2011 Articles

by Tim Van Schmidt

Black-Eyed Peas, Super Bowl broadcast, February 6, 2011.

The Black Eyed Peas’ Super Bowl performance was of Olympic proportions. I mean that literally- their halftime show looked like it had been designed for the Olympics- with armies of dancers spread out across the field with special effects enhancing the movement in a constant, busy display.

On display in the middle of it all was the four-member hip pop group featuring will.i.am, Fergie, Taboo and apl.de.ap. Each one had an outrageously designed costume. will.i.am, along with some space age threads, was wearing some kind of plastic skullcap. Fergie sported lots of frilly stuff and the other two worked off of punk, rap fashion- that is except for apl.de.ap’s electric suit. Like heroic comic book characters they arrayed themselves around the stage, posing dramatically while delivering abridged versions of hits, like Prince did some few years ago at the Super Bowl.

But the difference here was that the Black Eyed Peas weren’t playing to an audience. Oh sure, the stadium was jammed full and millions were watching at home, but the performers didn’t have anyone in their immediate vicinity to play to. The group was more projecting into space than working the stage.

Joining the Black Eyed Peas during the show was guitarist Slash and vocalist Usher. I have to admit, Usher kicked the stage action into overdrive when he and a troupe of dancers appeared.

Still, with all the hoopla, I can’t say that the Black Eyed Peas music reached me. Honestly hip pop has never sounded good to me in a big stadium- just booming voices that I can rarely understand. Fergie, in particular, put in some impassioned vocal work, but the general emphasis on rhythm, as opposed to melody, just makes it less interesting to someone unfamiliar with the music in the first place.

So is this a function of being older? I’ll agree that the old classics rockers- Paul McCartney, the Who, the Rolling Stones as well as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty- have pretty much been played out in recent years at the Super Bowl. The Black Eyed Peas were a leap forward musically- currently one of the most successful pop bands on the planet- but I’m not sure their music really works in such a big, overblown environment.

The reason those old guys have been successful for so long is that they really know how to rock a stadium. Part of that has to do with melody and song structure. The emphasis in the Black Eyed Peas set was all show- like at the Olympics- with costumes, custom lights and big images. That is spectacular for sure, but makes the music secondary. Despite the futuristic costumes, the Black Eyed Peas just rap and shout like everybody else- and where was the band that was chugging along underneath? Nowhere to be seen on the television screen anyway.

So it depends on what you want at the Super Bowl- something cool to look at- which the Black Eyed Peas definitely fill that bill- or a band that can get it going across generational divides. My vote: make mine rock and roll.

Producer Makes Music Happen
Russ Hopkins Broadens His Horizons

It’s a new title but an old role for longtime Northern Colorado music figure Russ Hopkins: producer. Hopkins has not only been known as a passionate singer-songwriter but also as the operator of KIVA Records, a studio that has pumped out a wide diversity of music- from delicate acoustic sounds and raging rock to Native American drum music and inspirational folk. Hopkins has been a reliably creative engineer and an insightful ear for countless sessions, always searching for what sound best fits the spirit of the moment.

In 2011, Hopkins has just put out his shingle as a producer, but, really, it’s what he has been doing all along. Pick any of the scores of recording projects that Hopkins has been involved with and the music that you hear is the result of not only Hopkins’ know-how at the board to capture the sounds but also his quick mind at discovering ways to enhance the success of the final product.

At least this was my experience when I recorded with Hopkins on my album “Sunshine Songs.” Hopkins is listed as my co-producer, but really, that project would never have gotten off the ground without Hopkins’ guidance. For “Sunshine Songs,” I recorded 18 pieces of music, brought in 31 musicians and laid down way too many tracks. Hopkins’ cool presence always helped make the sessions go smoothly and his musical ideas always made my final recordings much better.

I’ve also seen Hopkins’ recording and producing savvy at work with other musicians. For example, I remember covering the recording of some of subdude keyboardist John Magnie’s Parlor Session recordings as a journalist. The scene was at an area guesthouse snuggled right up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There were wires and microphones and instruments everywhere in the broad common room and the only one who knew how it was all connected up was Hopkins, who calmly and patiently had it under control as the cream of Northern Colorado musicians streamed in and out of the door.

But much more personally, I have experienced Hopkins’ way with music as a performer. Hopkins and I have played often together, from no-holds-barred jams at Avogadro’s Number in Fort Collins to opening for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen at the Rialto Theater in Loveland. I have made music with Hopkins in several different ways, but we have had some of our best moments on stage.

Hopkins and I have had plenty of other musical experiences together. We created an all-Colorado music compilation for a major area music festival. We also recorded a whole album full of bilingual kids’ music, featuring the voices of an entire school full of kids.

But I think if you took a survey of Hopkins’ client base, you probably could get a whole lot more stories like mine. That’s because that’s what you get when Hopkins is on the scene- total creative involvement. As far as I know- I wrote my first article about Hopkins for the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 1992- it has always been like this. So, the bottom line is that if Russ Hopkins tells you he is a producer- you can believe it fully. Just don’t believe that its something he’s new at.

My town rocks hard! What about yours?

We like live music in our town. We like it a lot.

In fact, we like it so much in Fort Collins, Colorado, that we seem to celebrate live music 24/7/365. Most recently- just this last weekend- the Fort Collins Musicians Association hosted yet another music festival in our city’s many and diverse venues. It’s called the Fort Collins Music Experiment- FOCOMX- and this year there were well over two hundred performers- everything from the sweetest solo singer to the roughest, rawest hardcore metal band- playing everywhere from the big live music theater in town and nightclubs to butcher shops, breweries, movie theaters and more.

That’s part of the attitude in Fort Collins- we don’t necessarily care if a big star or a hot-selling band comes to play festivals like FOCOMX. We’re perfectly happy and EXCITED about making our own music here- and getting out to play it for our family, friends and fans. If what FOCOMX is trying to represent about the music scene in Northern Colorado is true- that this is the home to literally hundreds of bands of all stripes- then we have musicians hiding under every rock around here. And when an event like FOCOMX comes around, they all want to come out to play.

Last weekend at FOCOMX I saw some cool stuff- a musical saw player, a band made up of zombies, delicate jazz, cellos mixing with raging guitars, a band in the middle of a bowling alley and lots of raucous, extroverted behavior on stage. But I’ll admit what brightened my weekend the most was seeing the Lincoln House Band- a collection of Junior High kids who are being taught to rock properly- cranking out upbeat versions of songs by Santana, U-2 and the Go Gos. As they played- and they were a big band- I scanned around the room and saw people nodding their heads and tapping their feet to the music. These kids were doing their job as well as anyone else in the festival.

Now, really, THAT’S how much we like live music in Fort Collins. We not only like it for ourselves, but we’re also teaching our kids how to express themselves with style.

Of course, the proof of what I’m saying here doesn’t just begin and end with FOCOMX. All summer long we have live music series playing throughout the city and we’ve got the region’s premier live music event to look forward to in August- Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest. Of course, our music venues- and even some places that aren’t- keep the city rocking every day, every week. Our musicians are also always supporting various benefit causes by banding together in special events at the drop of a hat.

You want live music? Come to Fort Collins and see how it’s done- it’s not about overblown stardom or outrageous riches- it’s about keeping a fire burning that lasts all year long.

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Filthy Children, Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellevue, May 27, 2011.

I saw a hungry man on stage at Mishawaka last night. That is, Trombone Shorty. I say he’s hungry because I got a sense that this guy was at the top of his game yet he’s still young enough to be trying for more. Chances are you’ll be hearing about Trombone Shorty for years to come, but this seems to be a prime time for this multi-talented musician. He’s got plenty of chops, but he still hasn’t seen it all yet- like playing at Mishawaka, the region’s finest mountain music venue.

Shorty even said it from the stage, that it is hard to play at relatively high altitude- especially for a guy from New Orleans- but other than mentioning it, there was no clue to the exuberant crowd that he was coming up with less. Shorty didn’t just play the trombone, he blasted through it, at breakneck speed but with plenty of accuracy. He did the same on the trumpet at an even greater speed and with a much higher, tighter range.

But nearly as important as his role as a hot instrumentalist, Shorty was a demonstrative bandleader, rallying his churning 6-piece outfit at key points with man-on-fire body language. He also turned out to be an exciting vocalist and his version of Marvin Gaye’s hit “Let’s Get It On” fully showcased his range and expression.

Then, there was the music. Shorty and band definitely brought the “new” part of New Orleans music, because there wasn’t much about their roiling funk that recalled the Crescent City’s traditional music, particularly. Sure, they included a Louis Armstrong piece, but it didn’t take long for the group to whip that one into something funky. Mostly, it was great big groove music- often tough, swaggering and highly electric- something that at Mishawaka just kind of took over the band and the gyrating, yelping crowd for a rousing, satisfying set.

Trombone Shorty’s Band wasn’t the only one working the grooves, either. Opening band, Denver’s Filthy Children, also cooked along at a rollicking party pace.

All this meant that Mishawaka’s 2011 summer season got off to an upbeat start. The venue, now under new ownership, dusted itself off for the Waterfront Festival May 20-22, then cranked up Trombone Shorty to introduce the rest of the year’s schedule that includes Hot Tuna on July 2.

That the venue has some new energy is apparent. To begin with, I took advantage of the new shuttle bus system that drove from locations in Fort Collins to Mishawaka and back at the end of the evening. Rather than feeling stuck without my car, I more or less relaxed about the transportation aspect of a trip to Mishawaka. Many other Mish patrons also had the same idea and the first shuttle bus that arrived at Chippers Lanes North had limited seating and some people had to wait for the next bus. This indicates the system is an initial success- and that despite the ease of it in general,  patrons may still have to be a little patient.

The other thing that struck me about the “new” Mishawaka was the availability of servers throughout the venue. You didn’t have to look far or wait long to find someone to buy a drink or food from. In general, there was an upbeat vibe going at the venue- and not just from the stage- and that’s good news for area music fans. A revitalized Mishawaka- one striving to bring in new services and fresh contemporary music- is a welcome development indeed.

Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest, Fort Collins, August 12-14, 2011.

“Wow!” Hazel Miller said it from the stage in Library Park during her rollicking rhythm and blues set, capping off a full weekend of amazing musical power and style. Her one-word review of Bohemian Nights is really all you need to know about the event that has kept Fort Collins rocking HARD for seven years now- but I’m going to tell you what I saw anyway.

And I saw plenty. During the course of Bohemian Nights, featuring a handful of headliners from out of town and another 80 top notch Colorado bands to boot, I managed to get to 59 performances over the three days. Now that’s really trucking, but made possible by a carefully constructed schedule with staggered start times and the fact that the five main stages that I visited were within just a few minutes walk from each other. I not only saw great music, but I lost a little weight too.

While I made it a point to stay with each performer for at least 2-3 songs, there was one great band that had me glued to the spot during Bohemian Nights- Bop Skizzum on the Linden Street Stage on Sunday. A big powerful band with a full horn section, Bop Skizzum also features an energetic front woman who had stage control down to an art. Temporarily, I forgot about the rest of the schedule while this band was raging on stage.

In fact, I got caught up by a number of bands on Linden Street.  That included one of the next great discoveries of Bohemian Nights- Another Kind of Magick. From Wyoming, this band features young men- the oldest of which is 17- who pumped out a very worldly and convincing blues, aided by a front man-guitarist who put in extra work to keep things lively.

Also on Linden Street, I was impressed by the crowd-rousing power of Air Dubai. And speaking of power- I had seen the Epilogues before, at the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks- but the band on stage at Bohemian Nights was ten times more passionate and electrified. Also passionate and electrified on Linden Street was the front man for Chain Gang of 1974- and the drummer-singer for Wire Faces.

Of course, Linden Street was just one of the stages and the highlights were plentiful elsewhere as well. In Old Town Square, for example, that crazy zombie band Widow’s Bane managed to pull off their dark, roiling rock in the broad daylight.

At the Singer-Songwriters stage I saw several all-star lineups on stage- the Atoll’s Cary Morin joined both Dave Kimball and Scott Allen, who also brought along with him Ralph Rivera. Mollie O’Brien not only brought her husband Rich Moore on stage, but also John Magnie, of the subdudes. The stage was also full of musicians for the Sunshine House’s final band gig.

I even enjoyed visiting the Kid’s Music Adventure Stage, checking out a MC-DJ team called the Littleague and keyboardist Docotr Noize. Both performers had the kids up and jumping with positive, upbeat energy.

Of course the big headliners- the experts from out of town- dominated the Mountain Avenue Stage with Cracker and G Love rocking on Friday, the Tedeschi Trucks Band on Saturday and Asleep at the Wheel on Sunday, after a drenching rain shower. G Love is cool, true enough, but the Tedeschi Trucks Band came out punching with a big sound, real horns and a confidence made possible only by a cohesive unit. It didn’t matter what they were playing- a deep, rough original or a Sly and the Family Stone cover- the Tedeschi Trucks Band delivered plenty.

The Mountain Avenue Stage also featured big Colorado bands too. How can you resist the infectious energy of the Patti Fiasco? With revival fervor, Musketeer Gripweed defied the hot sun that beat down on the festival throughout most of the three day run to put in an over-the-top performance. One of my favorite local bands, the Lindsey O’Brien Band- sounded great on the big stage and John-Alex Mason made his cigar-box guitar rock plenty on Mountain. I enjoyed getting a taste of Dovekins but the biggest treat of the entire three days on Mountain was the set by Nathaniel Rateliff and Fairchildren. Rateliff writes finely textured songs, fleshed out by a powerful band sound- I want to hear more of that.

If I had to pick a favorite venue, though, I think my choice this year would be Library Park. The wide diversity of the music presented there over the course of festival was impressive indeed. SHEL’s savory folk pop ruled on Saturday afternoon and in the evening Finnders and Youngberg as well as the Emmitt-Nershi Band showcased top shelf bluegrass and roots acoustic music.  On Sunday morning I had the pleasure of starting the day with Indomables Musical’s upbeat dance music and then let my jaw drop during Otis Taylor’s “trance blues” set later in the day- his is a deep and moving music, raw and primal.

But finally, this brings me right back to Hazel Miller. Her band closed out the schedule at Library Park with a rhythm and blues celebration. The band seemed wound up, Miller seemed to be having a good time and the crowd was right there with them. So when Miller and band came back out for an encore- a rare occasion at Bohemian Nights- it didn’t matter what they played as long as they just kept playing. Miller and crew cranked into a driving version of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” and the crowd knew just what to do- get busy and dance. Now that’s what I call a beautiful end to a major event that freely mixes big music with local culture. “Wow!” Right on, Hazel!

Return to Forever IV, Zappa Plays Zappa, Paramount Theatre, Denver, August 27, 2011.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw at the Paramount Theatre on August 27. That is, a theater jammed full of music fans brought to their feet and cheering by jazz fusion music. This wasn’t just an appreciative crowd, but devotees to a progressive music that has long passed its commercial prime on record, but evidently still maintains some punch on the concert stage. Standing ovations occurred regularly throughout the evening and the cheers were loud and long.

The occasion was a new grouping of the great jazz fusion unit Return to Forever, featuring longtime members Chick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass and Lenny White on drums. Joining them was longtime Corea band member Frank Gambale on guitar and Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Ponty was the fresh wild card in the mix and he not only wove his melodic sound easily into the evening’s music, but also fielded a great deal of adoration from the audience. You just don’t get to see Ponty play very much and not in such an upbeat, creative environment.

And that’s what Return to Forever is- an upbeat, creative environment. At the Paramount in Denver, the set list included some RTF standards as well as compositions by Ponty and Clarke but it didn’t seem to matter which tune the band focused on- it was the  communication between the players that mattered most. And the players in this version of Return to Forever- dubbed “IV”- seemed to be enjoying each other immensely. Clarke in particular ranged about the stage and made sure he connected with everybody- a jamming moment with Ponty, a friendly clash of string work with Gambale, synching deep into a groove with White and gazing knowingly at Corea, his longtime musical foil. Clarke’s smile was often broad and bright throughout the evening and that in itself went a long way to proving that there wasn’t much animosity between these elite players- just musical fun.

It was funny- before this show, a writer in the Denver Post proposed to Corea that he must be the most prolific jazz keyboardist alive- in terms of playing more notes than anyone else. But forget just Corea- I would nominate Return to Forever as the band who has played the most notes in general- just between Corea, Clarke and White, they are a whirlwind of sound- but then add Gambale and Ponty in there and you have plenty of power and lots and lots of notes.

While you could call Return to Forever IV’s show a triumph at the Paramount- ending in dramatic cheers and fist pumping from the crowd- they were only half of the show. The opening band was the Frank Zappa tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa, lead by his son Dweezil. This eight-member unit labored with love recreating father Zappa’s intricate and madcap music, jumping from complicated musical figure to complicated musical figure with ease. You could tell that this group gained its power from not only accomplishing the difficult task of playing the music, but also from doing it with some freshness and contemporary style. Just the fact that they were all on the same page musically was a good place to start, but then it became clear that being in the middle of this music wasn’t just a chore to be accomplished but was also fun. Damn, I’d be happy if I could master all of that instrumental precision alone, but to really be part of a group that was all doing it at the same time has got to be a strong rush.

You might say that the audience reaction to Zappa Plays Zappa was even stronger than the response to Return to Forever. But this is just splitting hairs. The bottom line here is that progressive instrumental- and just plain mental- music is alive and well and there are still fans who are willing to cheer a blinding exchange of instrumental prowess, with or without a connection to commercial popularity. Return to Forever? Return to Play Me More is more like it.

Rick Zelinsky’s Tribute to Jazz Masters, Taproot, Anchorage, Alaska, September 22, 2011.

I didn’t have to introduce myself to Anchorage saxophonist Rick Zelinsky at his recent Tribute to Jazz Masters event at the Taproot in Anchorage- he strode right up to me and beat me to the punch. I was going to tell him that I was from out of town, picked up on his special jazz series in the local entertainment listings and enjoyed seeing his ensemble at the Taproot- and I did that- but not until he greeted me first.

I don’t think Zelinsky had specifically picked me out of the crowd to talk to. I watched him circulating through the room, greeting patrons all through the set break. This kind of graciousness and friendliness just seems to be a part of his thing- a professional scene-building approach. That graciousness was also transferred on stage when Zelinsky and a four piece band focused on the music of jazzman Gerry Mulligan for this particular date.

Zelinsky explained it to me- the Tribute to Jazz Masters events were scheduled for every two months and concentrated on the work of a particular classic performer. Although Zelinsky did some explaining about the history of the pieces the band- featuring drums, upright bass, trumpet/flugelhorn, vibes and Zelinsky on sax- tackled on stage at the Taproot on September 22, he let the music do most of the talking. Throughout the evening, the band approached the material with sensitivity and a savvy sense of playing together-trading solos and having fun with the moment while keeping on track with the composition itself.

In checking out Anchorage entertainment listings, I ran across Zelinsky’s name several times, at several venues. That said to me that the guy loves playing music and it showed at the Taproot. The whole group seemed to be up for the challenge of playing the Gerry Mulligan stuff. And while this shouldn’t be taken wrong- everybody in the band put out during their solos- I couldn’t help but notice that the drummer in particular seemed to having a great night.

The Taproot turned out to be a comfortable venue with a wide open showroom and a relaxed atmosphere. The wait people were just as friendly as Zelinsky- and maybe I should say just as friendly as a lot of the people I met in Anchorage- and the place not only stocks a full selection of Alaskan brews, but also a dynamite flourless chocolate cake. The stage was a generous size considering how big the venue is to begin with, but that indicates to me the dedication the Taproot has to live music. They have music seven nights a week, from regular blues, jazz, open mic and “hoedown” nights to local and touring bands.

During the set break, Zelinsky told me that he and his group work hard on the music for these Jazz Masters shows. Up next for Zelinsky and friends will be the music of Thelonious Monk. If I was in Anchorage for that one, I would be there.

Temple Grandin, Front Range Community College, Fort Collins, October 3, 2011.

One thing I took away from Dr Temple Grandin’s talk at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins on October 3, “Different Kinds of Minds,” was a head full of facts and figures. Grandin had a lot of ammunition on hand to support her beliefs that human beings think in a number of different ways and that allowing these differences to flourish was essential to our progress in general. Grandin flashed the ideas on a screen and talked quickly and confidently about these issues at length.

Grandin should know about thinking differently- she has revolutionized how the meatpacking industry handles the processing of cattle while being a person with autism. She attributes her success in part to her autism in that autistics tend to think visually, categorizing information in the brain in a special way that allows the ability to “see” things in a different way than people without autism. In Grandin’s case, she put this ability to use visualizing the experience of cattle being herded into slaughter houses and suggested new designs that eliminated stress for the animals and eased the process.

This is all well known now about Grandin partly because of an excellent 2010 HBO movie special, “Temple Grandin,” starring Claire Danes as Grandin. The movie creatively illustrates Grandin’s mode of thinking as much as the story of the hurdles she had to get beyond to get her ideas noticed. Grandin was also named among the top 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2010, so her story has seen plenty of attention.

Grandin’s appearance at FRCC was being presented by the Learning Opportunity Center and Student Life in observance of “Disability Awareness Month.” Speaking as an autistic person, Grandin encouraged students to look to their strengths- their own way of thinking- and develop careers that include those strengths.

But more than picking up a head full of new information from Grandin’s talk, I more importantly picked up a new attitude inspired by the speaker herself.  Grandin was so very full of information and seemed so eager to share it that I could not help but be taken in by her excitement. It’s not enough to just know things, but you must share it too and Grandin is a whirlwind of that as an effective speaker, best-selling author and associate professor at Colorado State University.

After Grandin finished her talk at FRCC, scores of fans lined up by the book store to have books signed and photos taken. It’s a reflection of her “star power” so to speak, but also of the strength of her message: we can and should be able to think differently and work together at the same time.

CD Review
“Band Together Volume II” Spokes Buzz Fort Collins

This record made me sweat. I mean that literally- I work out in a private gym where I can put on any music I want at any volume and the new Spokes Buzz compilation of Fort Collins area music helped me eat up MILES on the tread mill. This isn’t a frivolous review- I found Spokes Buzz’s “Band Together Volume II” upbeat and energetic, just what you need for a good work out. The whole collection works together in a unified surge of blood pumping musical creativity that says something big about this bit of home turf- we’re not just playing around here, we’re playing hard.

As the name suggests, this is the second volume in a series of CD releases by the Fort Collins organization Spokes Buzz. That’s the group that is taking Fort Collins area music seriously- nurturing and promoting bands that are already working their butts off, getting them onto compilations like the “Band Together” CDs and onto stages like at the SXSW music industry showcase in Austin.

Diversity, of course, has to be the first word that comes to mind when spinning “Band Together Volume II.” The music here swings from countrified cornbread to deep electric passion. Hip hop and reggae, funk, soul and roiling rock- it’s all in there. This isn’t simple stuff either- production values are high- horns, strings adding to the finely textured music arranged and recorded with technical savvy.

The highlights are plentiful on “Band Together Volume II.” It all gets going like a jet taking off with Post Paradise’s “A Way With Words.” Common Anomaly’s “Funnel Down” is the other big rock standout track- stirring up both sonic power and passion. Just as energetic but way on the other side of delicacy is the Holler!’s “Gratitude”- a pleasing ode to the bike culture- and the Euforquestra’s bright, crisp “Soup.” Peace Officer lays down some righteous lyrics and effective grooves on both “New Day” and “Dollars” and Musketeer Gripweed whips up a little Southern-fried gospel rock on “Dyin’ Day.”

My personal favorite, however, is the Lindsey O’Brien Band’s “Fast Forward.” It had just the right groove at the moment I heard it- starting out so scratchy and “tired” then gathering power until, indeed, you can believe that nothing’s gonna stop it- not now, not yet. Of course, that’s not all there is here- there’re 18 tracks altogether, also featuring the Honey Gitters and Constitution- helping represent the more rootsy side of area music- and funky, groovy Trichome. The package contains a booklet which gives each band its due and it’s ready-made as a primer to the best of what’s happening in the Northern Colorado music scene.

Somebody from out of town is going to hear this and get the impression that Fort Collins is a humming little music spot. Little will they know that it is all that and much more. Which means Spokes Buzz has its work cut out for them- how do you help such a deep pool of talent? Just keep churning out those CDs for one thing- you can fill volumes and volumes more.