2014 Articles

by Tim Van Schmidt

Johnny Clegg Band, Jesse Clegg, CU World Vocal Ensemble, Boulder Theater, April 22, 2014.

Last night at the Boulder Theater, the show by the Johnny Clegg Band helped me feel very happy indeed. Happy, joyful, inspired and pleased to once again hear the music of this old favorite performer.

There’s a lot to Clegg’s music that makes this happen. The South African singer-songwriter has melded some exotic elements of native music from his homeland with Western pop music to come up with a bright, energetic sound. The rhythms are a little jittery, but infectious. The vocal harmonies in particular are plenty savory and while a keen sense of melody informs all of his songs, Clegg also knows how to rough it up a little and rock.

This is augmented by lyrics that leave moon-June-spoon songwriting behind for weightier material. Clegg sings about the spirit of the individual and particularly the spirit of a fractious human community that nonetheless yearns for wholeness and clarity. He expresses the difficulties of living in a world where not everyone is on the same page but if there is a message in general, it is one of hope and encouragement, the kind nearly everyone wants to hear, especially if life is challenging.

Added to this is the apparent fact that Clegg is a very experienced showman. He tells audiences the roots of what he is doing on stage, but also knows when to be quiet and let the music and stage action do the talking. His incorporation of Zulu dancing, apparently a kind of macho endeavor, continues to work even if youth is not particularly on his side. His band is well-synched and when it’s time to quit talking and start playing, the whole unit knows how to apply panache to the arrangements.

The result at the Boulder Theater for me was a kind of bursting out of feelings that was intensely pleasurable, even to the point of nearly producing tears. I want to lay all of this emotion at Clegg’s feet and thank him for it.

But none of the above is really quite accurate. The skills Clegg and band display are certainly there. But the emotion I am assigning to Clegg’s music was not put there by Clegg, his band or any other musician for that matter. These emotions are already in me. It took going to Boulder to enjoy Clegg’s performance to release these feelings, but I suspect they were there to begin with.

This is why music fans turn to various artists. Everyone’s heart seems to require a different key to set free the emotions inside. At different points in life, those keys may be different. We allow musicians to hold and use these keys and in the process we often mistake their skills at using them as actual production of emotion. Not so- musicians do not generate our emotions, they show them to us.

Through the years, Clegg has been one of my favorite musical “mirrors” and I had almost forgotten how effective he was at releasing my emotions- until last night. I’m glad I made the trip to Boulder. I’m glad Clegg spent his “ten dollars to one” to once again tour America. In my years as a music journalist, I actually met Clegg in 1988, as well as interviewed him on the phone several times since then. But all that talk has slipped away now and what’s left is music that works for me.

Opening the show was Clegg’s son, Jesse Clegg whose singer-songwriter material is perhaps less exotic than “the big man” but working toward emotional release nonetheless. Also joining Clegg on stage in Boulder was the CU World Vocal Ensemble, adding plenty more voices to one that continues to speak loud and clear.

FOCOMX 2014, Fort Collins Venues, April 26, 2014.

I just felt terrible last Friday. Not only was I still just one day away from recovering from a particularly debilitating bout with the flu, but as a result, I was missing the first night of FOCOMX, the annual local music festival that features a kaleidoscope of regional bands in the lion’s share of Fort Collins live music venues. I had my hit list ready but I just couldn’t do it.

Fortunately, I rallied on Saturday and was able to fill up on music from 16 different acts. Maybe that sounds like a lot- it is, I suppose- but usually I’m able to see upwards to 40-60 acts throughout the FOCOMX weekend, so only 16 seemed pretty thin.

But the music I did experience at FOCOMX this year wasn’t thin at all.

It all started off right with a surprise- I ducked into Everyday Joe’s to check out the Blue Canyon Boys and was rewarded with rich Gospel-oriented vocal harmonies, delivered with a strong sense of purpose. It was a surprise because this year I made it a point to concentrate on seeing performers I had never seen or heard of. This made everything I saw at FOCOMX new and exciting in one way or another.

The other highlights of my FOCOMX 2014 experience also included an interesting set at the Astoria by DJ Alf, who spun vintage instrumental 45s while individual musicians stepped up to jam on top of the sounds. Over at Equinox Brewing, Smooth Beethoven impressed with a sophisticated jazz fusion music. Missions to Mercury produced a roiling progressive rock at East Coast. At Surfside 7, Harpoon, the Whale dug into a raw hardcore sound while Sarah and the Meanies worked a dramatic rock with a spunky, even positive spin at Hodi’s Half Note.

But my favorite FOCOMX act this year was Von Stomper, who had a packed house at Avogadro’s Number rocking with their rough and ready gypsy-bluegrass, uh, stomp music. Tongue-in-cheek operatic vocals mixed with quick rhythms and a band intensity that fits snugly with my idea of what is so great about live music. When everything is right, when the band is doing their thing without hesitation and the audience has more than just picked up the groove and is also moving without hesitation, a kind of glorious lift-off occurs. This was in full swing at Avo’s thanks to Von Stomper and it made my FOCOMX 2014 satisfying indeed.

So, I shouldn’t gripe about being sick and missing a bunch of the FOCOMX acts this year. However, that lift-off I felt with Von Stomper is addictive. I like it and I want more. But I’ll have to wait another year to soak up some more of this kind of FOCOMX magic. Maybe I should get a flu shot next year so I don’t miss any of it.