2008 Articles

by Tim Van Schmidt

Lenny Kravitz, Paramount Theatre, Denver, January 22, 2008.

“Love” is a platform that has supported many, many public figures over time- from preachers to entertainers. “Love” was even the mantra for a whole generation- the Baby Boomers- at least for a short time. And “love” remains one of rock and roll’s key subjects, even above and beyond romance. In rock and roll, “love” is just as much a social quest as a physical need.

While it could be said that the message of “love” is well worn, even somewhat hackneyed, it is still a compelling affirmation in the hands of an artist like Lenny Kravitz. At the Paramount Theatre last night, Kravitz kept “love” center stage with not only old classics, but new and invigorating tunes. That the sold-out crowd was receptive was obvious by their willingness to participate in several bouts of group-singing with Kravitz.

Despite the dynamic quality of Kravitz’s music, the pace of the set seemed somewhat relaxed, even halting at one point to fix some sound bugs. But once Kravitz, who played guitar, keyboards and bass at various points in the show, and his six-piece band got cranked up, their sound was fully dynamic. It’s all based on the heavy chunka chunka of rhythm guitar, with guitar solos not necessarily taking a back seat to keyboard and sax solos, but still sort of kept in check. Of course Kravitz is the center of it all- and his songs are full of effective lyrical and melodic hooks- but for me, the band’s success at the Paramount started with the whip crack precision of the band’s drummer.

Sure, I certainly enjoyed hearing familiar hits like “Fly Away” and the delightfully grungy “American Woman.” New songs like power ballad “I’ll Be Waiting” and the deeply electric “Bring It On” fit nicely with the older stuff. But it was when Kravitz pulled out his standard, “Let Love Rule,” that the real power of this artist came through. It isn’t that “Let Love Rule” is a particularly exciting tune in itself- in fact it kind of just plods along. But it is what Kravitz does with it that is impressive. That is, getting the crowd to participate in an extended sing-along where “love” must overcome all other concerns.

When the band returned for their encore and plowed into the new “Love Revolution,” Kravitz’s work as “love” director continued. The new song, from the upcoming album release, “It is Time for a Love Revolution,” showed fresh fire in the furnace for the old “love” theme. Despite its relative newness, Kravitz had the crowd chanting the chorus along with him. And let’s add that Kravitz and band were just as synched in for this encore as at any other time previously in the set. The new material seemed to energize the group and the audience at the same time.

This one-two “love” punch of songs is just too hard to resist- which the Denver crowd did not, dancing and singing along throughout the set. Kravitz mixes plenty of funky grooves, rock drama, soulful vocals and memorable melodies in with his “love” message and that keeps him an irresistible and laudable performer.

Opening the show was singer-songwriter Lissie, who turned in a brave and even rousing set. It was fun to hear her after so many years. Lissie played in Fort Collins often some time back and I had the privilege of being in a radio studio control room once while she performed solo for a live broadcast. Her lilting vocal power and the energetic quality of her music was stunning then and it was great to see that it also carried well in a big- a MUCH bigger- room.

Anti-Publicists Rule in Big Rock and Roll

Well, it happened again last night. That is, getting my press credentials for a Big Rock and Roll show in Denver was a hassle. It seems like it’s always a hassle when I deal with Big Rock and Roll and the big companies that present it.

They talk big, these Big Rock and Roll publicists for the big artists. I was assured- twice- that I was “all set” for a pair of tickets and a photo pass. Of course- and I have even come to expect this- the tickets were not at the box office. Neither were the photo passes. This meant having to meet a contact in the lobby- confusing security at the door because I didn’t have tickets or a pass yet, and neither did the guest I brought with me.

To make matters worse, the media contact at the venue was markedly harried. While she cooperated with the request, she did so with a curt, belligerent attitude. This also is nothing new and I have come to expect this too. But damn it, you would think that after 20 years of writing, contributing literally millions of publicity hits to Big Rock and Roll and shooting hundreds of top artists that I would get treated with some small amount of respect. But not in Denver, not even a little.

On top of that, there was the issue of what I would do with my camera after the two song limit, since I was reviewing and shooting. This was resolved but the conversation ended with an unnecessary threat. I abided by the rules and kept my camera stowed for the remainder of the concert, even while literally dozens of people around me were taking photos at will with their phones and cameras in the audience. This camera thing is just too much ado about nothing these days.

What I experienced in this case is the complete OPPOSITE of how publicity and promotion should work. The miscommunication within the band’s organization reflects very poorly on the artist. Because of these regularly occurring guest list snafus, rather than thinking about how great the concert is, I’m thinking about what a pain in the neck it is dealing with these people.

The unpleasant attitude of the venue contact serves to create a very UNWELCOMING atmosphere at the venue and an UNFAVORABLE feeling towards the concert company. This also reflects poorly on the artist. Instead of thinking about how great the concert is- and how great the concert VENUE is- I’m thinking about what a pain in the neck it is dealing with these people.

No wonder Big Rock and Roll is having problems and I really wonder at how these so-called publicists- more like “anti-publicists”- keep their jobs. It’s a good thing for them that rock and roll naturally sustains itself because many of their antics end up working AGAINST the situation.

I have kept this simmering under my hat for a long time- last night’s experience was really nothing new. I’ve never written about this because, well, I didn’t want to upset people I might have to deal with in the future. But now, in 2008, I guess I don’t care any more. Big Rock and Roll had better learn how to SECURE and RESPECT the details of their business because even longtime supporters are getting tired of their ragged incompetence and nasty, self-important bluster.

January 23, 2008

Etown with the subdudes, Roches, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, January 25, 2008.

The radio audience for popular Boulder program Etown is in for a treat when the latest show taping in Fort Collins- featuring the subdudes and the Roches- hits the airwaves. The evening’s music was bright and energetic and the interview portions full of humor- it’ll be a great show, when edited to its final state.

But now I have to add that despite the pleasure waiting for Etown’s listeners in the near future, their experience is going to be a little pale compared to what the live audience at the Lincoln Center got to experience last night. I’m sorry, but live music is always better LIVE and last night the groups were particularly entertaining and the crowd was very receptive- a win-win for everybody involved. To FEEL all of that, I think you have to be there- and that’s just one part of Etown that the home audience just doesn’t get. Oh well, too bad for them because there are a lot of happy people moving around Fort Collins today, thanks to Etown’s live show.

To begin with, the subdudes seemed to be right on. Now, let’s just say that the subdudes aren’t the most exact band on earth- every note is not always perfectly place- but what makes them succeed above and beyond any of that is the passion that gets ignited when they get revved up. It’s really the SPIRIT that the band applies to their rootsy material that impresses more than anything.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to be admired in the subdudes’ music- like full-bodied vocal harmonies, snappy rhythms, soulful crooning, down-to-earth lyrics with some kind of back porch soul at the core. It was a pleasure to sit back in the rather pristine environment of the Lincoln Center and let the band do its work- the last time I saw the subdudes was on the street at the NewWestFest and the time before that was in a nightclub. Conditions at the Lincoln Center were just right to really LISTEN to the band- good sound, reasonable lighting and that SPIRIT all combined for time well spent on stage.

But let’s also throw in that the subdudes once used Fort Collins as its home base- and three of the members still live here. On stage in Fort Collins, the subdudes are heroes for sure and that sure added some extra juice to the cheering. Another local hero- open space activist Kelly Ohlson- was also recognized during the show with an “Echievement” award.

That’s certainly not all, though. Also add in a set by the reinvigorated Roches- who have not toured together in more than a decade. Starting with their trademark introductory song, “We,” the three Roche sisters quickly reestablished the offbeat quality of their intricate vocal interplay. The vocal arrangements themselves are a delightful mix of harmony and dynamic control. But what puts it on edge is that the Roches’ vocal prowess is applied to songs that take a direct and personal view of the world- looking at life’s details with tongue-in-cheek. That’s right, the Roches may have aged some, but that wry, sharp wit remains both in their music and their stage patter in between songs. They trick the ear with some cool singing, then trick the mind with lyrical play. The highlight of their set was “No Shoes.”

Etown hosts Nick and Helen Forster are also a welcome presence on the stage. Their soothing, melodious voices and calm demeanors easily fold production chores for the radio program into the live show.  But more than running the show, the pair are also performers. Nick came out and dug into some slide guitar during the subdudes’ set and Helen added vocals during the show’s finale-  a crazy, wild jam with the Forsters, the Roches- featured on kazoos- and the subdudes doing a vintage rock and roll tune. Nick also joined the subdudes for the evening’s raucous encore- a tune well-known to longtime subdudes fans, “Late at Night.”

I won’t name any more of the songs from last night- let’s leave some discovery for that radio audience, who are lucky because they are going to get a good show out of it. But Etown fans in Fort Collins were even luckier- you just had to be there to understand.

Tips for Rock and Roll Publicists

It’s not enough to just complain about things that are in poor repair- like the state of Big Rock and Roll Publicity. You have to try to fix things. So I decided that my negative experience with Big Rock and Roll Publicity in Denver recently- by no means the first, but a deal-breaker somehow nonetheless- should yield something positive. Below, then, are some tips that I feel would make a first class publicity agent.

Now, before we get to any specifics, let’s say it from the very start that working in rock and roll is hard. It isn’t that the actual work itself is hard, it’s that the whole industry is built around the fact that rock and roll exists as a major distraction from the real world. When CONSUMERS of rock and roll- music buyers and ticket buyers- are after the product, they are different people than they might be in the everyday world. They are satisfying selfish desires and rock and roll is one great avenue for getting out of their head. People just don’t act normally around rock and roll.

When dealing with the MEDIA, it is best to remember that many music writers and photographers are usually just big music fans and a lot of what drives a fan, drives the media representative. However, for whatever reasons, they are trying to do a job as well. It takes intense concentration to work in the rock and roll environment because you not only have to ward off distraction yourself, but you are also dealing with other people’s varying abilities to deal with that same distraction. If you’re a professional, you’ll always keep your cool, you’ll always have the answer or know how to get one without making it a big deal.

Let’s also discuss that live rock and roll, at least, is generally an after-hours activity. But much of the work of the office bound publicist must be done during regular business hours. This takes a toll physically because the overlap between daytime and nighttime business is inevitable. You must be prepared for long hours in an industry that can rock all day and all night long.

Working in rock and roll, then, is a strain on the individual mentally and physically, so therefore it is a challenge emotionally as well. In order to do your job, you need to bottle up the emotions other people are releasing en masse around you. You must be up to that task from the very start, or don’t bother because you’ll just become another Rock and Roll Anti-Publicist.

Here are some general tips for Rock and Roll Publicists:

Stay cool- The word I like here is “dispassionate.” I don’t mean bored, or detached, I mean without the passion driving the music fan. What should be driving you is making sure all the details are in place and you’re ready for anything that might come up.

Maintain integrity- Don’t say things you don’t mean, don’t promise anything you can’t deliver and take EVERYTHING one step at a time. The volume of work should not compromise the quality of attention you apply to each task.

Master details- Strive for complete accuracy. Make it part of your business to confirm and follow-up on all correspondence. Answer all e-mails and phone calls, if only with some kind of canned message. The personal touch, however, is best.

Stay current- Your list from six months ago in a particular region could very well be outdated. When planning a new publicity campaign, build fresh research into the project- it can actually save time and expenses in the long run. Look at your contact lists as ever-changing things.

Remember- You are in a service industry. The artists- or their representatives- are the bosses who ultimately provide the paycheck The “customers” lining up to buy the product you and the artists are selling- a new record or concert date- are members of the media. Treat every one of them with respect. Practice common courtesy at all times

Stay straight- Rock and roll is a lot about partying- but not for you if you want to keep your job. Yes, the lines can certainly get plenty blurred in the rock and roll world and at times you might even be the “party planner.” But if you want to keep your cool, you need to stay focused on the job, not the frills.

Think ahead- Covering your bases is not enough. You need to be able to think ahead in order to make things continue to go smoothly. If you catch wind that media members aren’t getting the credentials you promised and sent off on a list, you are the one who should figure it out with the road manager how to get it done right. Does the artist you are dealing with have a reputation for blowing off interviews? Either don’t schedule them or you have to get a commitment from management to sit the flake down at the right times and talk, so it doesn’t keep happening.

Doesn’t sound like fun? No- it’s work. Even though you are working in an industry providing one of the biggest bangs for the buck out there, that bang is not for you when you’re on the job.


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Super Bowl, February 3, 2008.

The coolest quarterback on the field for the Super Bowl on Sunday had a guitar strapped on. That is, if you want to compare rock and rollers to football stars. Tom Petty has to be considered the quarterback- and the Heartbreakers his team- if you follow this line, and this quarterback had more cool than anyone else in the stadium.

Unlike the entertainers for the previous several years at the Super Bowl- Prince, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney- Tom Petty isn’t a particularly riveting figure on stage. Oh yes, the setting was spectacular, a huge lit-up arrow moving across the stadium to finally pierce the heart/guitar stage being rushed by lucky attendees being allowed on the field. Throw in fire works, big video imagery, lots of flashing lights and the haphazard effect of the fans waving hundreds of matching flashlights around in the air and you have plenty of action.

But not at the center mike. A mellow, bearded Petty stepped up to the mike and delivered the vocals, but then just stepped back and let the Heartbreakers do the rest. Petty careened around the stage a little and did a little arm waving, but he looked more like a guy playing an afternoon concert in the park than someone on the biggest stage in entertainment- just picking and grinning.

But Petty has a lot to grin about, especially when he’s got a band like the Heartbreakers behind him. One of rock’s most solid, hefty units, the Heartbreakers are a big, powerful and effective group, able to back the boss but also make the groove plenty lively instrumentally.

Also, Petty should be pleased that he has written some flavorful and memorable rock songs over the years- music that has truly become a part of the contemporary canon. The Super Bowl set was made up entirely of old favorites- “American Girl,” “Won’t Back Down,” “Freefalling,” and “Running Down a Dream”- stuff that the crowd could easily sing along with. To have a few emotional moments and then to rock out was the game plan.

As a wise veteran quarterback, Petty knows that all he has to do to stoke things up is plow into another familiar hit, then lob a pass over to Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and let him take it into the end zone, which is exactly what happened at the Super Bowl. If Petty was Eli Manning- which might be a stretch- then Campbell was David Tyree, making the catch. Every time Campbell stepped out to the edge of the stage to rip off a solo, the excitement level went up significantly during the short set. Well, that’s just good chemistry- like the New York Giant’s offense and defense- ultimately a rocking combination. As a result, Petty and the Heartbreakers came through with a big win- cool and classy.

The Romeros, Griffin Concert Hall, University Center for the Arts, Fort Collins, February 13, 2008.

24 strings. 40 fingers. Lots of guitar frets. This is the playland of classical guitar greats, the Romeros, who continued the Lincoln Center Classical Music series at the Griffin Concert Hall last night. And play they did. This group of four guitarists- the second and third generations of an amazing musical family- didn’t just perform the selections of classic and original guitar pieces, but also seemed to get swept up in the sound that they were creating. I was sitting in a front row seat and could absorb not only all that sound coming from the instruments, but also observe the looks on the musicians’ faces as they seemed to find personal reveries in the pieces, or moments of communication with each other during those great group flourishes.

And why not. If I could play guitar like Lito, Celino, Pepe or Celin Romero, I’d allow myself to get caught up in it too. I liked hearing the music and I’m sure it is fun playing it, so it is no surprise that the Romeros seemed to be enjoying the concert as much as the audience. That elder guitarist Pepe Romero had a wide grin on his face after each tune- while the audience offered consistently enthusiastic ovations- seemed to cement the deal.

But where there’s attitude there has to be skill and talent and the Romeros seem to have a pure genetic strain of both going in their family. I’m not sure the guitarists were necessarily interchangeable- Pepe certainly ripped off some of the most thrilling solo runs of the evening, while Lito held down some of the rhythmic parts with absolute authority- but their work together as a whole reveals a vibrant group vision of guitar music. The hot blooded fire of flamenco style music is tempered by the Romeros with a consistent lightness of attack- whether they are picking out a fleeting melody or strumming like crazy.

The music itself was plenty challenging. After the group opened with the intricate guitar interplay of Ruperto Chapi y Lorente’s “Preludio from La Revoltosa,” followed by Celino’s solo on the more formal chestnut from Gaspar Sanz, “Suite Espanola,” Pepe and Celino broke things wide open with Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Tonadilla.” That piece introduced dissonance and grating juxtaposition, as well as a grand fanfare theme that turned the two guitarists into a chorus of harps.

There was so much to like about the Romeros concert. However, a tear nearly came to my eye when elder brothers Celin and Pepe performed Issac Albeniz’s “Granada”- the melody was so warm and beautiful and the Romeros treated it with so much emotional care. Because Celin was suffering from a back spasm, Pepe tacked on an extra piece during his scheduled solo spot, turning in masterful readings of two Francisco Tarrega pieces. Pepe wiped his brow with his handkerchief after finishing, grinning with apparent triumph. The Romeros also played two of Pepe’s original compositions during the program.

As my companion said at the end of the concert, there are some events you never want to end. The Romeros’ concert at Griffin was one of them. I couldn’t tell you if every note was in place, but I can tell you that both the performers and the audience seemed to be having a fine time. Four guitars. A million savory notes and chords. A rousing performance. The Romeros, still a royal family of guitar.

Leahy, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, February 17, 2008.

The exciting climax to Canadian sibling band Leahy’s show last night at the Lincoln Center had little to do with the musical instruments the seven member group had been playing throughout the evening. Instead, the four brothers and three sisters lined up across the front of the stage to step/tap dance together in a rousing, rhythmic finish. When all of the performers stopped all at one time, with a resounding clack, the audience erupted in cheers. Indeed, it was a great moment.

Leahy’s Canadian version of Irish step dancing figured into the show several times and each time raised the level of excitement in their heavily Celtic-flavored music. That isn’t to say that the power of three fiddlers backed by piano, drums, guitar and bass didn’t achieve any excitement by themselves. However, the dance segments did seem to complete the scene.

Despite the energetic nature of most of Leahy’s music- a lot of traditional-sounding reels played faster with each go-around- the show built its momentum fairly slowly. A lot of this had to do with lead fiddler and group spokesman Donnell’s long monologues between songs. He talked about the history of the group and the music at length. This was certainly interesting information that the audience seemed to appreciate hearing, but it also served to distract from the event at hand. That one of Donnell’s young toddler daughters just wandered on stage- apparently unattended- to become part of one of those monologues, cute as it was, just stopped the show in its tracks.

When Leahy got down to the business of making music, however, it was plenty lively. Donnell himself pretty much stayed center stage and applied a fleet yet aggressive style to his fiddling that commanded attention. But it was when brothers Doug and Angus appeared and the three fiddlers worked the piece at hand in unison that the music became especially powerful. However, if I were to try to identify the real anchor of the band, it would be Erin’s work on the piano. With all that fiddling going on, Erin’s keyboard work cemented the complex rhythms and accented the chord changes with some flavorful arranging. The stark clarity of the piano provided a good counterpoint to the more fluid fiddle sound.

Leahy’s two sets were comprised mostly of instrumental pieces- a unique quality these days- but also two more popish vocal songs, which turned out to be refreshing moments in the show. Still, that the dance segments were highlights perhaps indicates that the core nature of the music Leahy plays- from traditional tunes like the “Orange Blossom Special” to originals- invites movement. Until SOMEONE’S feet start moving- whether in the audience or on stage- the music hasn’t quite achieved all it can. That’s why it fit just fine when Leahy brought out a young Fort Collins Irish step dancer to perform with the group on one number. She added plenty- a nearly necessary component- in her short moment on stage.

The above contains, perhaps, some critical comments, but most of that was wiped away in the final minutes of last night’s show, when the group sat down in chairs along the front of the stage and treated the audience to an “experiment.” That is, the group at one time asked itself how they could play their instruments- meaning the fiddles, of course- without a bow. The answer was the evening’s most progressive and interesting music- the plucking of the fiddles mixing with mandolin strumming in a dizzying burst of creativity and dynamics.

Then Leahy lit into “Call to Dance” and the real fireworks started flying. Not only did the musicians get cranked up, they also started trading instruments and turns on the dance floor. By the time they were done, it was the dance- that Leahy line-up- that put a nice cap on the evening.

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, February 23, 2008.

Black History Month was observed on February 23 at the Lincoln Center with a performance by the Deeply Rooted Dance Company that took several steps away from dance and several steps closer to acting. And the history related by Deeply Rooted wasn’t about sweeping social changes as much as deep personal changes.

The first piece of the evening, “Trio,” a “world premiere” according to the program, was pure dance to begin with: three dancers twisting and turning naturally across the stage in a celebration of movement. But then Deeply Rooted plunged into their multi-part suite, “Ferrotype.” Although dance was an element, it is more accurate to call “Ferrotype” a play and that the dancers were also actors.

“Ferrotype” followed the misfortunes of a common black family from “the early 20th Century.” Their trials, which include the loss of a son, are very personal. The story was told through the groupings and movements of the characters and a soundtrack that included voice over parts as well as music that illustrated the mood. It was kind of like a dance musical- you know how in a musical, the actors will be doing something normal, then all of a sudden break into song? In this case, the actor/dancers would take their places on stage according to the story, then break out into dance.

Part of the history presented in “Ferrotype” is now stereotypical statements about how blacks have been treated by whites. In “Ferrotype” this was alluded to in no uncertain terms when a voice booms out a complaint that he won’t be recognized by others who think that “all coons look alike.” While not said at this moment, it was inferred that these others would be whites.

This condemnation of racism works two ways. Referring to the insulting stereotype that “all coons look alike” is presupposed by another stereotype that white people think that way. Today, I’m sure some might, but there are lots and lots of white people who do not. And I have a feeling that the Lincoln Center- predominantly a white audience- was full of those kind of people. Personally, I have grown up with the idea that all people should be treated equally- it’s been taught to me in school, church and in our society. But being a Caucasian, I can’t help but feel like I am somehow being lumped into a stereotype I do not feel I fit by being so blatantly confronted with it. Granted, “Ferrotype” was a presentation about another time, but I could not help but feel there was some accusation of contemporary society in the words. The anger and indignation seemed pretty fresh to me in the context of the dance play.

This is what art is for- to make a statement that somehow resonates with an audience. In this case what resonated with me is that despite progress in the fight against racism, stereotypes still hold a lot of power. I guess this can only be changed by continuing to talk about it and that’s what Deeply Rooted is doing.

The second half of the show included another kind of dance play, but this one not nearly so literal in its presentation. “Naeemah’s Room” followed the tribulations of a young woman suffering from mental anguish and depression- another issue Deeply Rooted wanted to take on. The finale, “Heaven,” featured the entire company in an upbeat piece of dance full of unison movement and the wild swirl of the costuming.

Despite the joyous nature of “Heaven,” the heaviness of the previous pieces was not particularly relieved. So instead of walking out of the show, thinking about what great dance I saw, I came out thinking about my feelings about racism. This wasn’t what I went to the show for, but important nonetheless and a creative way to participate in Black History Month.

Roger Clyne, Johnny Hickman and Jim Dalton, Road 34 Bike Bar, Fort Collins, February 23, 2008.

OK, so I felt like a little bit of an oddball at Road 34 on February 23 during my great first encounter with the music of Roger Clyne. I must have been in the extreme minority of people who did not know the words to every song Clyne played that night- nonstop, tune after tune- a ball of tequila powered energy. It didn’t matter because I got plenty out of it anyway.

The first thing I got was that this seemed like a pretty rare gig for Clyne, who is best known for his work with his band, the Peacemakers. At Road 34, though, it was all Clyne, who nonetheless referred to his bandmates often and, at one point, even introduced them as if they were on stage with him. However, it seemed to me that Clyne was having a ball by himself, fielding requests from the enthusiastic crowd bunched up around the little stage, right in his face. And he just gave it back to them, putting plenty of passion into every tune, then plowing into another song pronto. Those are the best kind of performers- ones who would rather play some more than fiddle around doing other stuff.

Clyne, who seemed to be calling for a fresh shot of tequila in between each song, is a strong vocalist, a powerful guitarist, a flavorful songwriter and an upbeat character on stage. That combination, evidently, has won him a rabidly loyal audience who revel- in full voice- in his music. He rewarded those lucky fans who came out to the shows at Road 34 on Friday and Saturday, with a generously long set performed with lots of energy.

To top it off, Clyne brought old pals Johnny Hickman and Jim Dalton, who had opened the show, on stage to jam out on a few more tunes. Maybe it’s important to state that the crowd also seemed to know all of the songs that Hickman, from Cracker, and Dalton, from the Railbenders, did in their earlier set, proof that these boys are all pretty much on the same track- and so are their fans. This crowd- including me- was loving it all.

This was also my first time going to Road 34 for an event. I found it to have a pleasant neighborhood bar atmosphere and worked really well for an intimate event such as this. According to venue sources, there’s plenty of cool stuff coming up.

Bellydance Superstars, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, March 15, 2008.

When I saw the Bellydance Superstars at the 2003 Lollapalooza tour stop at Fiddler’s Green in Denver, they were a novelty act in a sea of alternative rock- and a popular one. At a second stage performance, the troupe- with exotic music and dancers equipped with gigantic fans- stopped curious rockers in their tracks, jaws dropped with an unexpected pleasure. Later that night, the group took the main stage, just before Jane’s Addiction’s headlining set, and the ramped up crowd went nuts.

At last night’s Lincoln Center show, it was gratifying to see that the Bellydance Superstars are, first of all, still in existence, but secondly that they have continued to apply aggressively progressive ideas to an ancient art. It was pretty radical to present bellydancers at the Lollapalooza, and it’s now radical to fuse bellydancing with popping, high energy Middle Eastern music with some grating industrial and sensual lighting with the constant stage movement of a modern dance company.

At the core of it, of course, is the bellydancing, a most sensual art of movement that combines every imaginable means of shaking and thrusting with fluid swirling and swaying. An indelible part of the art is the presentation, particularly the elaborate and sexually provocative costumes. But just as important is the percussion music, often driving at a fast-paced intensity and never letting up. It’s an overpowering and enthralling combination.

The Bellydance Superstars seem to have all of this covered with little trouble. Featuring as many as 11 dancers on stage with as many as 4 percussionists as well as loud, canned soundtracks, the troupe provides plenty of action. Throw in some tasteful but unobtrusive stage decorations and you’ve got the basics.

The drumming, it turns out, is an easy bridge to crowd participation and the Superstars’ main percussionist took time out during the show to teach the crowd some of the rhythms they were using. The result is that if everybody in the room is working the beat then the spectacle of the dancers gets more intense and it was evident from the yips, yelps and cheers from the crowd- at all times of the performance- that the mission was accomplished.

But the Bellydance Superstars go way beyond the basics in their experimentation with the bellydance dance form. This starts with the huge screen behind the stage splayed with ever morphing imagery and color. The sound system was particularly powerful and the music veered from the expected sound of Middle Eastern music using traditional instruments to challenging industrial rock, hip hop and mash ups of all of that. The Bellydance Superstars have significantly expanded their stagecraft since their Lollapalooza debut, giving them fully effective concert power on their own.

The progressive music being used by the Bellydance Superstars naturally has affected the dancing and the costuming. One of the highlights of the evening was a solo dancer fusing snake-like bellydance fluidity with the crisp hand motions of street dance popping. The segments where a part of the troupe- a grouping with darker costumes and braided hair- writhed to the harder industrial music with scattered, moody lighting were mysterious and entrancing.

Where more of the traditional bellydancing was featured last night, costuming went a long way to underscoring the action with flavor. A major highlight was a piece where the featured dancer in the center of the stage was twirling continuously. This alone is a feat, but with the added spectacle that the dancer was twirling with some bright red fabric made it all the more exciting. That the dancers around her were also twirling and also added the element of fabric made the whole stage itself seem to spin. The group’s costumes changed for each piece, sometimes taking on more of a gown appearance, one featured dancer wore ballet slippers, and one piece featured dancers in bright red grass skirts. Other props also came in handy throughout the evening, including reflective batons and bright blue feathered fans.

I’m not sure how the dancers in the Bellydance Superstars got to be called superstars, but having seen the group from their beginnings way back in the 2003 Lollapalooza tour, you can at least rightly call this the “Bellydance Supershow,” exciting and creative.

Jeff Dunham Show, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, March 20, 2008.

I don’t watch a lot of mainstream television- practically none at all- so I was not “pre-impressed” with comedian ventriloquist Jeff Dunham before going to the Lincoln Center to see the first show of his Showstoppers Series appearances this week. In fact, I had never seen Dunham before at all. After the show, I walked out of the Lincoln Center without feeling “post-impressed” either.

Now, here, it would be easy to take pot shots at Dunham’s material- all based on stereotypical WASP American attitudes- belligerent, uneducated and selfish. But especially people who hold these attitudes are not interested in different views or criticism of any kind. They want to feel good about themselves- which is why they tear other people down- and Dunham is willing to oblige. To engage in this type of discussion is only leaving yourself open to be labeled a “liberal” and therefore another subject of stereotypical conservative American scorn.

The subjects of the material Dunham trotted out at the Lincoln Center were stereotypical enough for our times. Ethnic and cultural humor topped the list that also included references to illegal aliens, English-only language proponents and terrorism, all colored with references to trailers, pornography and drug use. Really, Dunham probably didn’t have to write much of his material himself. He probably just sat down in a diner somewhere in Middle America and took notes. Or maybe he was taking notes around a beer keg somewhere. But now I’m engaging in the same kind of stereotyping- see how this kind of thinking perpetuates itself?

But let’s leave the argument around the merits of Dunham’s material. What I want to take him to task for is coming on stage at the Lincoln Center unprepared to put on a full show. He announced to the audience that because he had to tape a Christmas special in June, he was going to present holiday material at his Fort Collins shows. Getting paid to practice rather than presenting material that has been honed is good work if you can get it and Dunham saw the opportunity to give Fort Collins a show full of untested material- seasonally inappropriate- in order to build his chops for his upcoming special.

That Dunham needs the practice was painfully obvious when he completely blew one of his new bits- a rendition of “Jingle Bells,” or rather “Jingle Bombs.” The show stopped dead in its tracks, while Dunham cracked up and evidently found it hard to pick up the thread again. The audience seemed to find this funny. Dunham himself said he thought it was funny stuff. However, this would be the kind of stuff that I guess would probably be cut from a television special- but good enough, evidently, to waste time on in Fort Collins. That Dunham also spent several minutes during the show “conferring” with the puppet Walter about which jokes they had done, or not done, underscored the feeling that this performer was somewhat confused about what he was doing.

The Lincoln Center program fully outlined Dunham’s many television credits and I can see how the intimacy of the TV screen would enhance his act. The performance hall seemed to be full of his fans last night, whose sides seemed to be splitting with big, continuous bellylaughing. And I have to admit- the ventriloquist portion of the show is brilliant. By making the puppets say all the really nasty stuff, it kind of separates the performer from the attitudes. At the end of the show, the puppets can go back in their boxes and Dunham comes up more or less clean. What wasn’t clean was Dunham’s general presentation.

Blast! Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, March 31, 2008.

The hardest working person in show business MUST be the stage manager for the touring company Blast! What a technical feat it must be to manage the backstage action that produced what I saw on stage at the Lincoln Center last night. Horn players and drummers were criss-crossing the stage, with a visual ensemble equipped with various cool props weaving in and out of them, all supported by a full percussion ensemble assembled on a stage-spanning upper platform. Things were flying through the air, lights flashing, everything moving, rattling and rolling constantly and persistently. How do you organize all of that on cue?

That in itself is a message about Blast! as a production- that it is a stimulus junkie’s dream come true. Every second of the production offers movement, color, rhythm and music- and a fistful of great special effects. Start with the conductor who lead many of the pieces at the Lincoln Center from behind the orchestra section, waving a lighted baton. But then add the bit where a drummer is playing while being spun around inside a contraption, fluorescent drumstick routines, plenty of big, bright banners and flags, batons with tuned bells on their ends and even a stage full of didjeridoos. This company never seemed to be out of cool visual and sound tricks.

Although there was some prerecorded music in Blast!, most of the production is performed live. There is no faking the true acoustic power and tone of a horn and in between the faster-paced and rousing percussion based pieces, Blast! also played some interesting and creative arrangements of more melodic music. Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” were major highlights of the evening, showcasing the group’s ability to not only make the stage plenty busy, but also to play with sensitivity and dynamic control. To match the musical sensitivity, the lighting was often full and lusciously cued to each piece.

Like bookends on the performance, the opening and closing pieces combined the best of both rhythm and melody with Ravel’s “Bolero” at the top and “Malaguena” at the end in dramatic style.

Above and beyond the obvious skills it must take to be a part of this company, I seemed to notice last night an underlying thing that helps separate Blast! from being a kind of extra-exuberant dance troupe- and perhaps anyone having marching band experience might relate- and that is a certain confident swagger all of the performers seemed to have. “Marching” requires attention and precision, especially when also playing an instrument, but once you put it all together, a unique kind of pride can take hold that expresses itself through the way the performer lets themselves get carried away by the drill. I saw what seemed like a lot of personal pride amongst all the artifice and it had a positive impact.

Like the last time Blast! was at the Lincoln Center- some years ago- there was a lot of troupe action out in the audience, members racing up the aisles at various points of the evening. But what was an exhilarating novelty act back then has now become a production that fully delivers on multiple levels. Blast! is first rate, 21st century entertainment.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, April 9, 2008.

Dramatic. Intense. Kinetic. All of these words work to describe the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s concert at the Lincoln Center last night. And unlike last time at the Lincoln Center for the troupe- when they closed their concert with an arresting bit of production-  this was all accomplished without props or spectacular special effects.

Presenting just dancers on the stage has become the predominant fashion in dance concerts again- after a spate of productions featuring big visual tricks- and Aspen Santa Fe is following right along with the trend. What this does, perhaps, is cut down on the general entertainment value of the concerts- for the general public that is- but increases the quality of the dance itself. Without having to handle special props or fit into a construct created by a staging concept, the dancers are freer to do their thing- and there is less to distract the audience from viewing the movement itself.

That’s how it worked at the Lincoln Center last night. Sure, there were a few simple props- like the chairs in the multi-part opener “Left Unsaid”- and a little stage dressing like the cryptic suspended light box in the closing piece, “1st Flash.” But what was really working here was the choreography and the strong interpretations all the dancers applied to it.

Since the emphasis was on the dancers, not production eye candy, this concert fully spotlighted the Aspen Santa Fe style of dance. That is, a supple and constantly changing form that emphasizes strong individualism. What I mean here is that even though there is plenty of contact between the dancers, you never lose awareness of the individual, their bodies more molding around each other, rather than melding together. It’s a subtle thing, but in many productions, you quickly get a sense of who to follow on stage- who is meant to be in the spotlight- but with Aspen Santa Fe, you could follow anybody and see amazing movement. That the choreography called for quick and relentless motion nearly every second on the stage is a testament to the skills of the dancers who performed at the Lincoln Center with a confident intensity throughout the evening.

I might mention that if Aspen Santa Fe has beefed up anything production-wise it might have been in the soundtrack music department. It was a cohesive selection of classical chamber music, heavy on strings. Often I get the sense that music at dance concerts is only a peripheral inspiration, but last night the busy motions of the dancers often synched with the music, suggesting deliberate effort. The sound was very good and the various stringed pieces- from formulaic Bach to progressive Gavin Bryars– cut right through the darkness in the performance hall.

The music was in keeping with the general dignity with which the entire company exhibited on stage at all times. Even dancers who might be playing an auxiliary role in any given piece carried themselves with fully measured grace and purpose.

All of this indicates that Aspen Santa Fe Ballet pays full attention to details and must work hard to achieve the results I saw. This makes the company rise to the top of the heap, with or without special effects.

Kim Simmonds, Avogadro’s Number, Fort Collins, June 12, 2008.

It didn’t really seem like such a big deal at Avo’s last night when venerable blues guitarist (and bandleader of the longtime British blues group Savoy Brown) took the stage for a rare acoustic solo performance. There were no big lights, (sadly) no big crowd, no big equipment, no band and no dramatic hoopla to go along with an appearance by a musician who has earned a spot along with other pop music greats with decades of recording and working the road.

When you take all the trappings of Big Music away from a guy like Simmonds, though, you still have plenty left. That’s partly because Simmonds is such a naturally stylish guitarist- and a gregarious presence on stage- but also it’s because there are things about the blues- electric or acoustic- that strike deep, almost no matter who is playing it. Simmonds’ blues traveled far and wide, giving a kind of history lesson of styles, personally strained through all that musical experience.

A Simmonds solo show is chalk full of something besides the blues. That is, Simmonds is a walking storybook about his own rise to prominence in the music world with Savoy Brown as well as stories about other musicians he met along that long and crazy road. At Avo’s, Simmonds didn’t mind sharing that history at all and proved to be friendly and talkative in between tunes- sometimes perhaps delaying the music because he was in the middle of a good yarn.

Between his deep blues and some amusing stories, Simmonds was plenty entertaining in this setting- no band, no hype, just personality and a thumping guitar.

Stevie Wonder, Fiddler’s Green, Denver, July 1, 2008.

Smiles. Quite simply put, seeing Stevie Wonder perform at Fiddler’s Green on July 1 just kept bringing smiles of satisfaction to my face throughout the beefy two hour set. I’m cool- I’m not usually overwhelmed by sentiment, but there’s something about Wonder’s music that just hits me that way- I can’t help but feel happy when I’m hearing Wonder again.

So Tuesday night was full of those smiles, starting with a set list that included some of the tastiest parts of Wonder’s career- including huge chunks of “Innervisions” and “Hotter Than July.” Then there was the ten piece band, augmented by three singers- including Wonder’s daughter Aisha Morris. This group could stretch into a loping jam or stop on a dime on tunes like “Sir Duke.”

The sound was unusually excellent- especially up at the very top of the lawn seating. That made it a prime opportunity for everyone in the amphitheatre- more than two thirds full- to experience the best reason there was to smile- and that is hearing Wonder’s amazing dexterity on vocals, harmonica and keyboards.

And what a character Wonder is too. I don’t remember ever getting so much chatter out of the star in previous appearances. He turned a duet moment with his daughter into a tearful tribute by singing “Isn’t She Lovely” to the song’s real-life inspiration. Wonder also graciously performed with a radio contest winner, who sang “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” with Wonder in a moment of good natured humbleness and encouragement. Wonder talked, sometimes just kind of rambling, but also questioning allowed, in the introduction to one tune, how many people had made love to Stevie Wonder songs, which raised a roar of reaction.

Throw in some pleasant weather- on the cloudy side and mercifully not hot- and an amped up, gregarious crowd and you’ve got a first class live music experience. Even the chaotic parking situation at Fiddler’s- what a mess!- couldn’t erase those good vibes that only come once in a while- and only from someone like Stevie Wonder.

Steve Miller Band, Joe Cocker, Red Rocks, Morrison, July 31, 2008.

Perhaps only an older Steve Miller Band fan will appreciate this. While jotting down notes about Miller’s set list at Red Rocks on July 31, I realized that throughout the course of the evening, he had played the entire first side of his classic “Fly Like an Eagle” album. That’s “first side” as in the first side of the original vinyl release.

For many, those “first sides” (or “second sides,” whichever were better) of albums were one of the inevitable consequences of the vinyl format. The technology required that the music of any particular collection had to be divided onto separate sides of the product. Changing tracks while the vinyl was spinning was easily done, but potentially hazardous to the record, so, often, listening to vinyl LPs meant putting on a whole side to an album at a time. That would mean some twenty plus minutes of uninterrupted music- before having to change the record.

That whole sides of albums were the most convenient way to listen to vinyl affected everything about how artists looked at assembling their records. In fact, whole sides to albums became an art form in itself in song choices, sequencing and mixing. Because of that, “classic” albums often had a “classic” side everyone always listened to, and then the “other” side. The Side One of Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” is one of those classic album sides, and though not played in sequence at Red Rocks, just having all those songs in the set list was good enough. This distinction is subtle enough, perhaps, not to matter, but a particular pleasure for the older fan.

The rest of Miller’s set was pleasurable too- including the bulk of another Miller classic album- “Book of Dreams.” Take all the prime tunes from “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Book of Dreams,” slam a few other hits in there including “The Joker,” “Livin’ in the USA” and “Abracadabra,” and you’ve got a set list that aims to please.

What was new about the show was the addition to the Miller band of vocalist Sonny Charles, formerly of the Checkmates. Charles, with full voice and some stage swagger, stepped up to give the show an unexpected shot of adrenalin, digging into some of the vintage blues and R & B tunes Miller has been recently recording for an upcoming release. Miller and all of the other guys with guitars strapped on are not particularly dull on stage, but having a free ranging vocalist on duty makes for more stage action and some effective crowd rousing. That Charles’ voice was strong and effective was also positive.

New tunes to the set list or not, Miller and band approached each selection with a comfortable confidence. While it was fun to hear the hits- like crowd-pleaser “Jungle Love” and the infectious “Take the Money and Run”- since this was the first time I had ever seen the Steve Miller Band, the parts that impressed most mightily were the more textured material. The spacey jam section of “Fly Like an Eagle” was ethereal and otherworldly in the Red Rocks environment. Two of the most successful pieces of the night were more introspective songs- “Wild Mountain Honey” was like a breath of fresh air and “Winter Time” was full and dramatic thanks to harp player Norton Buffalo. Much more driving, but still very effective was “Serenade.”

But Miller’s hit-swollen set wasn’t the only pleasure of the night. Opening the show was Joe Cocker, who also turned in a strong performance. Starting mightily with the kinetic energy of classic song “Hitchcock Railway,” Cocker ripped through several of his upbeat staples, including “Feelin’ Alright” and “The Letter.” To balance it out, Cocker also included some slower, more dramatic tunes like the impassioned “When the Night Comes,” “Up Where We Belong” and the super-sensitive “You Are So Beautiful.” But then Cocker and band plowed into their ultra funky version of the old Lovin Spoonful hit “Summer in the City” and the set became electrified again.

What followed was the highlight of Cocker’s show- a fully psychedelic version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” Throw in more Beatles stuff- “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and the predictable emotional peak, “With a Little Help from My Friends”- as well as, of course, the down and dirty “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Unchain My Heart” and you have a full, yet compact survey of Cocker’s catalog.

Cocker’s voice is as rough and tumble as ever, just as Miller’s voice remains high and clear, both bands stirring up some real power on a fine mid-summer’s night at Red Rocks.

Tent State Music Festival to End the War, Coliseum, Denver, August 27, 2008.

There wasn’t much that was peaceful at the Tent State Music Festival to End the War at the Denver Coliseum yesterday. Rage Against the Machine headed up a four-band bill that also included fast-rising Denver band the Flobots,  the Coup from Oakland and State Radio from Boston, and this band’s music is anything but peaceful. Fitful, intense, powerfully on the edge, Rage Against the Machine’s music is about as peaceful as a pair of white-knuckled fists in the air. The other bands were just about as hard and direct.

This event wasn’t about peace particularly. It was about ending the war in Iraq. Those seem to be too separate things- first one, then the other. So the harsh power of the music- hard rock, funk and hip hop hammered together into a clattering musical sheet metal- seemed appropriate for the cause at hand.

The cause was something bigger than rockers shouting on the stage. The free concert was designed to be a prelude to a four-mile march from the Coliseum to the site of the Democratic National Convention being held at the Pepsi Center in the downtown Denver area. The action was being organized and lead by the Irag Veterans Against the War- who headed up the march, many in full uniform.

In keeping an eye on the bigger reason for the gathering, the Music Festival to End the War featured various inspirational speakers between acts, including representatives of the IVAW, who read an “open letter” to Democratic candidate Barack Obama, outlining specific points of concern, as well as demonstrated to the crowd the tactics they had developed in case of arrest during the march, which was scheduled to start immediately after Rage Against the Machine set.

Other speakers included the longtime anti-war activist Ron Kovic and former Dead Kennedys’ front man Jello Biafra. Biafra gave rapid fire facts about the skullduggery of elected officials and world organizations and encouraged the crowd not to give up on activism even if a seemingly favorable candidate such as Obama wins the election. He told the crowd to continue to “blowtorch up their ass the whole time they’re in power.”

A defining moment for the music festival portion of the day was when Wayne Kramer, of the MC5, joined Rage Against the Machine for a roiling version of “Kick Out the Jams.” Kramer and his band played at the 1968 DNC. It showed that activism in rock and roll is a longstanding tradition. And it also showed that what rock and roll does is great- a good hard groove supported by snarling, chunky guitar and wailing vocals is hard to resist. It riles up a crowd every time. That’s just what rock and roll does.

But on this day, the energy stirred up by the everything-but-peaceful rock and roll of the day was put to use. The Tent State Music festival to End the War was a special show indeed. But even more special was the show put on by the activists who marched. Their message was much more powerful than those stacks of amplifiers on the stage.

Al Green, Desert Diamond Casino, Sahuarita, Arizona, September 14, 2008.

There’s a casino showroom in the desert just south of Tucson (in Sahuarita) that is worth checking out if you are in southern Arizona. The Desert Diamond Casino itself is a rather modest gambling center compared to the monolith establishments in a place like Las Vegas. The showroom, outfitted with full lighting rigs used to their best advantage, is nearly the size of the casino itself, if not a little bigger, therefore affording a relatively intimate concert experience.

On September 14, Al Green took the stage at the Desert Diamond with a 9-piece band- including a horn section- plus 3 vocalists and a pair of male dancers (one of which doubled as a vocalist.) All that musical power made it seem really easy for Green to stoke up the crowd with his full soul sound.

It’s well known that Green left pop music to become a Reverend after scoring multiple soul hits in the 1970s. In recent years, Green has returned to “secular” music, recording and touring, and his mix of sultry arrangements and personal, intimate lyrics has been welcomed with open arms by fans and critics. The crowd at the Desert Diamond was no exception. In fact, at one point, Green insisted that the dozens of female fans that had rushed the stage and began dancing at his feet sit down so the rest of the enthusiastic crowd could see the show too. (Of course, it didn’t help in that stead that part of Green’s show included the star handing out long-stemmed roses to those along the front, or tossing them out into the seating area.)

Green’s entire concert at the Desert Diamond was based on his pop music career- including some brand new songs- with only a single religious reference thrown in between tunes. While it could be said that Green had pretty light duty- allowing the band and audience to carry the songs while he moved about the stage, singing only parts of each tune- he was most certainly in charge of the proceedings, talking to the crowd and directing the band at climactic moments. He often punctuated lines in the songs with his trademark vocalizations- a kind of high-pitched squeal that rose to the top of all that sound. That Green knew the crowd would go with any flow he presented was evident when he replaced his own hits with a medley of great soul hits by artists such as the Temptations and Otis Redding, which pleased the crowd as much as his original material.

It took quite a while for the sound crew to get dialed in at the Desert Diamond- the first several tunes mixed completely out of balance. Their job, it must be said, was exasperated by Green’s penchant for stepping far back from the mike during the performance- an odd habit for someone with so much stage experience.

Still, those distracting details were ultimately overcome by Green’s strong stage presence- and the powerful band. By the end of the show (which had started a full half hour late) most of the audience was up and dancing and the crowd seemed to be buzzing happily while filing back out the doors at the end. All in all, the Desert Diamond showroom was worth the drive south of Tucson- and Green proved to be a savvy bandleader.

Robert Moses’ Kin, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, September 24, 2008.

Strength. Confidence. Assurance. This is what the Robert Moses’ Kin Dance Company projected on stage at the Lincoln Center last night. This special dance event, preceding the opening the Lincoln Center’s 2008-09 Dance Series, included the world premiere of a new piece and lots of physical- and sound- intensity.

The Robert Moses style of choreography lends itself easily to comparison to athleticism. The dancers are strong and swift, each one self-directed, often the stage full of competing movement. When interacting, the dancers support each other with poise and grace, all the while maintaining a sense of individualism. Never content to maintain any pose for long, the Robert Moses company was in constant motion- a constant flexing of muscles and motion.

But this wasn’t just dance at work here. A significant part of the presentation at the Lincoln Center had to do with the powerful and challenging soundtrack, the scores attributed to Moses and David Worm. Deep syrupy industrial music and infectious rhythms mixed with abstract vocal tracks and sound production trickery to produce some ear-tweaking effects.

Combine the progressive soundtrack with the stamina of the strong, sturdy dance company over a full concert program and you have a unique and expansive experience indeed.

This particular performance included the world premiere performance of Moses’ new work, titled “Reignforest.” Beginning and ending with a heartbeat, “Reignforest” packed the essence of Moses’ strong individualistic dance style into a relatively small, intimate package- a duet. The piece was co-commissioned by the Lincoln Center, EcoArts in Boulder and the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver.

Philadanco, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, October 5, 2008.

There were so many reasons to admire the high art of Philadanco, or the Philadelphia Dance Company, at the Lincoln Center last night. The costuming was superb, the lighting spare but exactly right on and the music well-chosen for its challenge and artifice. Oh, and let’s not forget the dance itself- firm, confident motion and choreography with a large eye for strong stage presentation.

When Philadanco took the stage in a piece titled “Ritornello,” the first thing that demanded attention was the bright red costumes that flowed easily with the active dancers. The theme of vibrant color was carried over into the second piece, “From Dawn ‘til Dusk.” In the second half, the company returned to the stage in tight, dark, athletic, urban-looking outfits for “Violin Concerto.” In the final piece, “Enemy Behind the Gates,” everyone wore smart, black uniform-like costumes. In all cases, the clothing itself added a sense of style and dignity. The lighting, then, worked well to accent and enhance the costuming, as well as showcase the constantly changing stage action.

The musical soundtrack- featuring Bach, Bobby McFerrin, Philip Glass and Steve Reich recordings- clearly established a high level of expression from the very beginning, with progressive sounds yet very strong classical overtones. Philadanco challenged itself to keep up with the music and did so with ever-shifting vignettes of solo and combination dancing.

But the general dance style of Philadanco was the most precious part of the concert. That is, a graceful and even noble style that mixed wide sweeping of the hands and arms with determined movement. The result was a kind of pride, or even joy in the act of being able to move so easily, yet firmly. Philadanco left a very strong impression indeed.

Capitol Steps, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, October 9, 2008.

The Capitol Steps know the ultimate secret to comedy- and that is, to keep things moving along quickly. A professional knows that not all jokes are created equal and if you are to keep ‘em laughing, you have to keep firing ‘em out there, hitting the funny bone as often as possible.

This was what the Capitol Steps did the best last night at the Lincoln Center as part of the Anything Goes Series. Their stage appearance, mixing spoken skits and spirited song, was a lively and irreverent presentation, delivered at a refreshingly brisk pace. Of course, the fact that the troupe specializes in political humor really helps- because there’s so much fresh material every day.

The Capitol Steps touched on current affairs often during the two-part show. They restaged the Biden-Palin debates and they skewered John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over their recent election campaigns. But the group also included sketches about more general subjects like the environment (“Holes in the Ozone,”) health care (“Ten Pills and You’re Fine,”) and the onslaught of commercialism (“Buy, Buy, American Pie.”)

But when it came right down to it, the funniest spot in the Capitol Steps’ show was the mind-twisting “Lirty Dies” which gained a lot of its hilarity from a mixing up of the spelling/pronunciation of key words in the monologue. There was an initially innocent thread to the piece in terms of meaning that got wackier and wackier as the language mix-up ensued. In the end, it almost didn’t matter what was being said as much as how.

So, above and beyond the actual subjects the Capitol Steps tackled with tongue-in-cheek, the pleasure in the performance was in the clever word play and its sharp delivery. Everybody on stage, including the accompanying pianist, worked constantly and consistently to entertain. Their big banner behind the bank of four microphones served as an entrance and exit screen on stage and as soon as one group of performers were done with their bit and exited, another was already taking the stage from the other side of the screen. That’s good show business no matter what you think of the jokes. And the big laughter in the hall most of the night told how the Fort Collins crowd liked the jokes.

eighth blackbird, Griffin Concert Hall, Fort Collins, October 23, 2008.

There’s a certain sensation that you get only when you travel far outside your home environment. Those first few minutes/hours/days are special because absolutely everything is new about the place- the sounds, smells, sights and other sensations. It’s all part of a dizzying period of initial discovery in foreign territory.

That’s a little bit like the experience of listening to eighth blackbird for the first time. The six-piece ensemble, mixing strings, winds, percussion and piano, played Griffin Concert Hall on Thursday as part of the Lincoln Center Classical Music Series. But their concert was not a lot about the music of the past, but new music with the same pungent sensory experiences as traveling to a very foreign place.

The oldest piece on eighth blackbird’s program at Griffin was Frederic Rzewski’s 1969 composition “Les moutons de Panurge,” a method piece based on adding and subtracting from a 65-note sequence. The group pointed out that Franco Donatoni was “the only dead composer” on the program for the evening. They performed his “Arpege,” featuring delightful see sawing back and forth between the instruments- flute, clarinet and vibes making a unique sound combination.

The rest of the evening was devoted to newer stuff, Kati Agocs’ three part “Immutable Dreams” and Stephen Hartke’s six part “Meanwhile,” both written in 2007, as well as pieces written in 1991 and 2001. In each case, the compositions were challenging to listen to and I can imagine very challenging to perform.

eighth blackbird’s selection of music went to a thousand different places throughout the course of the evening, thanks to music that never stayed in any one place for long. And I don’t mean that musical phrases were continually changing every eight bars or so. I mean that the musical phrases, techniques and special effects written into the music were continually changing all the time. That these composers did not rely on standard melodic or rhythmic patterns to “fill out” the flow of the music meant there was a lot more room for playfulness and experimentation.

eighth blackbird as a unit seemed completely capable of bringing each composer’s ideas to life. The ensemble not only followed the complicated, fully abstract musical flow with a professional ease, but they also added depth and breadth to the music with superb control of dynamics. At times I found myself leaning way forward to hear some thin, delicate little sounds. At other times, the ensemble came across with a forceful, intense fullness that can only be described as real musical power.

I liked how the percussionist- playing vibraphone, wood blocks, slit drums and a range of other instruments- fully enhanced the progress of the other instruments. I liked how the pianist physically dampened the strings inside the piano on one piece. I liked how Hartke’s piece called for not one but multiple flexatones- three of which were mounted specially to be played together. I liked how during Thomas Ades’ “Catch,” the clarinet player started playing off stage, ran out past the rest of the group and back out the other side.

All of this combined for an entertaining time indeed. There were plenty of fireworks on stage to keep things lively. There was even more fireworks inside the music. eighth blackbird’s concert was an invigorating trip to another land and that trip was really exciting to the ear.

Early Vote for Change Rally with Barack Obama, The Oval at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, October 26, 2008.

The Greatest Show on Earth in 2008- Barack Obama’s run for the White House- came to Fort Collins on Sunday. But despite the obvious comparisons- I mean, Obama is on the cover of the current Rolling Stone- this was no rock star. Rather, this was a whole different kind of superstar altogether.

Obama is a superstar in the world of political ideas, stepping up during a critical time in United States history to actually try to FIGURE OUT solutions to the many mounting problems facing the nation. Rather than ducking the problems, he seems to be facing them head-on.

Added to this, he is a warm and inspiring public speaker. His melodious voice couples with a confident demeanor to spell out a social logic that makes sense to large numbers of people. That was clear in Fort Collins where the line to hear Obama speak, surrounded by the very pretty fall colors of CSU’s Oval, stretched over two miles long, snaking completely across the campus and further. 45-50,000 people were reportedly at the event in Fort Collins and this was following a morning rally in Denver where the attendance was put at more than 100,000 supporters- Obama’s largest crowd yet.

Obama’s message in Fort Collins was pretty standard fare for his campaign- covering the major highlights of the economy, education and health care. Yet, it was how he eased into it- mentioning the beauty of the campus, acknowledging the crowd- that showed skill and strength. He projects a friendly, disarming image, not afraid to use a little humor to move things along smoothly, yet also not afraid to get real serious, real quick at key moments.

I’m glad I got to hear Obama speak in a live situation. During the debates with John McCain, Obama was all business, mostly having to defend himself. But in Fort Collins I felt like I got a little piece of the human being, in a relatively relaxed situation, mixing his message with just enough personality to feel like you were kind of having a conversation with the guy, rather than hearing a carefully prepared rap.

Well, the situation wasn’t particularly relaxed for the tens of thousands who showed up for Obama’s appearance on the Oval. There were a few moments where I actually felt guilty for taking a place in the general press pit, close to Obama’s podium. After all, I had to walk past that long, long, long line in order to get to the press entrance. I know how many people I was getting in front of- one of which was my own wife, who was about two miles back in the line.

However, once the crowd started filing in and grew quickly, I did not detect any bad vibes. Quite the opposite, I saw excited, even happy people, thankful they were getting a chance to taste history in the making. If Obama doesn’t win the election, he has won a lot of hearts and people were wearing them on their sleeves in Fort Collins. The cheers and chants of “Yes we can!” were heartening throughout his half hour speech- but the rest could not compare to the jolt of electricity that went through the crowd when Obama first appeared. I’ve heard those screams many times before when favorite musicians hit the stage. But now I’m hearing them because a guy is trying to talk some sense in a world that generally doesn’t. That gives me more personal hope than anything- that people are finding passion in politics again.

In Fort Collins, Obama’s appearance hit the mark. You could just feel the positive energy in the air. Everywhere I looked, I saw people grinning from ear to ear at the candidate. Obama has certainly become a superstar. Will he become a super-President?

Top Ten Concerts of 2008

1. Stevie Wonder- Fiddler’s Green, Denver, July 1.

2. Rage Against the Machine and the Flobots- Denver Coliseum, August 27.

3. Madonna- Pepsi Center, Denver, November 11.

4. Steve Miller Band and Joe Cocker- Red Rocks, Morrison, July 31.

5. Etown (subdudes/Roches- January 25; Martin Sexton/Ozomatli- November 3)- Lincoln Center, Fort Collins.

6. Roger Clyne w/ Dalton and Hickman- Road 34, Fort Collins, February 23.

7. Blast! -Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, March 31.

8. No Glow Concert featuring Lloyd Drust, Jerry Palmer and many more local heroes- Avogadro’s Number, Fort Collins, March 2.

9. Classical concerts (Romeros- February 13; eighth blackbird- October 23)- Griffin Concert Hall, Fort Collins.

10. Tristan Prettyman- Aggie Theatre, Fort Collins, March 29.

February Recommended

The 23rd Annual Mid-Winter Bluegrass Festival will be returning to the Northglenn Ramada Plaza and Convention Center in Denver, February 15-17. This year’s line-up features the Dale Ann Bradley Band, Dan Paisley and Southern Grass, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain plus perennial host band, the Bluegrass Patriots. The Festival also features jams and workshops.

PBS: Longtime bandmates George Porter Jr., Russell Batiste and Brian Stoltz have not only “fortified the backbone of the New Orleans music scene” with the Meters, the Neville Brothers, Harry Connick Jr., Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, but they have also accompanied rock icons including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Robbie Robertson, David Byrne and Paul Simon. But at Hodi’s Half Note on February 21, it’ll be all PBS, with Porter on bass, Batiste on drums and Stoltz on guitar. Also coming to Hodi’s: Fort Collins Musicians Association “Promo” workshop on February 24 and Agent Orange with Bill the Welder on March 2.

More music: Patty Larkin will be playing the Rialto Theater in Loveland on February 21. Also coming to the Rialto: the great jazz/bluegrass fusion group Pete Wernick and Flexigrass along with the Boulder Acoustic Society on February 22. Road 34 Bike Bar will be hosting two nights of Roger Clyne, Johnny Hickman, and Jim Dalton, February 22-23. At Avogadro’s Number: Chiara String Quartet on February 29 and the Nunnglow Fundraiser on Sunday, March 2, from 2-7. Coming to the Aggie Theatre: Bedouin Soundclash on February 16, Buckethead on March 6 and Les Claypool on March 11.

Front Range Chamber Players: The FRCP presents an evening of “French music for piano and strings” with the Boulder Piano Quartet at Trinity Lutheran Church, 301 E. Stuart, on March 2.

Art: Twelve artists “use the language and content of science as a means of interpreting reality” in the “Insights: Art & Science” exhibit currently on view at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, 201 S. College, through March 22.

Film: Starting on February 15 at the Lyric Cinema Café, located at 300 E. Mountain, is the film “Pesepolis,” directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. This coming-of-age story follows the development of a young Iranian girl from the fundamentalist take-over to a life of guarded social rebellion.

March Recommended

It was twenty years ago today…more or less. That’s when I published my first article in the Fort Collins press- way back in March 1988. The article was an overview of hardcore punk and the newspaper was the first issue of The Mason Street Oracle, a rowdy independent publication founded by maverick CSU students.

At that time, Fort Collins was still the Wild West in terms of publishing. There was a daily- The Coloradoan- and a weekly- The Triangle Review- and then the Oracle. I had been publishing my own stuff punk style in photocopied leaflets and pamphlets, but being in an upstart newspaper was a thrill and became a regular thing. As did writing for a number of publications in the area, including The Coloradoan’s “Ticket” section. When The Oracle cracked up, I co-founded Scene Magazine- and was editor for two years- then Beat News and Music, which lasted some four years.

Speaking of music, since writing about punk shows in my zine releases more than two decades ago, I had developed a healthy respect for musicians in general, whether a local talent or an international star- no matter what genre. And that’s how I tried to conduct business in some two thousand articles as a music writer- treating them all the same. But more, I wanted to join the supportive local music scene and released my first tape of original music in 1993 and a CD, featuring my favorite area guest artists, in 1996. Loving local music also lead to working with public radio activists to create the Northern Colorado MusicFest, which showcased literally hundreds of Colorado musicians over several years, and helped get KRFC on the air. Without question the local music scene has been a huge inspiration for me throughout my entire twenty year career.

For the past 10 years, I have found a comfortable print home with The Fort Collins Forum- certainly a way different style independent newspaper than the Oracle was. But independent, nonetheless. In 2007, I helped the Forum establish their Web site-  and became intimately familiar with the contents of the Forum’s print issue. What’s there is news and views from across our community- from personal editorials to the latest from city, county, hospital and school district officials- and a diversity of local writing from humor and history to arts and entertainment. That’s where I come in and thanks to the Forum I have been able to photograph rock and roll superstars, presidents and spiritual leaders. Yeah, it’s fun. And best of all, it gets to everybody possible- The Forum is still the region’s largest circulation newspaper.

And I’m still publishing my stuff myself. Only now, I don’t hand out photocopies, I have a couple of Web sites, which I maintain for the group I have been performing with for more than 11 years- TVS and two fingers. But my other very satisfying Web project is my live music site. Having an active Web site is a writer and photographer’s dream. People from all over the world are checking out my stuff at all times of day and night- and I’m at the controls. It most certainly is a Brave New World since I began publishing in Fort Collins in 1988- and I like it!

But let’s not close this column with a look at the past. Here’s what’s coming up: Former Fort Collins resident and acoustic music master Andy May returns to Avogadro’s Number on March 14. Outformation will be at Hodi’s on March 15. The rescheduled Jeff Dunham shows begin on March 20 at the Lincoln Center, Carrie Newcomer will be at Avo’s on March 28 and Tristan Prettyman will be at the Aggie Theatre on March 29.

April Recommended

What is Blue Man Group? That’s a question you need much more than words to answer. You have to just see this performance phenomenon’s high energy, crazy creativity for yourself. That’s easily done by checking out a cool little video on the group’s web site. It’s on the “About Blue Man Group” tab. Just click on the question “What is Blue Man Group?” and in a matter of seconds all the color, commotion and humorous weirdness that Blue Man Group packs into their shows just flashes before your eyes. There’s also some verbiage but the video does it all.

Even better, of course, is to see a Blue Man Group production yourself and you can on April 16 at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland. Their current “How to be a Megastar Tour 2.1” “embraces the rules, rituals, and raw excitement of the arena rock concert.” Also coming to the BEC: Mannheim Steamroller on April 22.

Save the Poudre Benefit: “Not Just Your Kitchen Sink: A Poudre River Art Show & Benefit,” will be a gathering of artists as well as a benefit for Save the Poudre on April 11. Scheduled for the Poudre River Arts Center from 5-10 pm, the event will feature lots of art, poetry performances, film, speakers and various creative ways to contribute to an environmental cause.

National Poetry Month: The “2008 National Poetry Month Celebration” at Avogadro’s Number on April 12 will feature a long list of regional poets and performing groups. Scheduled for this year’s event: Vortex Drive (from Longmont), MD Friedman (from Loveland), Hilary DePolo, Lisa Zimmerman, James Weis (from Cheyenne), Melissa Katsimpalis, David Michael Boyd, Bob Komives, Bill Tremblay, TVS and two fingers, as well as poets sponsored by Matter Bookstore and Matter Editors. The event will feature Open Mic opportunities for unscheduled poets and Matter Bookstore will also be displaying poetry in print. The event starts at 7 pm.

Also coming to Avo’s: The Jennifer Friedman Folk Series with Danielle Lawrence Walker and Cara Cantarella on April 13, Taarka on April 18, the Two Man Gentleman Band on April 20, another edition of the Lloyd Drust Campfire Series with Kevin Jones, Marcus Noah and Steve Murray on April 25 and Cosy Sheridan on April 26.

Live music: Ghosts of Verona will bring raging punk to Hodi’s Half Note on April 15. Also at Hodi’s: Johnny Hickman and the Piggies on April 18 and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyessy on April 24. Coming up at Road 34: Immortal Dominion on April 26, Other Side of Clearview on May 2, the Railbenders on May 10, and Doug Kershaw on June 7. Halden Wofford and the Hibeams will be at Swing Station on April 25. The Aakash Mittal Quartet, playing jazz influenced by the musical traditions of India, will perform at the Rialto Theater in Loveland on April 18. Also coming to the Rialto: the Lascivious Biddies, a “pop/jazz” quartet, on May 9.

Lincoln Center: The Imagination Series continues on April 10-11 with “The Wizard of Oz” and on April 20 with “If You Give a Pig a Party.” The Showstopper Series continues on April 29-May 2 with “Annie.” Grammy winning vocal ensemble Chanticleer will close the Classical Music Series on May 5.

Coming up at Hodi’s Half Note: Johnny Hickman and the Piggies on April 18 and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyessy on April 24. Road 34 will be hosting Immortal Dominion on April 26, the Other Side of Clearview on May 2, the Railbenders on May 10 and Doug Kershaw on June 7. Halden Wofford and the Hibeams will bring their Colorado honky-tonk to Swing Station on April 25. The Aakash Mittal Quartet, playing jazz influenced by the musical traditions of India, will perform at the Rialto Theater in Loveland on April 18. Also coming to the Rialto: the Lascivious Biddies, a “pop/jazz” quartet, on May 9. Coming to the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland: Mannheim Steamroller on April 22.

May Recommended

To some, summer means baseball. To me, summer means a hot concert schedule and I’ve already got my eye on a number of dates coming up real fast. Here are some highlights of the summer 2008 Colorado concert schedule:

Telluride Bluegrass Festival: This year might be the year. I’ve never been to the famous festival down in Telluride, but this June 19-22 just might work. The Thursday, June 19, opening night is the main reason- with headliners Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, but also including Ani DiFranco, Del McCoury and Arlo Guthrie. On June 20: Leftover Salmon, Peter Rowan, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien and more. On June 21: the Sam Bush Band, Yonder Mountain String Band, Jerry Douglas and more. On June 22: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the film “Once” plus a big jam band, Hot Rize, John Cowan and more.

Stevie Wonder: Stevie Wonder hasn’t performed in the Denver area since 1995 and it’s about time. Wonder will be returning to Denver on July 1 at Fiddler’s Green. That’s right- the name Fiddler’s Green has returned to what has been called Coors Amphitheatre the last several years. Also coming to Fiddler’s: The KOOL II oldies show headlining Jack Bruce from Cream on July 22.

Foo Fighters: The Red Rocks schedule is buzzing in 2008- like a three night run by Widespread Panic that is expected to break venue sales records, June 27-29- but my favorite dates include a two night stand by the Foo Fighters, July 14 and 15. That goes double for the Steve Miller Band and Joe Cocker date at Red Rocks on July 31.

Mile High Music Festival: July 19 and 20 sees the debut of the Mile High Music Festival- two days at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver with a very familiar cast of characters including summer concert mainstays Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Dave Matthews Band. Petty plays on July 19 along with Steve Winwood, Spoon, Michael Franti and Spearhead and many others. Matthews headlines on July 20 along with John Mayer, the Black Crowes, Flogging Molly, Colbie Caillat and many others.

Monolith Festival: The first Monolith Festival was last year’s number one concert event in the area, so year two should be pretty good too. The Monolith Festival returns to Red Rocks, September 13-14. Here are some of the bands on September 13: Devotchka, Silversun Pickups, Vampire Weekend, Neko Case, Mickey Avalon, Del that Funky Homosapien and many more. On September 14: Justice, TV on the Radio, Band of Horses, The Avett brothers, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, CSS, Tokyo Police Club and many more.

Next month: The Fort Collins free summer concert season in Old Town Square, Oak Street Plaza, the Lincoln Center, NewWestFest and more.

Don’t forget: Donna Jean and the Tricksters return to Hodi’s Half Note on May 22. Wooleye opens. George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic invade Mishawaka on May 30 and Doug Kershaw makes a rare local appearance at Road 34 Bike Bar, along with Zonky Tonk Zydeco, on June 7. Ticket alert: tickets for Madonna’s first-ever appearance in Denver- on November 11- as part of her “Sticky and Sweet” Tour- go on sale on May 31.

June Recommended

Free- that’s Fort Collins’ favorite ticket price and this is one city that aims to please in terms of live music. The traditional free concert series that abound around town during the summer are in full swing and there’s a lot going on, as usual. Here’s a quick rundown:
The Noontime Notes series happens on Tuesdays, 11:30 am-1 pm, in Oak Street Plaza. On the schedule: Mark Sloniker and Colleen Crosson on June 17, Jubilant Bridge on June 24, Shawn Waggoner and the Tumblyweeds on July 1, the Montgomery Jazz Group on July 8 and Steve Eulberg on July 15.

In Old Town Square, there are currently two major concert series. Ben and Jerry’s FAC Concert Series occurs on Fridays from 7-9 pm, featuring Daddy Rab on June 20, the Kingpins on June 27, Mark Van Ark on July 11 and Fubar II on July 18.

The Sunday Concerts on the Square are presented by Whitebird Productions, the only non-profit organization devoted entirely to the support and promotion of local music in northern Colorado. They are the people who first brought live music to Old Town Square soon after it was built and they’re still hard at it. The series runs every Sunday from 3-7 pm and the lineup includes Eldon Smith, Hide the Valuables, Force of Fiction and the Kathleen Strong Band on June 22; Howard Cunniffe, Warren Brill, Shannon’s Closet, the Add and the Seth Cowan Band on July 6; and a special “Jazz on the Square” show featuring Mike Teslow, Paul Seiz, Kathy and James and the Pat Moorhead Group on July 13.

The Lincoln Center also hosts two free summer concert series. The Fridays Live and Out to Lunch series features the Beloved Invaders on June 20, the JD Kelley (remember him from the old Linden’s days?) Blue Revue on June 27 and Colcannon on July 11. The Children’s Summer Series, on Wednesdays from 11 am-noon, this year features the Centennial Children’s Chorus on June 18, Sandbox Stories on June 25, Mr. Shine on July 2, Abbie the Clown on July 9 and the PrestoDigitators July 16.

Also, don’t forget the Lagoon Summer Concert Series on the west lawn of the Lory Student Center at CSU. The series runs on Wednesdays from 6:30-8:30 pm and starts up with the Lindsey O’Brien Band on July 9, followed by the Poudre River Band on July 16. The Thursday Night Music and More Concert Series also returns to Civic Center Plaza, on Thursdays from 6-8 pm. That gets kicked off by Halden Wofford and the HiBeams on July 10, followed by Archie Funker on July 17. And the mother of all area free music events is just around the corner. The NewWestFest is scheduled this year for August 15-17.

Free Gnarls Barkley: Also free is a notable event happening in Denver on June 28. That’s when Southern Comfort brings its SoCo Music Experience Tour to the parking lot of Coors Field. The headliner is Gnarls Barkley, but the line-up, cranking on two stages, also includes Blonde Redhead, the Swayback, P-Nuckle, Hot IQs, the Laylights, Bassnectar and more. Again, that one is free, but only to 21 and over patrons.

More music (not free): Russ Hopkins and Jerry Palmer celebrate a “Triple Decker CD Party” at Avogadro’s Number on June 27. Stevie Wonder plays Fiddler’s Green in Denver on July 1 and the Sam Bush Band returns to the Mishawaka Amphitheatre on July 12.

July Recommended

It’s early July and unusually cool in Colorado. I only mean that we haven’t been frying in the full, hot sun for weeks at a time which we have been about this time in the last few years. There have been a lot of clouds and thunderstorms so far in the summer of 2008.

One storm that came through the area recently was one of my favorite performers of all time- Stevie Wonder. Despite the hassle of driving down construction torn I-25 and wading through the worst of Denver rush hour traffic, his show at Fiddler’s Green in Denver on July 1- his first in the area for 13 years- was a welcome change in the weather indeed.

It’s OK calling Wonder a storm. He is a big storm of musical talent- playing the harmonica like no one else does, deftly working the keyboards and using that great, soothing yet piercing voice of his to find every note, every tonal quality, every ounce of expression out of every great melody he applies it to.

But Wonder is more than just a musical dynamo. He is also a big storm of positive energy, lighting up the sky everywhere he goes with a message of unity and the ability to cross cultural boundaries easily and even triumphantly. This might be a well-developed, consciously nurtured pose, but one the world needs so desperately.  If Stevie Wonder is a storm, then the rain he brings is very welcome- so let it pour.

I felt Stevie Wonder’s inspiration even from the very top of the grass area at Fiddler’s Green and there’s a lesson in that. Inspiration- especially positive inspiration- is so very necessary for everyone. No one can keep their own batteries charged without input from the outside. And when Stevie Wonder comes around, I’m one person that will hold my lightning rod as high as it will go- I get that kind of inspiration from this great musician.

Stevie Wonder may not do that for you and that’s just fine with me. The point really is that when you find something that really charges you up- for the better, I would hope- you must pursue it. It is an essential part of human survival to nourish the inside with what you surround yourself with on the outside. I’m temporarily filled up now thanks to Stevie Wonder and have learned just how important that is. To stay strong means continuing to find positive inspiration in the world long after Stevie Wonder’s storm has passed beyond the horizon.

Coming up at the Aggie Theatre: The return of Matson Jones, along with Monofog, Magic Cyclops and Charly “City Mouse” Fasano on July 25. Also coming to the Aggie: the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on August 1 and Grieves on August 16. Coming to Swing Station: Wayne Hancock, “the Master of Hillbilly Swing,” on July 27. At Hodi’s Half Note: Black Pegasus on July 25; Road 34 Bike Bar: John Alex-Mason on Aug 9; and Lucky Joe’s: Scott Allen on July 26. The Steve Miller Band and Joe Cocker play Red Rocks on July 31.

Reminder: The NewWestFest is coming up and Bohemian Nights will be returning to the downtown festival, August15-17, with lots of free live music. They’ve got five stages- Taj Mahal headlining on August 16 and Little Feat on August17- and lots of Colorado bands.

August Recommended

I know what’s going to be happening in downtown Fort Collins on August 17. The Mountain Avenue stage for the Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest is going to be rocking with the music of Little Feat and there’s going to be several thousand people out there singing along to those old, comfortable songs.

Little Feat knows that a lot of people love singing their songs, so it was natural enough for them to use that to their advantage on their latest release, “Join the Band.” On this project, they tapped a diverse roster of extra help including Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, Bob Seger, Chris Robinson and many more. The band and friends collaborated on new recordings of many of Little Feat’s most popular songs, including “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “Dixie Chicken” and “Willin’,” and the result is kind of like a free-for-all musical party- kind of like one of the band’s live shows.

While the NewWestFest offers the opportunity for Little Feat fans in northern Colorado to “join the band,” the event, scheduled in the downtown area August 15-17, will be brimming over with plenty of other great live music.

STS9: Something cool is coming this way. That is, two dates at Red Rocks, September 5-6, by California progressive jammers STS9. STS9 (at one time known as Sound Tribe Sector 9) have just released their fourth album, “Peaceblaster,” and the record is interesting indeed. First of all, there is no vocalist wailing away, distracting from the music. Instead, vocals are a part of the sound but not the focus, which is more on creating a “sound environment” fusing rock and electronica in equal measures.

STS9, a band that Pollstar magazine ranks among the top live acts touring today, encourages independent thinking in their music- by making challenging combinations of sounds and grooves- as well as in action. The group has recently developed a web site where fans can find copies of the Bill of Rights, speeches by Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King Jr. and links to alternative media outlets. At Red Rocks, Talib Kweli and Flying Lotus open on September 5 and Ghostland Observatory and Bassnectar open on September 6.

Also coming to Red Rocks: the Foo Fighters rescheduled dates, September 8-9. Tickets from the original July 14-15 dates will be honored. The Monolith Festival- the most challenging and progressive music festival event in the region- returns to Red Rocks on September 13-14 with headliners Devotchka and Justice, along with about a thousand other bands heating up the international indie rock circuit.

More music: Avogadro’s Number will be hosting their 2nd Annual Jazz Festival on September 1. Also coming to Avo’s: the Laws on August 22 and Colcannon on August 24. Coming to the Aggie Theatre: 3OH!3 on August 28, Terror on September 9 and Cloud Cult on September 11. At Swing Station: Dikki Du & the Zydeco Crewe on August 31.

The Mishawaka Amphitheatre hosts the Fire Mountain Music Festival on August 22-23 featuring the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Euforquestra, Prism, Lettuce, Soulive, W Mob and the Grip. Also at the Mish: the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet on September 6, the Derek Trucks Band on September 13, Pato Banton on September 19 and Buckethead with That 1 Guy on September 20. At Road 34: the Hot IQs on September 5.

Afterword: Perhaps only an older Steve Miller Band fan will appreciate this. While jotting down notes about Miller’s set list at Red Rocks on July 31, I realized that throughout the course of the evening, he had played the entire first side of his classic “Fly Like an Eagle” album. That’s “first side” as in the first side of the original vinyl release.

For many, those “first sides” (or “second sides,” whichever were better) of albums were one of the inevitable consequences of the vinyl format. The technology required that the music of any particular collection had to be divided onto separate sides of the product. Changing tracks while the vinyl was spinning was easily done, but potentially hazardous to the record, so, often, listening to vinyl LPs meant putting on a whole side to an album at a time. That would mean some twenty plus minutes of uninterrupted music- before having to change the record.

That whole sides of albums were the most convenient way to listen to vinyl affected everything about how artists looked at assembling their records. In fact, whole sides to albums became an art form in itself in song choices, sequencing and mixing. Because of that, “classic” albums often had a “classic” side everyone always listened to, and then the “other” side. The Side One of Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” is one of those classic album sides, and though not played in sequence at Red Rocks, just having all those songs in the set list was good enough. This distinction is subtle enough, perhaps, not to matter, but a particular pleasure for the older fan.

September Recommended

The Lincoln Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary season beginning this month and I’d like to celebrate too by bringing to mind a lot of the memorable shows I’ve seen within its walls.

I went to my first Lincoln Center show shortly after moving to Fort Collins in the fall of 1980. I had just snagged a job at a big record store and one of the perks was getting on the guest list for local concert productions- kind of. When I arrived at the Lincoln Center to see Leon Russell- touring at that time with the New Grass Revival- my name wasn’t on the list, but they let me in anyhow. Tales of previous shows by U-2 and the Talking Heads at the Lincoln Center made moving to Fort Collins promising for a live music fan.

Soon after the Leon Russell show, that same record store job lead to a very memorable show at the Lincoln Center. I signed on to work backstage security for a show headlining George Thorogood and the Destroyers. My partner and I worked through the first show and then were released with premium tickets to go watch the second show from the audience.

I stopped in the rest room to not only find the room very busy, but also that the paper towel waste can was on fire. Jokes were flying around about what to do about it, but I couldn’t help but immediately get to the sink, cup some water in my hands and douse the flames. I let someone in the ticket booth know about the fire- and they appropriately freaked out- and went in to find my seat. I distinctly remember that while Thorogood and band were busy being bad to the bone on stage that a young fellow in the row in front of me was rocking and rolling by jumping up and down on his seat, a whiskey bottle falling out of his back pocket.

The Lincoln Center seemed to change after that. The facility was not made to be beat up by the rigors of screaming popular bands and it seemed that, post-Thorogood, the schedule at the Lincoln Center veered toward a more refined sense of showmanship. That was a good thing because had the rock and roll riot continued, the Lincoln Center might not have made 10 years, let alone 30.

So over the years, the amount of great music- and other entertainment (like David Copperfield and Momix)- that I have seen at the Lincoln Center is staggering. One of the very best shows was Suzanne Vega in 1987. Other extra great shows at the Lincoln Center included a 1991 tour featuring Christine Lavin, Patty Larkin, John Gorka and David Wilcox; Kronos Quartet in1998; and a 2002 concert by Peter Kater with Nawang Khechog and R. Carlos Nakai. Most recently, I thought the 2006 Acoustic Africa show was exciting indeed as well as the 2007 appearance by the East Village Opera Company.

I also remember the chest-rattling power of the Kodo Drummers, a fun marathon show by Willie Nelson, sets by reggae legend Peter Tosh, Bruce Cockburn, Los Lobos, BB King and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. The subdudes recorded live at the Lincoln Center and E-Town has decamped from Boulder on occasion to tape their show in Fort Collins. More excellent shows at the Lincoln Center included Chet Atkins, Chuck Berry, John Prine, Joan Baez, Lyle Lovett, Michelle Shocked, the Chieftains, George Carlin, Michael Hedges, Tracy Chapman, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones with Sam Bush, Laurie Anderson, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Ray Charles and Randy Newman. In the Mini Theatre, some good memories include seeing the Roches, the Neville Brothers, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Kate Wolf and John Stewart.
Now, these are just some of my memories. Imagine 30 years worth of memories for the whole community- that is really the heart of what the Lincoln Center has meant to Fort Collins- lots and lots of good times. And the good times will continue in the 2008-2009 season, starting with the special tour combination of the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, set to open the Showstopper Series at the Lincoln Center September 16-21.

October Recommended

This is going to be a little bit different arts and entertainment column this month. This time, I’m writing from the inside.

Throughout my years as a writer about music, I have interviewed hundreds of musicians from all different genres. When it came time to talk about the craft of songwriting, very often the musicians I talked to referred to songwriting in less than concrete terms. In short, it was kind of mystifying to many of them. Some talked about how songs would come to them at the oddest times and seemingly without warning. Some compared themselves to receiving towers and that the inspiration to write a song just seemed to come out of thin air. Some even had music come to them in their dreams.

This is what happened to me just recently. I was on my regular noontime walk and there was something about the rhythm of my step that suggested something to me. My head pretty much is in a musical state most of the time anyway, so I went along for the ride with this feeling.

The rhythm of my steps suggested a beat and for some reason I added the sound of a long “o” to the mix. Since this was only days after Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver for the Democratic Presidential nomination, the long “o” sound connected up with the name “Obama” and the kernel of a song had spouted.