirt and with a crumpled up cowboy hat on his head. He waved the hat around a while, then plunked it on a stand next to some keyboards and got down to business- that is adding the sometimes raging, sometimes howling vocals to a full wall of metal fusion. And that is some mean trick because the instrumental portion is mighty indeed.

Keenan is a riveting figure on stage, whether he’s leaning way back to let loose with some of that great angry shouting or he’s simply dancing to the music, twisting around in his own space to the rear of the band. You always know that he is THERE. But the rest of Tool is also riveting. Super drummer Danny Carey and bandmates Justin Chancellor and Adam Jones take the basic Tool groove- one that informs just about all of their pieces as far as I can tell- then set to work creating polyphonic flourishes on top of and all around it- like progressive rock musicians, or maybe jazzmen in the midst of some kind of 21st century rock-punk-metal fusion. By the time any given piece is done, which may take ten minutes, all three instruments are blazing. No wonder Keenan is inspired to howl.

While drawing from various parts of their career, the new stuff Tool played at Coors was most tantalizing- maybe because it is exactly that, brand new. There is always a kind tension involved when a band releases a strong record – could the band, who will want to play the new stuff, match the intensity of the new record on stage?  The answer for Tool is yes- the new stuff worked just fine. In fact, Tool used “Vicarious,” the opening track from “10,000 Days,” as the lead in to their encore section- and the crowd went nuts. “The Pot” was a raging highlight early in the set. Keenan used a bullhorn to enhance “Rosetta Stoned,” another raging highlight. “Jambi” was high drama indeed- it’s one modulation to a major note particularly rousing the crowd. Actually, it didn’t matter what the band played, as long as they kept whacking away at that groove and Keenan kept barking something through the mike- and they kept the stage awash with video imagery.

Opening band Isis was headed in the same direction as Tool with perhaps a little bit lighter touch. The five man crew also displayed a penchant for setting up a groove, then giving it time to build into some kind of flourish- similar to Tool- perhaps with a few less teeth- and pleasant enough as the sun set on a beautiful, breezy late summer night.

For this show, I had a lawn seat and watched from the very top of the amphitheatre- literally at the back of the crowd- sold out and pretty much packed up to the back wall. And without the help of my trusty high-powered binoculars, this would not have been such a fine experience. While Tool’s efforts to bring together the action on the video screens and the stage were stunning, it did limit the entire visual experience to a strip across the width of the stage and about something like seven feel tall- a fairly small target from the upper reaches of the crowd. I’m not sure many of the people around me up at the top of the arena really saw or appreciated what Tool’s staging was accomplishing- many just seemed happy to be in the same STATE as Tool- and you had to really focus on that strip. I for one was thankful I had the right TOOL that night because once I managed to find a clear line of vision to the stage, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it.

Ted Nugent, Thunder in the Rockies, Budweiser Events Center, Loveland, September 1, 2006.

It was hard to tell on Friday night exactly what show was most important to pay attention to when rough and ready rock guitarist Ted Nugent took the stage at the Budweiser Events Center to help celebrate the second annual Thunder in the Rockies motorcycle rally held at the Ranch all weekend. First of all, there was the show where Nugent would dig forcibly into his guitar and come out with some scorching old style hard rock. At that, Nugent is a maniacal genius, swinging his guitar around and then standing his ground in a rocker pose while his fingers are flying on the fretboard.

But then again there was the show in between songs where Nugent would interject his wild but super conservative opinions. As the evening wore on, Nugent’s rants become longer and the crowd was reacting to his statements like he had just started up his old favorite hit “Cat Scratch Fever”- which he played, of course, late in the set- with hearty cheers and fists pumping in the air. By the time Nugent pulled out a crossbow and shot a stand-up effigy of Osama Bin Laden, all the while shouting “Kill them all!,” you could even say things were at a fever pitch.

Now, these opinions went from obvious hyperbole- like when Nugent held up two big machine guns and claimed that all children in attendance would receive free machine guns- to some half-way serious advice-giving about living in the moment and appreciating what you have. He consistently kept mentioning the date- “Here on September 1, 2006”- and that is always good to be reminded of the here-and-now. Perhaps his most sincere comments were reserved for all members and veterans of the US military, naming each of the branches. He also expressed his love of hunting and the outdoors- something he thought he had in common with area cowboys, who he claimed as “blood brothers.”

However, especially toward the end of the show, Nugent’s opinions veered into a grey area where statements about American quality and pride turned into some outright culture-bashing. When talking about the “American Dream,” Nugent said “What about the French Dream- you ever hear of that? Or how about the Mexican Dream? I’ll tell you what the Mexican Dream is- it’s to get out of Mexico.” Nugent added that Mexicans are welcome here- “but we’re going to be keeping our eye on you, comprende?”- all the while insisting that everyone in the US should be speaking English. Nugent spat out some German words at one point and while exhorting the qualities of his American-made guitar, he downgraded “Jap” instruments.

Nugent’s music is certainly not free of opinion either, but in those cases it’s built into the structure of the song, each piece taking on its own character. Most of it- mostly a repeating lyrical hook with some verse filler- served simply as a jumping off point for another one of Nugent’s guitar fireworks displays. The lyrics can be downright silly- like his new song about Girl Scout cookies- or just plain ornery, like “Kiss My Ass.”

But when Nugent starts on his opinions without music, it goes beyond the confines of a pop song- something that you generally can just take or leave. When he starts talking about what he thinks is right and wrong with the world, it enters a much wider kind of discussion, and just like Nugent, everybody else has an opinion too. When you’re listening to someone spout their opinions over a mike and you can’t talk back, there is a tendency to start getting frustrated, especially when you don’t particularly agree. The folks at the BEC on Friday, however, mostly seemed to be in agreement with Nugent, and the set was well-received.

The question comes up, however, was Nugent the right act to bring in to celebrate Thunder in the Rockies? Maybe one of the elements in Nugent’s rants perhaps holds the key. Nugent continually spoke about the freedom that we enjoy here in America. I suppose appreciating freedom is in line with the motorcycle enthusiast’s image- the freedom of the open road. One of the freedoms that we have is that people can get up and present their opinion without government censure- like Nugent. So that the guy is opinionated is obvious and he has earned his way onto the stage through his raw guitar ability, so why not?

However, the more racial or ethnic-oriented aspects of Nugent’s opinions should give organizers of Thunder in the Rockies some pause to reflect about presenting him as a de facto spokesman for the event. Unless, of course, it is the intent of the organizers to offend people of Mexican, French, German or Japanese origin or any other kind of foreign tongue-speaking individual, for that matter. But it is hard to believe that bikers in general want to limit their ranks. However, controversy is nothing new to the biker image either, so maybe Nugent was just the right ticket- right or wrong, a raging rocker that DOES make you think.

With all those questions on the table, there was one final issue that comes up from Nugent’s show. I actually liked the music- and Nugent didn’t mess around with getting fired up on the guitar- and the stated opinions certainly made me evaluate my own feelings about a number of subjects, but perhaps the most questionable thing about the entire presentation was the huge American flag that hung behind Nugent- with “Tednugent.com” placed in front of it. I have to wonder about a guy who talks all night about being a proud American, then he splashes his own commercial brand across the flag. Maybe that’s not much different than using an American flag design guitar, but it seems to cross a line that even conservative people might take issue with. Is turning the American flag into a piece of advertising desecrating the flag? That debate would probably keep Congress busy debating for a long time.

For guitar rock enthusiasts, Nugent was the icing on the cake for a long evening of music. It all started with a pre-show warm-up by Fort Collins band the Piggies- recently one of my favorite acts from the NewWestFest Colorado music blow-out. Then the five-man band Jus Tus took the stage and added some thick electric rock of their own, taking the time to go out on some fully dramatic instrumental excursions. The quartet Hedshop then turned in an impressive and powerful set of a more aggressive, metal-oriented rock. Hedshop’s bassist/vocalist was a strong figure on stage and his bandmates added plenty, the band at times creating a mighty furious sound indeed.

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor:

In response to Erik Rush’s column, “Hypersenitive media,” I’d like to say that my review in the September issue of the Fort Collins Forum was meant only to be a summary of what I saw and heard at the Ted Nugent concert at the Budweiser Events Center.

However, I’ll mention a few highlights. First, I would call this statement “culture-bashing” during Nugent’s rant about the American Dream: “I’ll tell you what the Mexican Dream is- it’s to get out of Mexico!” Then let’s talk about when Nugent held up two machine guns and declared “All children in the audience tonight get a free machine gun!”

Finally, when Nugent was aiming his hunting bow at the stand up figure of Osama Bin Laden and fired, he was shouting over and over, “Kill them all! Kill them all!” I don’t know about you, but it makes me nervous having a guy waving around a loaded weapon while screaming about killing.

What I found objectionable at the concert wasn’t the rock and roll, it was Nugent’s outspoken moments on the mike. Hypersensitive journalist? How about hyper-insensitive artist?

The Guess Who, Thunder Park, Loveland, September 8, 2006.

A brand new concert venue successfully opened last night with something pretty old- that is, the venerable Canadian hit band, the Guess Who. The new venue is Thunder Park, a rather large-sized amphitheatre nestled luxuriously into the crook of one of the buildings on the Thunder Mountain Harley Davidson campus at I-25 and Crossroads Blvd. in Loveland. With a large grassy slope spreading out above and a wide concrete area surrounding the solid, permanent stage below, Thunder Park easily accommodated the thousand or so (a guess only) classic rock fans that came to hear their favorite Guess Who hits- and there were plenty of those.

Who was in the Guess Who in 2006? The current band shares one member with the classic unit that goes back some 40 years to their first breakthrough record- a version of “Shakin’ All Over” in 1965- and that is drummer Garry Peterson. Bassist Jim Kale, who acted as the main spokesman for the group at Thunder Park, was also a very early member of the Guess Who as well. (Both Peterson and Kale share songwriting credits for the Guess Who’s monster hit “American Woman” with long-departed members vocalist Burton Cummings and guitarist Randy Bachman.) The others- Leonard Shaw on keyboards and flute, Carl Dixon on lead vocals and guitar and Laurie MacKenzie on guitar- are much more recent members, signing on at various times in the 1990’s.

Now, some classic rock hit bands have kind of a soiled reputation for being simply commercial endeavors that regurgitate the hits, sometimes without any real connection to the original band- like cover bands but with a famous name. In fact, there are sometimes several units simultaneously roaming around the world trying to squeeze cash out of an old reputation. After seeing the Guess Who last night, I would say that they are not in that category particularly. Certainly, at Thunder Park it was all about the familiar songs, the band throwing in one token new song, but above and beyond the necessity of keeping the show anchored to the distant past, I still got a sense that this was a BAND and that they enjoyed the musical power that they were stirring up together.

Yes, the set list was chalk full of great old tunes, including “No Sugar Tonight,” “Hand Me Down World,” and the rousing singalong anthem “Share the Land.” Some of the songs- especially “Laughing”- did sound dated, meaning that the songwriting and arranging obviously came from another time. But at times the quaintness worked some surprises, the jazzy flavor of “Undun” in particular a refreshing change of pace.

For me, the breakthrough moment of the show came from one of the “lesser known” hits, the slower “Do You Miss Me Darlin’?” While listening to the tune, I finally realized that what was sounding good about the 2006 Guess Who was not just their obvious comfort with the well-worn material, but also the keen multi-layered vocal arrangements. During “Darlin’” all five members of the band were adding vocals at the same time and it was very effective, something that I noticed happening often throughout the rest of the evening. Maybe I’m dumb, but this is an element of the Guess Who that I was not conscious of before and I liked the 2006 band’s effort to keep this part of the sound vital.

I also liked lead vocalist and guitarist Carl Dixon’s efforts to keep things vital as well. His voice was right in the same zone as famous Guess Who vocalist Burton Cummings (who, by the way, was NOT an original member back in the band’s primordial days,) and Dixon had obviously studied Cummings’ inflections. Plus, he just seemed to have the energy to be the band’s active frontman, a riveting figure indeed.

Not that the other members of the band didn’t display energy. Keyboardist Shaw at times just pounded his instrument with passion and MacKenzie must have been having fun pulling out some of those distinctive guitar lines. In fact, I would say that these guys in general seemed to be having fun, a key element to getting the crowd into the act- like clapping on cue to the novelty hit “Clap for the Wolfman” or joining the repeating chorus for “Share the Land.” It seemed like EVERYBODY was having fun with this, and that may be the key to understanding what makes the Guess Who in 2006 a viable unit.

Whatever you feel about who is an original member and who is new and all that, what really is important is that the MUSIC of the Guess Who is being carried on with a reasonable degree of authenticity. It’s just such a good sack of tunes that it would be a shame for it to never be presented on stage. So the contemporary unit called the Guess Who isn’t just trading off of past hits, they are keeping a rich, dramatic and melodic catalog of songs alive. It was FUN to hear this stuff live and the crowd reacted like this was still the Guess Who’s heyday.

But please tell me, who can resist that great dramatic riff from “American Woman,” with that distinctive wailing lead guitar on top. “These Eyes,” another one of those tunes that sounded a little dated but welcomed nonetheless, kicked off the encore which finally wound up with the great rocker “No Time,” Dixon nailing the “I got, got, got, got no time” part at the end with high drama- as it was designed. I walked away from this show agreeing with my friend that that was a great rock and roll show, feeling energized, not hoodwinked by some pale version of past glory.

My experience at Thunder Park itself was positive indeed. It was easy getting off the freeway and into the facility. The amphitheatre itself was well designed to comfortably accommodate a crowd. Concessions made it fan-friendly and it was pretty easy to get out. The ticket price was also very reasonable in this day and age. These elements combine to indicate that Thunder Park has a bright future ahead. While it’s pretty late in the season to get much else going there this year, I would expect that Thunder Park may become a regular live music destination next year. After being christened by the Guess Who, this facility cannot help but benefit from the good vibes of a successful start.

Dave Matthews Band, Pepsi Center, Denver, September 12, 2006.

When opening act Robert Randolph and the Family Band took the stage early in the evening at the Pepsi Center last night, Dave Matthews evidently wanted to make sure that early arrivals to the show knew who the opener was- because he personally came on stage with the band to introduce them. Then, at the end of Matthews’ set, he brought Randolph on stage to join the band in a dynamic, roaring version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Matthews wearing Randolph’s hat and hugging him with affection. Such was the obvious respect that Matthews held for Randolph and company. During his own set and his guest spot in Matthews’ set, Randolph returned that respect by doing what he does best- digging vigorously into that pedal steel guitar like no one else does.

That “All Along the Watchtower” was dynamic- starting from an acoustic simmer and building to an electric roar- shouldn’t be a surprise because the Matthews Band had been playing with dynamics all night long. Matthews’ show started deep and low and built slowly throughout the evening. Not your average pop songs, often the tunes would adopt a groove and then work it in extended arrangements that included plenty of time for instrumental exploration. By the time they got to “Watchtower,” it was time to open all the stops and let it rip. “The wind began to howl” indeed. The set list also included the beautiful and sturdy “Satellite,” an early set highlight, as well as “Crash into Me,” “Dream Girl,” “Everyday” and new tunes such as “I Do It For You.”

But more than dynamics, one of the distinctive things about the Dave Matthews Band is the creative instrumentation that makes up the group. Notably, there is no lead guitar, with Matthews on vocals and acoustic guitar, then adding violin, two horns, keyboards, drums and bass. That has lead to some creative arranging and some rich musical texturing. Some of the most exciting moments in the show were when violinist Boyd Tinsley was featured- now when was the last time you saw thousands of pop music fans going nuts over a violin solo? Drummer Carter Beauford also stood out as the driving force behind the arena-ready Matthews Band, his mighty drumming pretty much keeping everything anchored while the other instruments flew around the arrangements.

Because the Matthews Band is so good at both dynamics and texture, it probably should be said that the Pepsi Center is not really the best place to see the group. At least the seats I had up in the third tier were terrible. From there, the sound was abysmal- you could not make out one word of any of Matthews song introductions and the music mix was thick, muddy and unflattering to what the musicians were doing on stage- and the huge banks of speakers hanging above the stage blocked out most of the video screens. It wasn’t until my friend and I had decided to make our way to the exit, that I got a better view. Along the way, we checked into the show at various portals around the arena. From straight back from the stage, you could see what the upper tier seats failed to reveal- the colorful splendor of the staging. By the time the Matthews Band hit the climax of the encore, “Ants Marching,” I was standing at a portal just above the stage. It sounded great there, the band seemed completely synched into the upbeat groove as was the crowd that was hopping, dancing, leaping into the air and generally celebrating the good vibes.

Last night was particularly interesting to me because I had seen the Dave Matthews Band just around the time “Under the Table and Dreaming” had been released- as an opening band for Big Head Todd and the Monsters at Moby Arena in Fort Collins. Then, they were a fresh, new band with an unusual sound- and coming on strong. Now, it could be said that the band is at a commercial pinnacle, selling out this first show and playing a second one tonight. This success necessarily has turned the group’s fresh, dynamic music into something that must also somehow be big enough and majestic enough to entertain 18,000 fans or so at a time. I got the sense that the big time, however beneficial it may be to their pocketbooks, does not do the Matthews Band’s music much justice and, strange to say, experiencing the band live might be a better time overall if they just weren’t so popular.

But what a problem, being too popular. Often during the show, the crowd’s exuberance matched the music in its intensity, and even overpowered it at times, the audience belting out the words to each song with abandon. If they weren’t singing, they were cheering and I think based on noise level alone, this must have been the biggest, most gregarious party in the state last night. That’s what Matthews had to deal with when he took the stage alone to begin the encore segment- playing a solo acoustic version of “Sister.” He said, “This is a quiet song, so if you’ll just bear with me…but its short, so it’ll be over soon,” and some hush came over the room. But in the end, what the crowd came for was the full on triumph of “Ants Marching,” not a look deep within.

Classical Savion, Lincoln Center, September 14, 2006.

The first half of innovative tap artist Savion Glover’s new show, Classical Savion, which kicked off its national tour with five performances at the Lincoln Center, is a tantalizing and bold mix of classical music and rhythm. Rhythm produced with Glover’s feet, that is, on a brightly lit platform in the center of the stage, surrounded by a nine-member string orchestra. While the orchestra provided familiar classical melodies by Vivaldi, Dvorak and Bach, Glover not only echoed the oftentimes dizzying flurry of notes in the music but also threw in some offbeat contemporary rhythms that enhanced the music in ways that the old composers could not have dreamed of.

After that was a long, sprawling encounter with a bluesy jazz groove that saw Glover trading improvisational moments with each member of the orchestra as well as a horn/flute player, a pianist and a drummer, who joined the crew for the second half. Glover finished up the evening with a piece he called “The Stars and Stripes Forever…For Now,” a continuation of the jazz groove but with smatterings of the familiar patriotic melody.

While tap is often thought of as dance, after watching Glover perform on the last night of the run, I am thinking of it more as music, or percussion to be precise. The way Glover used his heels was like a kick drum, adding a bottom beat. The flat part of his feet acted like snares and he added rim shots with the tips of his shoes. He also scraped the side of his shoes across the floor like a drummer uses brushes. The combination of all this then becomes the core of Glover’s talent- a whole drum kit out of two feet. Another way to look at it came when he got the flats of his feet rolling and he sounded very much- and this may be a big stretch- like master tabla player Zakir Hussain. I wondered at times what it would sound like if Glover actually PERFORMED on some sort of large drum head. But more, Glover also had the MIND of a percussionist and worked hard at filling each piece with unique rhythmic figures informed as much by the street as the concert hall.

BECAUSE OF his innovative approach, however, I have to mention that the mix of sounds for the show was way off balance. The string section could hardly be heard underneath the super-miked sound of Savion’s dance platform. From where I was sitting, it did not appear that the strings were miked, leaving their natural resonance to compete with the technically enchanced tapping. Granted, the rather large grouping of instruments did gather some power at times, but it was dominated completely by Glover. Now, of course, the show is all about Glover, but it seems that if the audience is to REALLY appreciate what Glover is doing, they need to hear what it is he is playing off of. I personally think there was a lot more going on in this show than what I could HEAR.

Secondly, I have to summon up a pet peeve. Often during the performance I saw, Glover would tune into the musical action in the orchestra by turning and facing the musicians. Unfortunately, this meant that he was turning his back to the audience and this happened often throughout the show. In fact, I noticed that Glover had his back to the audience for one entire piece- the audience was hearing his tapping, but could not see what he was doing. While it is admirable for Glover to be trying to get into it with the individual musicians- establishing an almost physical contact- this left the audience in the back seat, and, really, who is this for anyway? That Glover also acted as a director for the evening, counting out each piece by slapping his thigh while eying the musicians- actually a necessity considering his tapping had to dictate the tempo- added to this. However, at rehearsals you group together, on stage you present and while I appreciated the connections that were being made at the Lincoln Center, I think a little more consideration for the audience might benefit future performances.

Don’t get me wrong, this show is unique in many ways, and is recommended. I just think that if you are going to go to the trouble of embarking on a national tour, details like these should be important. Those things aside, however, Glover did present something you are not going to see anywhere else- and Vivaldi, Dvorak and Bach may very well be spinning in their graves as a result.

Compassion in the Rockies, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Shambhala Mountain Center, Red Feather Lakes, September 17, 2006.

In Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s remarks during the ceremonies in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama blessed the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at the Shambhala Mountain Center on September 17, he made clear his hopes that the stupa would become “a symbol of peace.” Those hopes have already come true as the Dalai Lama not only blessed the Buddhist shrine- the largest in the United States- but also accepted the first Living Peace Award from Rinpoche. Both gestures by the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1989, were rare honors indeed for the meditation and retreat center located in the mountains of northern Colorado near Red Feather Lakes and an auspicious moment in history for the stupa.

Added to this was the presence of other dignitaries for peace, including Queen Noor of Jordan and Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning, who joined Rinpoche, head of the Shambhala branch of Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama on a stage set against the colorful grandeur of the stupa and the Colorado landscape.

The event capped a week of activities at the Shambhala Mountain Center called “Compassion in the Rockies” that included programs by Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama was also in Colorado to participate in a youth peace conference being held in Denver called PeaceJam, which featured the Dalai Lama along with nine other Nobel laureates, including Desmond Tutu. On a cold and blustery morning in the Colorado mountains, the Dalai Lama and guests flew by helicopter to the Shambhala Mountain Center, then proceeded by motorcade to the stupa. After participating in the event, the Dalai Lama flew back to Denver to speak to a sold-out audience at the Pepsi Center in the afternoon.

Clad in down coats and wrapped in blankets, an estimated 2500 people gathered in the early morning at the foot of the stupa to not only hear the Dalai Lama, but also to receive his blessing. At the end of the Dalai Lama’s stay, he touched the end of a length of cloth that fanned out far into the audience, who in turn had tied their own “katas” together and to the length, creating a fabric link among those assembled and the Dalai Lama.

But more than ceremony, the gathering at the stupa featured comments from the dignitaries about the subject of peace and compassion. Noor called for “respect for freedom, justice and compassion.” Kula called the gathering “a profoundly hopeful moment” as well as chanted the messages of love retrieved from cell phone messages from 9/11 victims.

The Dalai Lama, speaking in a purposeful English and in Tibetan through an interpreter, told the assembly that “peace of mind comes from compassion” and that “everyone has the seed of compassion in them.” He spoke about the “gaps between appearance and reality” and that “our own action is most important.” He encouraged the audience to make an effort to make everyday meaningful and positive. As for the monument- the stupa- that towered above the stage, the Dalai Lama said, “The real stupa is in our own heart; the external stupa is just a reminder of our inner stupa.”

But more than formal teaching, the Dalai Lama also revealed some personal human qualities, like having the humility to admit a “big mistake” when he called Kula a “Muslim rabbi.” He laughed when the interpreter informed him of what he had done and the crowd laughed with him. The Dalai Lama hunkered down into a huge, stately arm chair, raising a part of his robe over his head against the brisk weather, and he joked about rising early for the event and the force of the morning wind.

After his remarks, the Dalai Lama was then presented with the first Living Peace Award, established to acknowledge “those who not only wish for peace, but who are an embodiment of peace in themselves, living it daily.” His Holiness, Tendzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, was cited as “an indelible reminder to the entire world of what it truly means to live peace” through his “tireless efforts to bring humanity into harmony with itself and with our precious planet earth.” Rinpoche presented the award which the Dalai Lama accepted by bowing deeply. He then left the stage and entered the stupa for a period of time before returning to touch the kata with a ritual scepter.

After the Dalai Lama and company had left, their helicopter curving back down and over the crowd that waved cheerfully, events were capped off with a presentation by Chief Looking Horse, of the Lakota Sioux, who told the crowd we need to “unite spiritually, globally,” and with some traditional Tibetan dance.

Indeed Rinpoche’s wish had already come true as the event dissolved into the distribution of a boxed lunch. For one bracing morning, the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya had truly been a “symbol of peace,” thanks to an unprecedented gathering of dignitaries. On its steps, the message of peace through compassion could hardly have been spoken with any more authority.

A Date with the Dalai Lama

I anticipated the Compassion in the Rockies event at the Shambhala Mountain Center, featuring honored guest the Dalai Lama, like I anticipate all big events- with a mixture of excitement and nerves. The nerves come from trying to make everything work just right as a journalist- making the right connection for my media pass, finding the on site contact and getting the most complete information, then physically trying to accomplish the tasks of photographing the event as it transpires, listening to the presentations while taking notes, and maneuvering within crowded conditions. The excitement comes from knowing that no matter how the logistics work, I almost always come away with a memorable experience. Being in the presence of the Dalai Lama was memorable indeed.

But after several days of thinking about it, I realize what I came away with wasn’t just a set of inspiring words about peace and compassion. To explain, I’ll say that in the couple of locations that I took up while photographing the event at the base of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, more than once I felt like the Dalai Lama was looking directly at me. Even while he was talking, at times, I felt like he was speaking right at me. His gaze, rather than his words, made me feel very self-conscious. It was as if all the goodness that this man supposedly embodied reflected my goodness- or lack of it- back to me. In a strange way, the Dalai Lama acted like a mirror in which I could better see myself- and I’m not sure I liked what I saw.

Did I need the message of peace with compassion that was being discussed on stage? Absolutely. At this very event I momentarily lost my temper with a woman photographer who not only physically pushed me aside from the position I had taken for the arrival of the Dalai Lama, but then she sat down hard on my camera bags. I got irritated and even mumbled something I won’t repeat here and yanked the bags from under her- not exactly compassionate living. Here I was in a sacred place, awaiting a sacred person- or many sacred people for that matter- and this incident ruffled my composure. I felt some inner shame for that afterwards.

I also felt some inner shame perhaps because I was there as a photographer. That is, instead of REALLY listening to what the Dalai Lama, I was busy fiddling with my camera gear, taking notes and feeling the strain of kneeling on the damp ground while trying to stay out of the sightlines volunteer workers were charged with maintaining. While those around me in the audience were listening with rapt attention, I was distracted by my “job.” Maybe that’s why the Dalai Lama seemed to be looking at me- maybe I was distracting HIM, though I sincerely doubt it.

Now, this inner shame wasn’t because a doctrine was being outlined from the stage that clearly condemned my actions- it just didn’t FEEL right. This was an emotional or even spiritual reaction to how I felt about MYSELF, not about what was being said. The result was a disquieting realization that maybe I am not as good of an individual as I assumed I was. Quite simply, this date with the Dalai Lama made me feel like I want to become a better person.

After the event, many of the words I had heard echoed in my mind as I made it to the parking lot, but I had to laugh when I saw a bumper sticker on a neighboring car that seemed to sum up everything in two words: “Question reality.” That is, question reality about war and peace, question reality about the appearances of things, but most of all question reality about YOURSELF, because that is the work you can do with the most expedience. I’ve got some work to do and it isn’t the Dalai Lama’s work, or Shambhala Buddhist work, it’s MY work, direct and personal.

Luma, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, September 29, 2006.

And now for a new definition of “light entertainment”: Luma. At the Lincoln Center on September 29, the performance troupe that uses lighting effects and movement to dazzle the eye made light of the situation on stage- both literally and figuratively. On the one hand was the sack full of creative ideas using light as an artistic medium. On the other hand was the friendly and even humorous environment created by the troupe to give the art some context.

First of all, it must be stressed that Luma is not a dance performance as such, and that was underscored by an appearance at the beginning of the show by Luma creator Michael Marlin. Marlin began in show business as a successful juggler and his introduction to Luma- juggling and joking- was as much about easing the audience into the situation as it was about the show itself. Indeed, Marlin’s juggling, while serviceable and even fraught with drops, wasn’t as important as the wit he displayed, making the audience laugh and cheer before the curtain itself had even parted.

That wit then extended into the performance as the troupe members took the stage in the darkness to unveil various encounters with light- white light, colored light, spotlights and flashlights. It all began with the formation of “The Lumen Being” a figure made out of “sticks” of light that reentered the stage often throughout the performance. The stick figure gave a friendly and innocuous presence for everyone in the audience- an all ages crowd at the Lincoln Center- to relate to while the art of performing with light effects became somewhat more abstract at times.

The show consisted of two halves and sorted through 25 pieces, each one fairly short and pretty much working one theme, or lighting effect, at a time. This included a piece with umbrellas, lit from the inside with muted colored lights. Another piece featured bright bursts of sparks coming from random spots on the darkened stage.

Some of the best effects of the evening were the most grand. For example, one piece was based around three enormous flags that reacted to the light in various ways while being twirled by troupe members. Another was the whipping of colored light ropes across the entire width of the stage, an effect that initially made the audience involuntarily gasp with delight.

While some ideas were grand, and others were as simple as juggling with lit implements, most of the evening was couched in easy-going thematic set-ups that made it accessible for everyone, young to old. One of the longest pieces of the evening created a seascape where various fish and undersea life cavorted. Another piece simply followed the herky jerky dance motions of “robots.” Nothing in the show made the mind work too hard and the stage movement was kept fairly uncomplicated- separating Luma from what a dance company might do with some of these ideas. It was all aimed at keeping the audience ENTERTAINED, not “enlightened,” so to speak.

Just as Marlin managed to bridge the gap between the stage and the audience with his gregarious juggling in the beginning of the program- and at the start of the second half- he also included the audience in the event by some simple, yet effective tricks. The first was, he encouraged audience members to take out their cell phones, flip them open and hold them aloft- which scores of people did, turning the entire Lincoln Center into a merry multi-colored landscape. Then, toward the end of the show, the troupe propelled lighted beach balls out into the performance hall, looking like lighted globes happily bouncing haphazardly around the room. (And it was a special trick indeed for the troupe to COLLECT the balls from the audience after some time.)

As the troupe took their bows at the end of the show, they climaxed the event by popping off streamers into the crowd- another little surprise to delight. Luma, while not teasing the brain in any significant way, was pleasant all of the time and even spectacular part of the time, offering a little something for everybody in the family.

Roger Waters, Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, California, October 8, 2006.

There was one point during Roger Waters’ triumphant set at the Hollywood Bowl on October 8 that the connection to his old band Pink Floyd was the closest. And that point was a simple action, not the music. During an encore version of “Another Brick in the Wall,” with the crowd wailing along and the back-up band in full synch, Waters wandered over to stand in front of the drum kit of his ex-bandmate Nick Mason and the two seemed to be sharing a moment together on stage as they had so many years before. Mason had joined Waters and his seven-piece band on stage for his three-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl as a special guest and while his drumming augmented the music itself, it was just simply his presence that gave an extra stamp of Pink Floyd approval to Waters’ current tour that features a close reading of the entirety of the classic Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon.”

The evening at the Hollywood Bowl, above and beyond reuniting Waters and Mason, was full of the kinds of surprises one might expect from one of the original architects of arena rock. It all started with what seemed like a super-sized tableau, including a huge radio, an ash tray and a big, half-empty whiskey bottle. But then, while background music played, a big arm moved across the “tableau,” a projection on a high-def screen, and turned the dial on the radio, changing the background music. From there, the arm appeared often, changing the channel on the radio, placing a burning cigarette into the ashtray and pouring a big slug of whiskey every so often.

Then Waters hit the stage to a hero’s welcome and to a special effect he had no idea was happening. At the exact moment Waters and band took the stage, the moon broke from behind the hills surrounding the Bowl- visually right next to the lit cross that has been on one hill for decades. For several minutes, the bright moon and cross became a stunning combination of images until the moon finally rose and disappeared into the clouds for the rest of the night. For a while, Waters was actually competing with this image as scores of fans had cell phone cameras aloft and pointed at the moon/cross.

The screen behind the stage served to illustrate and augment the music on the stage with bright colors and industrial images. But then there was the inflatable pink pig that appeared at the climax of the first half of the show, being lead around the arena by a guy in bloody butcher’s garb. The big pig, which echoed the “Animals” era pig-and-factory images being projected on the screen, was marked with words and slogans such as “Kafka Rules OK” and “Don’t be lead to the slaughter.” It also included a bald political message- “Impeach Bush” scrawled across the pig’s butt.

There was more- including a lit triangle that rose high above the Bowl stage during “Dark Side,” eventually “refracting” a white spotlight from one side into a spray of colored lights coming out the other side. Often during the show, flame throwers spit fiery plumes upward and bright showers of sparks fell downward behind the band staging. Finally, the concert- after a rousing musical climax- was capped with sprays of fireworks brightly arcing inward from either side of the distinct Bowl band shell. Yes, the evening was spectacular in terms of stage action.

Added to the stage tricks was a new song titled “Leaving Beirut,” a tune Waters took time out to introduce verbally with a story about his experiences as a teenager with a Lebanese family when his car had broken down in a Middle East trip. The song was further illustrated on screen by graphic novel- style artwork and the lyrics themselves. They revealed strident- and not very subtle- opinions about Bush politics and the Christian right.

The rest, however, was pretty much history- including choice selections from classic Pink Floyd material drawn from “Wish You Were Here,” “The Wall” and “The Final Cut.” Musically, Waters was more than covered. After all, how can you miss with a big backing band and three backing vocalists?  Digging way back, Waters also included a version of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (a tune he had included in his “In the Flesh” tour) featuring a horn solo in the spacey instrumental section. The old tune plus “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and “Wish You Were Here” all served as a fitting tribute to the late Syd Barrett, a founding bandmate of Pink Floyd who passed away last July. My favorite oldie of the night, however, was the funky, cynical “Have a Cigar” from “Wish You Were Here,” a tune lampooning the music business and rock stardom- certainly appropriate in the Los Angeles setting.

There is a common perception that Los Angeles crowds are among the worst behaved audiences in the country and that held true in the upper reaches of the Bowl. The patrons in the two rows in front of where I sat all seemed to know each other and partied with raucous abandon. A hair-pulling fist fight between two women occurred literally right behind my seat, flying beer splashing my back and others around me. Next to the combatants, another group of guys merrily talked, yelled and carried on like they were in a loud nightclub during the whole second half of the show. Los Angeles may be a hip town as a global entertainment center, but the crowds it serves seem to need a little education on how to conduct themselves in public. But then again, there are assholes everywhere, so maybe it’s unfair to single out LA music fans.

The positive aspect of sitting in an upper level seat at the Waters show, however, was getting the full benefit of a speaker system installed in the rear, which made the extra sound effects for the concert- animal sounds, stray talking, maniacal laughing- very prominent indeed. It was very cool having these sounds flying around behind the crowd. When the back speakers were used also to augment the music with choral tracks and a great swell of symphonic backing, it succeeded in not only bringing the songs to a climax, but also helped drown out the din caused by jerk partiers.

This trip to the Hollywood Bowl was personally significant for a couple of reasons. One was that it was a return to familiar concert stomping grounds from my youth. The last show I saw at the Hollywood Bowl was in 1973, featuring America and Jackson Browne. The Bowl had changed quite a bit since then, in size if nothing else. However, the Bowl band shell, the hills, the choked up traffic all felt familiar even after all these years.

A second reason is that I was visiting my brother, who recently moved to the LA area, and he and I had attended a Pink Floyd show in Tucson in 1975- an experience that this show echoed mightily. Then, Pink Floyd included a big chunk of their “new” music from “Wish You Were Here,” as well as a full reading of “Dark Side” complete with video illustration. Thirty-one years later, it was still a pleasure to be with my brother at a “Pink Floyd” show and a lot of the same material that we heard in Tucson so long ago still sounded fine. Not only did it sound fine, but I was also struck with the lasting poignancy of the material. The conflicting themes of personal alienation and a desire for redemption not only continue to resonate, but may well be more important, more POIGNANT today.

By the end of the show, the figure that had started things off on the screen by changing the radio and pouring a drink was fully revealed- an undistinguished looking male seen reflecting in his chair, then lying on his bed, taking deep drag after drag on his cigarette while Waters’ lyrics pondered the meaning of life and death. That Everyman figure might have better represented the people I saw at the Waters show itself had he been partying loudly. However, his repose could still be considered a common state among those who remain sensitive to the world around them. Waters, despite the actual crowd he attracts, remains a thinking man’s rock star and his current tour delivers plenty.

Hubbard Street 2, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, October 14, 2006.

Athletic, precise, dynamic: all of these words can be used to describe Chicago dance troupe Hubbard Street 2’s performance at the Lincoln Center on October 14. Thanks to a dance style that is percolating with individual movement, “athletic” applies because the dancers in this troupe must not only master the use of their bodies, but must also maintain a high level of endurance. “Precise” applies because the dizzying movement encoded in the fresh choreography requires a high degree of precision for it to be successful. In the works presented at the LC by HS2, there was little margin for lack of focus. “Dynamic” is the result of putting the whole troupe on stage at once

One particular characteristic in Hubbard Street 2’s movement seemed to be wide swinging arcs with the arms and hands. This tended to make the dancers seem larger than life at times- bigger, longer. It also tended to make contact between the dancers naturally limited: their general gyrations resisted closeness in a traditional sense and intensified the focus on each individual. The most successful piece of the evening in terms of close communication between the dancers was the opening piece of the second half, “Hallaig,” a piece premiered just last July. The piece featured two couples dancing apart and in tandem to the poetry of Sorley MacLean, in a stately and even introspective piece.

Much of the rest of the concert, however, spotlighted the individual dancers working solo and with the group to showcase the busy nature of the Hubbard Street 2 style. The brand new piece “Unspoken Barriers,” premiered in Chicago only a few weeks before the LC date, literally spotlighted the talents of female troupe members, who worked within the confines of a circle of light, while the males jerked and popped in the shadows.

The duo piece “Call the Whole Thing Off” characterized the separation between the dancers in a humorous way- while a male, then a female talked incessantly about the details of their day, the other danced solo, unseen by their busily chattering partner.

My favorite pieces of the evening, however, were the works that showcased all of the dancers together. While spinning in their own orbits, the dancers also worked together to create visual intersections that at times were effective indeed. The ends of each half were the obvious pay-off punches. The end of the first half, “Dirti Rok,” which included some frank sexual simulations, and the end of the second half, “Stand Back” all relied on upbeat world music to set the tone. This allowed the dancers to open up and throw themselves into the heat of the music, the quick tempos well-suiting the vigor of Hubbard Street 2.

But the most resonant piece of the evening for me was the opener, titled “The Restless.” The dancers were all dressed in black outfits, designed so that the dancers’ skin itself became part of the visual make-up of the piece. Perhaps it was the uniformity of the costumes, or perhaps it was just superior choreography, but “The Restless” succeeded in bringing together the busy physical work of the dancers and their relationship with each other on stage. Yes, the result was dynamic, but not a wild and crazy dynamism like “Dirti Rok” and “Stand Back,” but a controlled and substantive one- something that said from the very beginning of the show that being athletic and precise wasn’t all there was to this dance company. 

Def Leppard/Journey, Budweiser Events Center, Loveland, October 17, 2006.

When Def Leppard wound up the main portion of their aggressive, energetic set at the Budweiser Events Center on October 17 and exited the stage, the huge screen behind the band’s gear lit up with a simple word: “Yeah!” Yeah! indeed, because while the word is the title of Def Leppard’s latest release- a collection of handpicked covers- it also simply described the rock and roll power both Leppard and current touring mates Journey stoked up at the BEC on the eve of the area’s first snow storm of the season.

It may have been cold and blowing outside, but the bands insured that the inside of the BEC was rock and roll hot all evening. Journey opened the show with a set that made me write, “This is the opening band?” in my notes- it was so full and strong. Then Def Leppard heaped a lot more swagger onto the pile. In both cases, there was a lot of flailing guitar, lots of flashing lights and plenty for the crowd to sing along to- just about everything you could ever want from a classic rock show.

Now, this show was a kind of encore performance in the area for this successful band pairing and their show at Red Rocks earlier this year was sold out. While I’m sure the Red Rocks show was great, the estimated 3800 rock fans who gathered at the BEC last night may have gotten the better end of the deal. It seemed obvious that the production for this tour was designed for bigger venues. Even at the back of the hall, the huge video screen behind the stage seemed like it was in your face. Add the ever-changing lighting rigs and the bands themselves- spread luxuriously across the stage- and you have a visually stunning experience that was larger than life within the relatively intimate confines of the BEC. It felt like seeing an arena show in a nightclub and it didn’t seem like the cheering fans in northern Colorado missed the point either. The crowd and the bands synched in together, creating a wall-to-wall celebration throughout the night.

Journey’s opening set hit the mark with the showmanship savvy only many years of experience could teach. Not only did they have their sack full of familiar radio hits to play with, but they also were very adept at working the stage- members constantly moving, inciting the crowd, posing and generally mimicking the basic drama inherent in Journey’s music. These guys knew the business of rock and roll showmanship and while they were obviously pandering to what the crowd expects out of a rock show- taking various poses with different groupings of band members throughout the show, for example- it worked beautifully.

Founding member Neil Schon began the show with a wailing guitar solo and then was joined on stage by longtime band mates Ross Valory on bass and Jonathan Cain on keyboards. Deen Castronovo not only played drums, but also turned in some lead vocals. But the main vocal chores fell to Jeff Scott Soto, who is subbing in for Journey’s other vocalist Steve Augeri on this tour.

Soto, as a kind of an unknown quantity, not only covered the vocal parts of the band’s classic material with aplomb, his higher register voice soaring on top of all that electricity, but he also served to tie Journey to the present. Throwing himself into the performance with abandon, Soto, who mentioned living in Fort Collins back in the 1980s for “6 to 8 months,” was energetic indeed and his movement on the stage gave the set a kind of youthful shot in the arm.

Then Def Leppard took the stage and did the same thing- dominated the situation with plenty of experienced rock and roll rabble rousing. Vocalist Joe Elliott, often waving and twirling his mike stand around, was in constant motion throughout the evening, as were the others in the band. In this case, a set of risers surrounding drummer Rick Allen’s kit served to give the musicians somewhere to go other than from side to side of the stage, especially bassist Rick Savage. Def Leppard’s music is a little rawer, more gut level than Journey’s music, often working an infectious groove as a foundation, shoveling some effective guitar riffs into the middle, then adding fist pumping, sing along vocals on top- and that’s exactly what the crowd at the BEC did, shout along with nearly every song.

It was fun to hear Leppard’s take on some covers, like the T Rex tune they played at the BEC and a smoking version of David Essex’s old hit “Rock On.” But finally it was Def Leppard’s mega-hit “Rocket” that sealed the deal with a driving groove, some unscripted musical exploration and some great video work. Guitarists Vivian Campbell and Phil Collen took full advantage of the risers behind Allen to indulge in some entertaining dueling guitars during the tune. Mix in some flame pods and a shower of sparks and you have a rock and roll spectacle that excites no matter who the band is.

Honestly, I was never really a fan of either of these bands- but I am now thanks to both of the units’ dedication to keeping the rock and roll accessible and entertaining. It gave me the juice to hit the road after the show- plowing right into the blowing snow and blinding spray from the semi-trucks on the Interstate. Even though my windshield was icing up, slush was collecting all over my vehicle and I couldn’t really tell if what was in front of me on the highway was wet pavement or slick black ice, I was cooking along with purpose thanks to the good dose of rock and roll spirit Journey and Def Leppard imparted. Coming up at the BEC: Godsmack, with Breaking Benjamin and Hourcast, on November 11.

Ziggy Marley, Aggie Theatre, Fort Collins, October 28, 2006.

By the time Ziggy Marley got to the end of his set at the Aggie Theatre last night, it was new music that capped off a night that had been given over to a lot of old music. The “old” music included the best of familiar Ziggy material, as well as a big chunk of classic Bob Marley songs. But in the end, it was Ziggy’s new “Love is My Religion” that sealed the deal with an energetic and celebratory flourish.

Now, if you were the eldest offspring of the revered reggae king Bob Marley, you would probably HAVE to include your father’s material in your show- especially if your vocals sound very close to the original artist. And the current Ziggy show makes sure that is well taken care of. During the course of the two hour concert, Ziggy interspersed Bob songs into the set list with a comfortable regularity. These included “Positive Vibration,” “Is This Love?” a rousing, buoyant version of “Jamming” and the dark and funky “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry).” A major highlight of Bob’s old tunes was “No More Trouble,” performed by Ziggy and his two accompanying vocalists with particular passion.

But Ziggy’s own music was also met with plenty of enthusiasm. “Conscious Party” elicited the same kind of dancing and singing along that his father’s familiar stuff inspired. The same was true for “Tomorrow People.” The inter-racial love song, “Lee and Molly,” was one of the strongest and deepest old Ziggy tunes of the evening.

The new stuff- choice tunes from Ziggy’s latest release, “Love is My Religion”- was just as well received. I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare that two new songs- set opener “Make Some Music” and “A Lifetime”- were both fresh, lively and poignant. To be honest, I hadn’t heard the songs before and am matching up new titles to what I heard last night. But there was no mistaking the last song of the night. The encore, which was lead off by the elder Marley’s emotive “No Woman, No Cry,” kicked into the new record’s title song, “Love is My Religion” and it had the crowd singing along with abandon.

This is one of the keys to the kind of reggae Ziggy, and his father before him, practiced- a dance music with stand out phrases that the audience can sing along, or chant, to. In this way, Ziggy’s latest addition to this classic style vein of reggae is top notch. The refrain “Love is my religion,” was easy for the crowd to not only pick up but also carry through with as the song ended the show with an upbeat flair. But further, this phrase- “Love is my religion”- has some import as a philosophical statement- a way of entertaining the people and educating them at the same time.

For all the musicians on stage- seven band members, Ziggy and the two vocalists- the music at the Aggie had a controlled lightness that was refreshing compared to a lot of shows. Most bands, serious artists or not, seem to be bent on overpowering their audiences these days, pummeling them with ever-increasing volume and instrumental prowess. Ziggy’s band maintains a certain reserve as they play, allowing the grooves to work their magic more naturally. This also gave them somewhere to go when it was time to amp up- like for “Lee and Molly” and the closing tune. Kudos to this band for showing a mature sense of dynamics- and for stirring up a good time indeed.

Acoustic Africa: Habib Koite, Vusi Mahlasela and Dobet Gnahore, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, October 30, 2006.

There was nothing polite or perfunctory about the ovation the crowd gave the Acoustic Africa show at the Lincoln Center last night. It was more of a gut-level response- kind of a physical need to get up and cheer. The crowd’s spirit seemed to just want to cry out “Yes!!” by the time the featured performers- Habib Koite, Vusi Mahlasela and Dobet Gnahore- got through a two hour celebration of contemporary African music. This show was something really special and everyone seemed to know it.

Presented by Putumayo, a world music label, Acoustic Africa put on display the individual talents of Koite, Mahlasela and Gnahore- which were each formidable in their own right. Koite, from Mali, is a naturally charismatic figure on stage and matches that presence with dynamic vocals and a strong, fleet guitar style. South African Mahlasela’s guitar sound was a little brighter and lighter and his vocals went far beyond just covering a melody. Gnahore, making her US concert debut on this tour, not only demonstrated her own unique vocal gifts- fluttering like a bird here, shouting with purpose there- as well as an electrifying stage presence. When Gnahore, from the Ivory Coast, broke into dance, which she did often throughout the evening, there was no sense of reserve in the least. She literally threw herself into the music at times and that kind of energy is infectious.

The music each performer played was overall complex, sophisticated and flavorful. The guitar work of both Koite and Mahlasela often reflected the unique characteristics of African guitar- those fluid high-end flourishes that can be heard in music from all over the continent- but also unique use of jazz and classical chording. Of course, the polyrhythmic grooves were often percussion driven but the backing band also used a marimba, violin and harmonica to add extra spice. But then don’t forget those great overlapping vocals firing back and forth across the stage- and even in the audience, as the crowd was encouraged to sing along several times. Put it all together and you have something undeniably uplifting.

Indeed, it was when the trio started jamming together with the eight piece backing band, that things REALLY got cooking. The key here is that it sure looked like everyone on stage- eleven musicians in all- was having a blast. People were dancing, the grooves were rolling and hot guitar licks, rippling talking drum and wailing voices fused for a rowdy riot of fun. Who could resist? Not the crowd at the Lincoln Center. I saw people jump to their feet in apparent joy at the climax of the concert and heard some of the most hearty, natural cheers that I’ve heard in a long time.

Personally, I walked out of the Lincoln Center feeling genuinely recharged and thinking to myself “That was great! That was REALLY great!!” There’s no other way to describe the Acoustic Africa tour.

Brian Boitano’s Skating Spectacular, Budweiser Events Center, Loveland, December 16, 2006.

For a first time covering a skating event, Brian Boitano’s Skating Spectacular at the Budweiser Events Center on December 16 was very cool. You couldn’t have asked for a better position for a photographer- right at the ice’s edge on one end- and the athletes were top notch. Add in a little live music from world music chart-toppers Celtic Woman, attractive, well-designed staging and a near sell-out crowd offering the performers an appreciative reception. Let’s also throw in that the event was being taped by NBC for broadcast on January 1 and you have a memorable experience.

Now I called the skaters “athletes” because despite the smooth artfulness of figure skating, there was a lot of physicality to it that speaks to sport just as strongly as it does to art. Sure the costumes were colorful and the skating was full of deliberately dramatic posing and posturing. But the continual body lifts, occasional feats of acrobatics and general whirling and twirling demanded much more than artifice- like dance but balanced on the thin edge of the skate and constantly in motion.

The skills needed to make this look good happened to be champion’s skills and Boitano surrounded himself on the ice with plenty of champions, including two-time US National Champion Michael Weiss, eight-time British National Champion Steven Cousins, 2004 Skate American Silver Medalist Ryan Jahnke and 2004 National Championships fourth place winner Amber Corwin. These skaters, including Boitano, turned in energetic solo performances.

The pair skaters- including 2002 Olympic Gold Medalists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, 1994 World Champion and U.S. National Pairs Champion Yuka Sato with husband Jason Dungjen and two-time World Professional Pairs Champions, Elena Leionova and Andrei Khvalko- delivered the full artistic package of figure skating that naturally begs for a male/female balance. That all three pairs were married couples underscored the closeness these skaters must develop to work well together on the ice. The couples, featuring a number of nationalities, also helped underscore the “world culture” theme that ran lightly through the production.

Throughout the show, the five-member vocal group Celtic Woman took the stage at the far end of the ice in bright, vibrant dresses to perform selections of their original ethereal music. If I had one critical comment to make about this part of the presentation, I would have to suggest that Celtic Woman was underutilized. While their moments on stage fit perfectly with the skating, so did the prerecorded music, piped in with such clarity that the live music and canned music were nearly indistinguishable, other than the visual image of the five women on stage.

If I were to pick my favorite parts of the Skating Spectacular, they would almost all have to do with the dramatic poses and confident movement of the Russians- Leionova and Khvalko. They were ALWAYS exciting when on the ice.

After the main part of the show was completed, Boitano took a mike and explained to the crowd that the time had come for the performers to do some retakes on some of the more difficult moves they attempted with mixed results.  To me, this was the most revealing part of the evening. Of course, figure skating is a lot about making things look perfectly smooth and calm, but mistakes will happen and while the television audience will see only  the completed edit of the program, the BEC crowd got to watch these skaters work determinately on making those moves right.

Some of the performers did two or more retakes on the difficult stuff and it was actually great to see them trying so hard to succeed. Perhaps this sent the best message of all- perfection is a great goal, but you have to work VERY hard to get it. In other words, behind the mask of figure skating sweetness is a face of desire and determination and the retakes allowed the audience to see that clearly. Their applause when the skaters finally did nail their moves was perhaps stronger and more genuine than during the show itself.

January Recommended: Best Concerts of 2006

I turned 50 in 2006 and can report that despite the predictions of doom that usually go with the half century mark, there’s still some real rock and roll fire in my “old” engine.

I got to see some top acts in 2006- Petty and Pearl Jam, The Who, Roger Waters (at the Hollywood Bowl)- and photograph some top acts- Dave Matthews, The Fray- as well as cover a national radio broadcast- A Prairie Home Companion- a taping for a national television broadcast- Brian Boitano’s Skating Spectacular at the Budweiser Events Center- and the area visit of a world spiritual leader- the Dalai Lama. Throw in sets by artists as diverse as The New Cars, Cris Williamson, Yellowcard, Doug Kershaw, The BoDeans, Dinosaur Jr., Rosanne Cash and Ozric Tentacles and you’ve got an outstanding year.

Speaking of fire- at the top of my concert list for 2006 was Tool’s incendiary show at Coors Amphitheatre on August 30. Even from the back of the crowd- literally- the drama of Tool’s heavy rock mixed with striking, innovative staging was undeniably powerful. Here’re my top ten concerts for 2006:

1- Tool- Coors Amphitheatre, Aug. 30. With the entirety of the staging turned into a big video screen, Tool performed inside the imagery for their triumphant “10,000 Days” tour. Even dynamic vocalist Maynard James Keenan got lost in the swirl of sound and sights that has become the most effective progressive rock show on the road.
2- Acoustic Africa- Lincoln Center, Oct. 30.  Three contemporary African stars- Habib Koite, Vusi Mahlasela, Dobet Gnahore- combined considerable talents for one of the best shows in memory at the Lincoln Center. The upbeat, positive nature of African music combined with the infectious attitudes of the performers made this a welcome breath of fresh air. Also great at the Lincoln Center: a taping of nationally syndicated radio program E-Town, featuring Nickel Creek and Mike Marshall, on January 22.

3-Pearl Jam/Tom Petty- Pepsi Center, Jul. 2.  Pearl Jam’s set alone was enough to enthrall the crowd, but then Petty and the Heartbreakers added some rock and roll class. Let’s throw The Who’s November 14 show at the Pepsi Center, also featuring The Pretenders, in this “too-good-to-go-away” slot too.

4-NewWestFest- Downtown Fort Collins, Aug. 18-20. Wide, wide musical diversity supported by pro production made the annual Fort Collins street fair a feast of Colorado music- again. This year’s headliners, The B-52s and Nickel Creek, were the only out-of-state guests. My favorites: The Piggies, 18 Wheeler and Glass Ceiling.

5- A Prairie Home Companion- Budweiser Events Center, May 6. Garrison Keillor and crew brought a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion to the BEC and in the process featured several regional acts including Halden Wofford and the Hi Beams. The best rock show of the year at the BEC was the October 17 double-bill Journey and Def Leppard.

6- John Hiatt- Aggie Theatre, June 25.  Teamed up with young southern rockers the North Mississippi All-Stars, top shelf songwriter John Hiatt was also an exciting performer, mixing equal measures of grit and heart. Other great shows at the Aggie in 2006: Medeski, Martin and Wood on January 12, Dwight Yoakam on August 18 and Ziggy Marley on October 28.

7- Reverend Horton Heat- Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Jul 21.  Combined with two other great acts- punk rockers Throwrag and shockabilly band the Horrorpops- the Reverend Horton Heat’s date at Mishawaka was nothing but rock and roll fun. Also great at Mishawaka: the Buckethead/Bernie Worrell show on June 16.

8- Sounds of the Underground- City Lights Pavilion, Jul. 31. Honed down from last year’s throat-ripping onslaught, the Sounds of the Underground Tour was much better this year thanks to concise sets by Trivium, Behemoth, In Flames, Cannibal Corpse and, my favorite, Gwar.

9- Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals- Red Rocks, Aug. 23. At Red Rocks, Harper proved that social consciousness and dynamic funky rock still go together. Add the free-flow reggae rapping of Damian Marley for an uplifting night on the Rocks.

10- The Fray- Moby Arena, Mar. 26. CSU’s Moby got fired up with live music once again, this time by the nationally popular, tuneful Colorado band The Fray. The event was a student-run production and succeeded mightily with the Fray’s musical mix of power and emotion.

In a new category, I have to mention the area’s Best Club Shows: the smooth jazz/bluegrass fusion of Pete Wernick and Flexigrass at Avogadro’s Number on May 5 and the exciting country rock of the Texas Sapphires at Swing Station on August 15.

Venue of the Year: the streets and parks of Fort Collins for hosting the live music at NewWestFest and the numerous other regular event series in Old Town, Civic Center Park and the CSU lagoon.

January Recommended

Each New Year I try to narrow my concert experiences down to a top ten list- comparing the big time shows in Denver to the local stages in my year-round quest for great live tunes. This year, however, I am going to take two shows out of the running from the start- that is the November 2005 double-whammy of Pepsi Center shows by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones. Let’s just say that those guys are in a league of their own and it’s tough for anybody in show business to compete with the massive weight of their music history and the state of the art staging they wield- only the best for living legends.

Here are my top ten concerts for 2005, or the Best of the Rest:

1- April 28- Sarah McLachlan/May 1- Motley Crue, Budweiser Events Center. Within just a few days of each other, northern Colorado saw top notch productions that couldn’t have illustrated the difference between men and women better. McLachlan’s show was picture perfect, balancing on a fine line between sensitivity and musical power. Motley just came in and rocked with feisty resolve, surrounded by bawdy rock and roll circus side shows. Let’s just go ahead and throw in shows by Rod Stewart (with a complete orchestra) on April 5, Randy Travis on August 5 for the Larimer County Fair, concerts by Steppenwolf and Alice Cooper for the inaugural Thunder in the Rockies motorcycle rally in September and a late date show by Christian rockers the Newsboys on December 29 and the BEC remains the northern region’s powerhouse entertainment outlet.

2- August 18- Tom Petty, Red Rocks. Classic rock doesn’t get any better than Petty’s Red Rock shows this summer- turning the Rocks into air guitar heaven for three sold out nights. Also great at Red Rocks: Lyle Lovett on July 8 and Van Morrison, playing one of only four US dates, on June 10.

3- August 20-21, NewWestFest. This year’s NewWestFest featured multiple stages and a constantly rotating roster of the region’s best bands, including Wendy Woo, Yo, Flaco!, the Motet, Rose Hill Drive and more. Great summer fun!

4- July 2- KOOL Concert- Coors Amphitheatre, Denver. Little Richard capped off the KOOL oldies show and what a character he was, mopping his face while digging into elemental rock and roll. Also great at Coors: The Sugarwater Festival, featuring Erykah Badu, on August 2, Iron Maiden and Rob Zombie on August 9, and Devo on August 23.

5- July 31- Sounds of the Underground- Pavilion, Denver. An onslaught of 16 throat ripping bands including Gwar, Lamb of God, Opeth, Clutch and more.

6- May 31- Mars Volta- Fillmore Auditorium, Denver. The Mars Volta proved to be intensely electric and dead-on serious about it with shifting rock and Latin grooves.

7- June 26- Captured By Robots- Aggie Theatre. Surrounded by malevolent musical robot creations, J-Bot, the human performer, is a creative genius.

8- March 29- Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard- Fillmore. Dylan continues to do his rough-cut electric boogie woogie thing while Merle Haggard was on a roll with his band and the audience.

9- October 15- Porcupine Tree- Fox Theatre, Boulder. I finally got hip to the progressive rock of Porcupine Tree and their Fox show was highly dramatic and satisfying.

10- November 17- Jethro Tull, Paramount Theatre, Denver. My old favorites continue to make the crowd cheer.

Venue of the Year: This year I’d like to recognize the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins as the Venue of the Year. While great concerts are happening all over the region, all the time, the Aggie has ensured that a vast diversity of music keeps coming to downtown Fort Collins. Besides the Top Ten show by Captured by Robots last June, the Aggie also brought in Flavor Flav, Garage A Trois, Gov’t Mule, Matt Nathanson and much more in 2005. Coming up at the Aggie in 2006: Medeski, Martin and Wood on January 12, the Wailers on January 19 and Zilla on January 20.

February Recommended

The Mid-Winter Bluegrass Festival is set for February 17-19 at the Northglenn Ramada Plaza. This year’s lineup includes the Roni Stoneman Show, BlueRidge, the Special Consensus, Frank Ray and Cedar Hill, the Hit and Run Bluegrass Band, the Bluegrass Patriots and many more, along with the usual events and workshops.

However, something new this year is a free educator’s workshop called “Utilizing American Roots Music- Bluegrass in the Classroom.” The five-hour course will include live presentations focusing on instruments and vocal harmony structures as well as the opportunity to take a banjo lesson. The workshop occurs on Saturday, February 18. Call 303-485-5222 for info.

Performance Poetry: Sparrows is Colorado’s annual performance poetry festival in Salida, scheduled this year for March 2-5. Performances, workshops, open mics and more keep writers busy for the entire weekend. But a version of Sparrows is touring select cities this year. Sparrows on Tour will be visiting the Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins on Sunday, February 12, and will feature performances by groups such as Art Compost and the Word Mechanics and other Sparrows performers. Also playing at the Bas Bleu: Brecht’s “Mother Courage” through April 1.

Jars of Clay: Christian rockers Jars of Clay will be performing live at the Timberline Church in Fort Collins on Friday, February 24. Bringing “redemption songs and stories,” Jars of Clay will be joined by Sara Groves and Derek Webb. Call 482-4387 for info.

Lincoln Center: The nationally syndicated radio program Etown traveled abroad from its usual digs in Boulder to the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins for a special show taping on January 22.  The performance hall was full too, thanks to the popularity of featured group Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek performed a couple of chunks of their bright and energetic acoustic music, they also sat on a couch with host Nick Forster and displayed just as much youthful energy during an interview. Mandolinist Chris Thile also played duets with mando master Mike Marshall and everybody got together for a rousing finale. The evening also included the awarding of an “Echievement” award and some taping of radio show necessities by co-host Helen Forster. The concert and interviews will be edited and broadcast on a regular Etown radio show in the future.

On February 1, the River North Chicago Dance Company brought swirling colors and flowing gowns to the Lincoln Center stage as part of the Dance Series. Elegant and showy, the company’s costumes played a big role in creating pleasant images in otherwise Spartan stage conditions. A little stage fog and sparse lighting accentuated the company’s stage presence. Within this framework, the dancers writhed, busy personal motion accompanying the grander group movement, informing the viewer that there is much more here than eye candy. The male solo dance “Beat” typified this, Miguel Perez twisting furiously in a single spotlight. While offering some visual trickery- like the second half of “Take a Seat” when the dancers wore folding chairs on their backs, legs sticking out awkwardly- what was important here was the flow of the colors and the tension built by dancers caught in its sway.

Coming up at the Lincoln Center: Pianist Jim Brickman has added a second show to his February 11 date at the Lincoln Center, playing at 3 pm. The 7:30 pm show is sold out. “The Masked Marvel,” Michael Cooper will be performing February 9-10 at 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm. And the powerful drama, “The Trip to Bountiful,” will be playing at the Lincoln Center, February 14-17. Opening February 25: OpenStage production “The Solid Gold Cadillac.”

March Recommended

Contemporary dance styles will take center stage for two powerful upcoming nights. To kick things off, the New Visions Dance Festival begins a two-night stand at the Lincoln Center on Friday, March 31. Sponsored by the Dance Connection, the event showcases pieces chosen in a juried competition and will continue on Saturday, April 1.

Also on April 1, the Lincoln Center will present “Break! The Urban Funk Spectacular,” a “cutting edge dance show” featuring high-impact movements from the world of break dancing, locking, “electric boogaloo” or “popping,” and power tumbling. “Break!” performers have all been featured as soloist dancers in worldwide performances with show business legends including Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson, Ringo Starr, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, and bring “an American art form which finds its roots in the streets of the Inner City” to the Lincoln Center. Info about these shows and more: 221-6730.

Steve Conway: Fort Collins singer-songwriter Steve Conway will be celebrating the release of his new CD, “It’s About Time,” at Avogadro’s Number on March 23. The title song of Conway’s album is kind of pensive, taking a serious look at life, but throughout the other nine tracks, Conway mixes plenty of upbeat material in with the more wistful with ease. Recorded in Tennessee, the disc exhibits top notch production values and strong, innovative arrangements. Also coming to Avo’s: a KRFC Live at Lunch show with Doug Kershaw on March 21, Greg Trooper on March 26, The Commoners on April 7 and Robin and Linda Williams on April 9.

Theatre: Rabbit Hole Radio Theatre, an artistic endeavor of OpenStage Theatre, presents its “Season Finale Celebration” with a live performance of the final episode from the radio series “Mythologica,” at Avogadro’s on March 25. As a radio series, “Mythologica” has been broadcasting on KRFC 88.9 FM on Sunday evenings.

North Mississippi All-Stars: Last year I missed the North Mississippi All-Stars show at the Aggie Theatre. However, I did catch the trio earlier in the day for a brief acoustic show at the Finest Records. Stripped down and with no electricity, the band still played a tasty and funky music, raw in its sound, but infectious in its urgency. The band is returning to the Aggie on March 19 and this time I’m hoping to catch them but plugged in this time. Also coming to the Aggie: Exene Cervenka and the Original Sinners on March 12, Shakedown Street on March 25, Rose Hill Drive on March 30, Kan’Nal on April 6 and Toots and the Maytals on April 7.

More music: The Trillville and Afroman show originally scheduled for February 10 at the Budweiser Events Center has been rescheduled for April 6- tickets available now. Bluegrass legend Tim O’Brien will be at the Sunset Events Center on Friday, March 10. Also on March 10, Fort Collins musician Tim Hanauer celebrates the release of a new CD at the Starlight. Also at the Starlight: Drag the River on March 17. Also on March 17, Jimmy Vanzant will be at the White Buffalo in Loveland. Peace Officer will be at Mishawaka on March 25. Also at Mish: Shanti Groove on April 8.

Looking ahead: Buckethead April 13-14 at the Aggie. Leon Redbone at the Rialto Theater in Loveland on April 21. And Steve Forbert at Avogadro’s on April 28.

April Recommended

To celebrate the reunion of one of alternative rock’s most storied bands, Dinosaur Jr., I took out my old vinyl SST copy of “You’re Living All Over Me” and turned it up. That’s the only proper way to listen to this primal electric meltdown music. It just doesn’t work on lower volumes. Though a little hard on the ears vocally, it’s all made up for by guitarist J. Mascis, who is a raging rock genius on his instrument.

After a much-documented break-up, original members Mascis, Murph on drums and Lou Barlow on bass, have recently been recording and touring together again. That includes dates at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, April 15-16. Dinosaur Jr. has also announced plans to release their first ever DVD. This full length concert DVD was filmed at New York’s legendary Irving Plaza in December 2005, and at other shows along the band’s December tour. Look for the DVD to be released this summer.

Cris Williamson: Perhaps the polar opposite of Dinosaur Jr.’s raging rock is the sincerity of the music of singer-songwriter Cris Williamson. And thanks especially to her 1970s release, “The Changer and the Changed,” Williamson has contributed plenty to contemporary music. That album and others are some of the cornerstones to a significant movement of women’s music and still stands today as an inspirational and touching achievement. Williamson is currently doing select tour dates to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Changer,” including a single date at the Boulder Theater on April 15. Joining Williamson on stage along the tour route will be a cast of musicians and friends to include Vicki Randle, Teresa Trull, Barbara Higbie, and Julie Wolf. Special guests so far have included Holly Near and Bonnie Raitt

BEC: If you didn’t get your tickets for the Prairie Home Companion show at the Budweiser Events Center on May 6, you’re out of luck. It was the quickest sell-out in the history of the venue- 13 minutes. Still, there’s more family entertainment on tap: Australian children’s entertainers the Wiggles bring their world tour to the BEC on May 7. Before that, however, Latino hip hopper Pitbull plays the BEC on April 29 with guest artists Domenic Marte, MC Magic and La Sinfonia.

More Music: Avogadro’s Number has a strong upcoming schedule, including Big Black Cadillac on April 21, singer-songwriter Steve Forbert on April 28 and Pete Wernick and Flexigrass on May 5. Also coming to the area, anachronistic man of mystery Leon Redbone brings his “neo-vaudeville” crooning to the Rialto Theater in Loveland on April 21. Mannheim Steamroller, known for their groundbreaking “Fresh Aire” releases, combining pristine sound quality with progressive instrumental music, will be playing the Union Colony Civic Center- with orchestra- in Greeley, April 29-30.

The FortJazz Big Band, directed by Mark Manges, will present a “Big Band Swing Dance” at the Sunset Events Center on April 15. Coming to the Aggie Theatre in May: surf guitar god Dick Dale and regional rockers Jett Black on May 5 and Ministry on May 13. Up the canyon: the schedule is starting to heat up at the Mishawaka Inn in the Poudre Canyon. For example, check out the 2nd annual Pickin’ on the Poudre Bluegrass Festival on May 12-13. Coming this summer to Mish: Medeski, Martin and Wood on June 10, Rusted Root on July 7 and the Reverend Horton Heat along with the Horrorpops on July 21.

May Recommended

My favorite time of year is fast approaching. That is, the summer concert season- and my calendar is already filling up. I’ve already secured tickets for that sold-out Dave Matthews Band show at the Pepsi Center in Denver on September 12 (a second show was added on September 13- tickets still available.) I’ve also got some Ben Harper tickets for August 23 at Red Rocks and I’m even going for slick pop music on August 22 when sexy bilingual siren Shakira brings her new world tour to the Pepsi Center along with Wyclef Jean. By the time you read this, I also hope to have some Tom Petty/Pearl Jam tickets in hand for what may be the best touring show of the summer, stopping at the Pepsi Center July 2-3.

If I were made of money, I’d also like some tickets to a number of other great summer shows. My short list would include perhaps the most challenging nostalgia-type show coming up- the New Cars and rock and roll hall of famers Blondie at Coors Amphitheatre on May 30. The New Cars features two original members of the Cars, joined by Todd Rundgren and others in a revival of some of the 1970s-80s’ most infectious, edgy hits. I saw a version of Blondie several years ago in New Jersey and was impressed with Deborah Harry’s staying power- so this ought to be very interesting. Other great coming concert events: Big Head Todd and the Monsters at Red Rocks on June 10, the String Cheese Incident with Bob Weir and RatDog at Red Rocks July 1-2, Gipsy Kings at the City Lights Pavilion in Denver on July 15, Lyle Lovett and the subdudes at Red Rocks on July 23 and Reggae on the Rocks, featuring Sinead O’Conner, Ziggy Marley and Sly and Robbie at Red Rocks on August 19. More next issue.

Sonic Bloom: The summer season at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre is also ready to rock. Things will get kicked off with style when several off-shoot bands of the String Cheese Incident- Zilla and Xage– bring their “Sonic Bloom” festival to Mishawaka on May 19-20. It’s a two-day event with music from ten artists on three stages, fire performances, stilt walkers, visionary art and more. Also coming to Mishawaka: Medeski, Martin and Wood on June 10, Blackalicious on June 11, Buckethead with Bernie Worrell and the Woo Warriors on June 16 and Steel Pulse on June 21.

Jazz Whistler: Finally, I made it to Manno’s Grille (at the Collindale Golf Course) for the regular Wednesday night jazz jam headed up by Francesco Bonifazi, also known as the “Jazz Whistler.” Bonifazi is indeed a unique musician, whose most startling talent is turning himself into an instrument (the “puccalo”) and whistling clear, sweet melodies as well as solo runs which another instrumental artist might find hard to match. But Bonafzi, whose recent CD release, “Air Play,” has garnered quite a bit of that on the airwaves, has even more to offer. He plays guitar and sings as well as leads a jazz jam that draws regular players as well as drop-ins. The jam, which on May 3 included standard jazz tunes as well as familiar pop pieces, is currently held in the Manno’s bar area on Wednesday nights from 6-9, but will be moving outside onto the veranda when the weather finally warms up and stays that way. Meanwhile, Bonafazi, a world-class whistling award-winner, is also busy playing and recording with other jazz musicians throughout the country.

Afterword: Dinosaur Jr. reignited their primal rock blowtorch at the Fox Theatre in Boulder on April 14. Women’s music icon Cris Williamson brought the 30th anniversary tour of her “Changer and the Changed” album to the Boulder Theater on April 15 and presented an excellent showcase of contemporary women’s music in the process. And rock and roll lightning struck again at Moby Arena when popular rock band Yellowcard brought their dramatic and challenging progressive music to town on April 22. Opening band Mae was just as effective as Yellowcard at proving rock still has a bright future in the 21st century.

June Recommended

The top area concert date in June is happening right in downtown Fort Collins. That is, the John Hiatt/ North Mississippi All-Stars show at the Aggie Theatre on June 25. Hiatt is a veteran singer-songwriter, whose credits include “Thing Called Love” and “Have a Little Faith In Me” and a truck full of other tunes made popular by a variety of artists. The North Mississippi All-Stars is a gritty young unit of rockers with plenty of accomplishments of their own. Last year, Hiatt and the All-Stars toured together and the response was so positive, they’re back at it again. Besides the Aggie show on Sunday, June 25, the tour is also playing the Ogden Theater in Denver on June 24 and Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on June 26. Also coming to the Aggie: Shakedown Street on June 17, Hank III on June 20, 3 Peas on July 1 and Garaj Mahal on July 13.

Buckethead: The strange image that is Buckethead- performing in a mask with a KFC bucket for a hat- is only the sideshow. What matters when this purposely enigmatic figure takes the stage is the progressive guitar work that comes blasting from his instrument. But then add in the genius that is keyboardist Bernie Worrell, long a mainstay sideman for everybody from Parliament/Funkadelic to the Talking Heads, and also a longtime bandleader, his group the Woo Warriors a funky and electric unit. Together, this concert bill makes for a strong night of progressive music at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre on June16. Also coming to the Mish: Medeski, Martin and Wood on June 10, Blackalicious on June 11, Steel Pulse on June 21, Kan ‘Nal on June 23, Rusted Root on July 7 and Little Feat on July 8.

Taste of Fort Collins: The annual Taste of Fort Collins event celebrates its 10th year with a two day feast of local music and cuisine on June 10-11 in Civic Center Park, corner of Laporte and Mason. Regional bands this year include the Lindsay O’Brien Band, Christopher Jak, 12 Cents For Marvin, Savage Henry, Rachel’s Playpen, Something Underground and Brethren Fast. But more, the Taste also brings in headlining entertainment, this year featuring Better Than Ezra on June 10 and the BoDeans on June 11.

More music: Fort Collins singer-songwriter Matt Campbell will be celebrating the release of his second CD, “Out Amongst the Shadows,” at the Starlight on June 29. The show will also mark the first release from Wayward Recordings, a label Campbell has co-founded to “grow the fertile music scene here.” An art show will precede the music. Coming to the Foote Lagoon in Loveland: Chris Daniels and the Kings on June 29 and Celeste Krenz on July 13.

In the region: After two highly successful tours with Earth, Wind and Fire, venerable horn band Chicago returns to Red Rocks on June 20, this time with Huey Lewis and the News for openers. The String Cheese Incident co-headline with Bob Weir and RatDog at Red Rocks on July 1-2 (Taj Mahal opens on July 2). Tom Petty and Pearl Jam co-headline at the Pepsi Center in Denver, July 2-3. Also, Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold and more play Coors Amphitheatre on July 5, Kinks genius Ray Davies performs a rare show at the Paramount Theatre in Denver on July 6, AFI is at the Fillmore on July 11 and the Gipsy Kings play the City Lights Pavilion in Denver on July 15.

Francesco Bonifazi: In the last issue, I misspelled Fort Collins musician Francesco Bonifazi’s name. Bonifazi, known as the Jazz Whistler, has become a leading area musician with plenty of radio exposure for his CD release “Air Play,” a lot of unusual guest appearances- with bluegrass bands and jazz and blues players- and continues to facilitate a jazz jam at Manno’s Grille every Wednesday.

July Recommended

Summertime means plenty of outdoor live music action in the region and that includes the traditional free music series that abound in Fort Collins. At the Lincoln Center, for example, respected bluegrass quartet the Special Consensus play the Live and Out to Lunch series from noon-1 on July 14. That series continues on July 21 with African Wind. The Lincoln Center also hosts a free Children’s Series, featuring Mr. Shine on July 19 from 11-noon. Closing out the Lincoln Center’s First Friday evening performances, starting at 7:30, will be the Rock Doctors on August 4.

The CSU Lagoon concert series returns with a regional jazz favorite, keyboardist Mark Sloniker, on July 19. More jazz is on tap when the FortJazz Big Band plays the Lagoon series on July 26. These shows start at 6:30 pm. And the regular Thursday evening series in Civic Center Park continues with A Prairie Home Companion favorite Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams on July 20, upbeat ska band 12 Cents for Marvin on July 27 and blues rockers Union Break on August 3. These performances begin at 6 pm.

Avo’s: Summer weather brings some outdoor music opportunities at Avogadro’s Number. That includes a date with banjo master Pete Wernick and his groundbreaking band Flexigrass on July 14. Wernick and band fuse bluegrass, blues, jazz and Dixieland styles while mixing the sounds of banjo, clarinet, vibes and more. Their style is cool yet dynamic- perfect for a summer evening. Also coming to Avo’s: the Third Annual Avo’s Backyard Bluegrass Festival with Hit and Run Bluegrass, the Long Road Home and the Blue Canyon Boys on July 22.
Mishawaka: Blazing, ripping guitar work challenged the roar of the river itself when enigmatic guitarist Buckethead brought his powerful progressive instrumental rock to the Mishawaka Amphitheatre on June 16. In addition, opener Bernie Worrell served up an electric funk that had even the canyon rocks bumping. But just as interesting were some side stage performances, one by jazz fusion band Octopus Nebula and another by Diagnosis Awesome (featuring a live bassist jamming with a video clip of a drummer in Germany.) These touches of regional talent combined with the headliners to give the event a positive festival feel in the casual Mishawaka environment. Coming up at Mish:  Liz Barnez, Rebecca Folsom and Celeste Krenz on July 16, the Rev. Horton Heat with the Horrorpops and Throwrag on July 21, David Grisman on August 5 and Robert Earl Keen on August 11

Aggie Theatre: As predicted, the John Hiatt/North Mississippi All-Stars show at the Aggie Theatre on June 25 was just excellent. With a soulful, expressive voice, great songs with wise, wry lyrics and a young rocking back-up band, Hiatt was grinning from ear to ear and shared the good vibes with an enthusiastic Sunday night crowd. Coming up at the Aggie: Matson Jones on July 28, Big Brother and the Holding Company (yes, Janis Joplin’s original band) on August 9, the Samples on August 13 and country star/part time actor Dwight Yoakum on August 18.

In the region: Widespread Panic camps out in for a two-day stand in Winter Park July 22-23. Fort Collins favorites the subdudes open for Lyle Lovett at Red Rocks on July 23. Slayer’s rescheduled date with Mastodon and Lamb of God at the Fillmore in Denver is on July 26. Collin Raye headlines the Larimer County Fair entertainment at the Budweiser Events Center on August 4. My Chemical Romance and the All-American Rejects play Red Rocks on August 6, hip hop legends the Wu Tang Clan make a rare appearance at the Fillmore on August 9 and classic rockers the James Gang reunite at Red Rocks on August 11. Coming up: the NewWestFest, August 19-20 with the B-52s, Nickel Creek and much more. Update next issue.

August Recommended

You have probably already heard about the big names coming to liven up this year’s NewWestFest- bigtime party band the B-52s on Saturday, August 19, and classy progressive bluegrass unit Nickel Creek on Sunday, August 20- but there is so much more music to check out. Like last year’s great time, multiple stages will be featuring a wide diversity of Colorado bands.

It all starts on Friday, August 18 with an evening performance by soulful vocalist Hazel Miller, but then get ready for a flood of live music. On Saturday, in various locations, NewWestFest will be presenting such bands as White Water Ramble, Love .45, Dave Beegle, Queen City Jazz Band and Black Pegasus. On Sunday, see Nelson Rangell, Mark Sloniker, the Lannie Garrett Big Band and Halden Wofford and the Hi Beams. There’s a lot more on the list- 55 bands on 5 stages- and at Fort Collins’ favorite cover charge- free!!

Dwight Yoakam: Not free, but also a great opportunity during NewWestFest weekend is the rare appearance by country star/actor Dwight Yoakam at the Aggie Theatre on August 18.  Yoakam has appeared in such diverse films as “Sling Blade” and “Wedding Crashers” (he plays the associate of a doomed hitman in “Crank,” coming to theaters on September 1) but he has also released plenty of hit singles and multi-million selling albums. His latest record is the self-produced “Blame the Vain.” Popular Fort Collins alt country band Drag the River opens. Also coming to the Aggie: Galactic on August 25 and Drums and Tuba on August 29.

Thunder in the Rockies: So the region did not descend into chaos during last year’s inaugural Thunder in the Rockies motorcycle event at the Ranch in Loveland. So the Thunder is returning this year for the Labor Day weekend- September 1-4- and wildman headliner Ted Nugent will do his best to stir things up at the Budweiser Events Center for the rally on September 1. Metal band Quiet Riot will also be playing the event on a free stage (included in admission fees) on Sunday, September 3.  Also coming to the BEC: Tesla and Slaughter on September 8.

Lincoln Center: Season tickets have already gone on sale for the upcoming 2006-7 season and there’s a lot to look forward to like Randy Newman, Stomp and a production of “Aida.” The Showstopper Series gets kicked off with a fusion of tap dancing and classical music when Classical Savion takes the stage at the LC September 11-14. Stay tuned, there’s a lot more coming up.

In the region: While the NewWestFest rocks Fort Collins, Fort Collins band DaddyRab will be rocking the town of Severance during their annual downtown celebration, playing the park at 7 pm on August 18. Many will say that Johnny Cash defined country music with his long career. Well, his daughter Rosanne Cash went a long way in her career to expand the boundaries of country music with poetic songwriting and a glossy contemporary recording sound. Hear it for yourself when Cash plays Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on August 25. Also coming to Chautauqua: Susan Tedeschi on August 21, David Wilcox on August 26 and Peter Kater on September 2.

Recommended- September

The Lincoln Center’s new season has already kicked in and there’s plenty coming up. In September, for example, the Lincoln Center will be featuring the film, “Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama,” in their Adventure Cinema series on September 25. Also coming in September is the dynamic mix of a light show and live performers called Luma, set for the Lincoln Center on September 29. Dressed in black, Luma performers “use a dark stage as their canvas and paint with light.”

Coming up at the Lincoln Center in October: the Showstopper Series continues with the London smash-hit show “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a production featuring the music of Ray Charles, running October 9-12. The Dance Series begins on October 14 with Hubbard Street II, the Classical Music series begins on October 17 with the Burning River Brass and comedian Richard Jenji- voted by Comedy Central as one of the “100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time”- will perform at the Lincoln Center on October 21.

Budweiser Events Center: Opinionated rocker Ted Nugent kicked off the entertainment for the second annual Thunder in the Rockies motorcycle rally at the Budweiser Events Center on September 1. While Nugent’s guitar was most certainly fired up for the event- and he turned in a blistering set of wailing hard rock- so was Nugent’s mouth. He shared his opinions about all things American, bashing other cultures in the process. Ted was just being Ted and his in-between song exhortations about American quality brought nearly as much reaction in the crowd as the music. That all came to a head when Nugent took out his hunting bow and shot a life size standup of Osama Bin Laden in the chest, all the while yelling “Kill them all!”

A good question for the organizers of the Thunder event is do they really want these kind of opinions to represent the rally? The theme of appreciating the freedoms that we enjoy is always a good reminder, but at the expense of other cultures? Still, Nugent pumped out a raucous version of “Cat Scratch Fever” and his guitar was blazing throughout the night. I guess when you book a controversial rocker like Nugent, you have to take the whole package. Coming up at the BEC: Amy Grant with the Fort Collins Symphony on September 24, the hot twin bill of Def Leppard and Journey on October 17 and Barney and friends on October 21-22.

Afterword: August turned out to be country music month for me, starting with the pop country sounds of Collin Raye at the Budweiser Events Center for the Larimer County Fair on August 4. I followed that up with the elemental, seminal country of Hall-of-Famer Hank Thompson at Swing Station in Laporte on August 5. I returned to Swing Station on August 15 for a sweet surprise indeed- the fresh and energetic country dance music of Austin’s latest greatest band, the Texas Sapphires. (The Texas Sapphires are highly recommended when they come back through again!)

Then country star and actor Dwight Yoakam made a rare appearance in Fort Collins for a hot night at the Aggie Theatre on August 18. Yoakam’s country dug back into the roots of the music and came up with a twangy rock and roll as a result. The next day at the NewWestFest, Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams turned in a powerful set of good time honky tonk country. Finally, I was also able to catch Rosanne Cash’s show at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on August 25. Steeped in country, Cash’s music also displays the care and vision of a poet/singer-songwriter. Let’s add in her deep, rich and expressive voice for a satisfying experience indeed. While I didn’t particularly plan on absorbing so much country music- since raging rock generally suits my mood better- I was glad to find so much diversity in live country sounds.

October Recommended

Journey and Def Leppard, that’s a double concert bill that has become one of the hottest concert tours currently on the road. Their recent stop at Red Rocks, for example, was a sold out show. During the 1980s, Def Leppard compiled a hit list of singles and have sold over 65 million records world wide. Their current release is the new covers album “YEAH,” which hit music stores this last May.

Journey’s career has spanned 30 years, amassing 75 million records sold world wide, which ranks them among the top thirty best selling music groups of all time. Jeff Scott Soto is the lead singer for this leg of the tour, who, in the 1980s, spent time living in Fort Collins. In 2005, Journey released “Generations.” Def Leppard and Journey encore their Red Rocks show with a date at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland on October 17.

Rocktober: The Aggie Theatre has turned the month of October into “Rocktober” on their posters and web site and has the schedule to back it up. That includes a date with “ultimate” Metallica cover band Battery on Rocktober 13, Lucero on Rocktober 20 and new country rock sensation Shooter Jennings, son of the late Waylon Jennings, on Rocktober 25. Also in Rocktober, Ziggy Marley brings his “Love is My Religion Tour” to the Aggie on Rocktober 28, the Aggie features Donavon Frankenreiter on Rocktober 29 and hot area bluegrass fusion band WhiteWater Ramble plays a special Halloween show on Rocktober 31.

More music: Frets magazine calls Willy Porter “a genre-defying maverick” and he’ll be performing at Avogadro’s Number on October 20. On October 21, the Women’s Center of Larimer County presents Women Rock the Rialto, featuring Saffire the Uppity Blues Women, in Loveland on October 21. Coming up at Swing Station in Laporte: Beppe Gambetta, “Europe’s premier flat-picking guitar stylist,” on October 14, Li’l Bit and the Customatics from San Antonio on October 20 and regional favorites Halden Wofford and the Hi Beams on October 28.

Lincoln Center: Tap artist Savion Glover kicked off his current national tour at the Lincoln Center to open the new Showstopper Series schedule. The last show of his five-show run at the Lincoln Center, on September 14, was rousing indeed, Glover tapping to classical music and jazz with a live orchestra. Also rousing, in a friendly way, was Luma, a show featuring black-clad performers manipulating light for cool special effects. From humorous to dreamy, Luma entertained with a “light” heart at the Lincoln Center on September 29.

Coming up at the Lincoln Center: vibrant contemporary dance company Hubbard Street II on October 14, the Burning River Brass on October 17 and comic Richard Jeni on October 21. On October 30, the Lincoln Center will host Acoustic Africa, featuring Putumayo World Music artists Habib Koite, Vusi Mahlasela and Dobet Gnahore.

In the area: With the outdoor concert season winding down, the Fillmore Auditorium schedule in Denver is heating up. That includes a two-night stand by Michael Franti and Spearhead, October 20-21- the Wailers open on October 20. Gomez will open for Robert Randolph and the Family Band in a special Halloween night show, October 31. On November 1, the Fillmore hosts a great double bill when Ozomatli joins Los Lonely Boys on stage.

November Recommended

I saw one of the top concerts I have ever been to at the Lincoln Center on October 30. That is, the Putumayo Acoustic Africa show that featured three contemporary African stars- Habib Koite from Mali, Vusi Mahlasela from South Africa and Dobet Gnahore from the Ivory Coast. Each musician had a riveting style of their own, but then add in the services of an 8-piece band and the generally upbeat nature of African music in general, and you have a live music celebration that moves the body and gladdens the heart all at the same time. By the end of the two-hour workout that spotlighted each of the performers by themselves and together, everybody on stage- and in the audience- seemed to be having a great time. It’s too bad nights like this one ever have to end. Coming up at the Lincoln Center: The Ten Tenors on November 28-December 2 and Randy Newman on January 8-13.

Aggie Theatre:  Ziggy Marley carried on a classic reggae tradition at the Aggie Theatre on October 28. Besides playing some of the elder Marley’s tunes and his own hits, Marley also featured several tracks from his new “Love is My Religion” album. The old music and the new music worked the same vein- mixing positive messages and social commentary with mesmerizing reggae grooves. In the midst of a negative election campaign season, it was heartening to hear someone working to inspire, not tear down- a mission Marley undertakes with style. Coming up at the Aggie: The Slip on November 17, the Toasters on November 21, 12 Cents for Marvin’s ten year anniversary “Blowout Spectacular” on December 2, and the Itals, bringing more reggae, on December 8.
More music: Avogadro’s Number will feature acoustic musician Tom Kimmel on November 18, Jason Hahn and Mike Travis of String Cheese Incident on November 19, Johnsmith, with Colleen Crosson, on December 9 and Liz Barnez, Rebecca Folsom and Celeste Krenz on December 10. At the City Limits Lounge: Alien Outlaws on November 18 and the Lost Dogs All Star Blues Band, featuring Rob Wilson and Jim Mangan, on December 1. Lucky Joe’s hosts Rodney James and the Blue Flames on November 24, Jeff Stephenson on November 25, Joy Jackson on November 29 and Soul Feel on December 9.

In the area: The Fillmore Auditorium in Denver features Primus on November 21 and Tenacious D- actor Jack Black’s raucous band- on November 22. Gogol Bordello will be at the Gothic Theater in Denver on December 11. Also on December 11, country star Phil Vassar will be at the Union Colony Civic Center in Greeley. The UCCC also features two shows of Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Christmas Ball on December 16.

Afterword: Driving home from the Journey/Def Leppard show at the Budweiser Events Center on October 17, I was blasting head-on into that fall blizzard that came in and chilled the region that night. But I didn’t mind because I was properly juiced on rock and roll. You see, even though I had never really been a fan of either of these bands, I couldn’t help but appreciate the showmanship of the groups or the generally great spectacle the staging made. The huge video screen behind the stage- obviously designed for even bigger venues- turned the BEC into a nightclub and both Journey and Def Leppard played the hits and confidently dominated the stage- what more could you ask for? Coming up at the BEC: Brian Boitano’s Skating Spectacular, featuring live music guests Celtic Woman, on December 16.

December Recommended

Champion skater Brian Boitano has assembled an impressive line-up of championship skaters for his “Skating Spectacular” show coming up at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland on December 16. Boitano’s guests include 2002 Olympic Gold Medalists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, two-time U.S. National Champion Michael Weiss, eight-time British National Champion Steve Cousins, 2004 Skate America Silver Medalist Ryan Jahnke and Yuka Sato, 1994 World Champion and U.S. National Pairs Champion with husband Jason Dungjen. Also in the program will be two-time World Professional Pairs Champions, Elena Leionova and Andrei Khvalko, and 2004 U.S. National Championships fourth place winner Amber Corwin. 

But then add in the musical guest, Celtic Woman. The group just released their new album, “A Christmas Celebration,” which entered the Billboard World Music charts at No. 1, knocking their first album off that ran a record-breaking 81 weeks.  Now they hold the No. 1 and No. 2 spot and will try achieving the No. 3 spot when they release “A New Journey” at the end of January. Disson Skating is the producer of this “one-time only skating spectacular” that will be taped by NBC for national television on January 1, 2007.

More Music: Cowtown Boogie plays cool Western swing music at Swing Station in Laporte on December 15. Also coming to Swing Station: Great American Taxi, featuring Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon, on December 29 and the Happy Honkies on December 31. The Three Twins will be throwing a Dance Party at the Sunset Events Center on December 29. Area super guitarist Dave Beegle will take the stage with the Jurassicasters, along with Clint Clymer Band and A Melodic Daydream, at Avogadro’s Number on December 30. On New Year’s Eve at Avo’s: the Horsetooth Mountain Rangers and Lonesome Traveler.

The White Buffalo in Loveland is now the Yukon and they’ll be presenting rock, including Drug Under on December 22, Bret Michaels on December 30 and Firehouse on December 31. At the Aggie Theatre: Slim Cessna’s Auto Club on December 29, White Water Ramble on December 30, and the Reverend Horton Heat, with Drag the River, on December 31. Also coming to the Aggie will be Reel Big Fish, along with P-Nuckle, on January 4, 2007 and Cross Canadian Ragweed on January 11. The Lincoln Center continues the Showstopper Series with Academy and Grammy Award-winning songwriter and composer Randy Newman on January 8-9 and 12-13, 2007.

Afterword: Check out the November 30 issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1014, Borat on the cover) and you’ll see a Letter to the Editor by yours truly on page 14. The issue at stake was an interview with Who guitarist Pete Townshend in RS 1012 in which Townshend said, “I wouldn’t pay money to go see the Who.” This struck me as very odd indeed seeing as how the Who had just released their first new record in decades and were embarking on a major tour. So I wrote to Rolling Stone and said what I thought- “Some advice, Pete: just shut up and play yer guitar!”

That was before the Who’s appearance at the Pepsi Center on November 14. I’m not really sure what Townshend was thinking in his Rolling Stone interview, but the Who show was definitely worth paying for. In fact this was the best Who show I had seen in a long time and can be attributed to the material from the new “Endless Wire” album, distributed liberally throughout the show. The new stuff, including a “mini-opera” about the rise of a rock band, was performed with characteristic Who drama and flair, but the point is, that it was new. Everybody knows what happens during classics like “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but the theatrical “Man in a Purple Dress” and the fun “We Got a Hit” was unexplored territory. That the songs weren’t just new but also resonant means there is still some artistic fire left in the Who after years of floating around in their own legend.