Jun 092010

If you’ve been around here much, you’ve probably noticed that I occasionally wax philosophical or offer advice to musicians and bands that nobody was asking for–but I give it anyhow, out of the goodness of my heart. :)

Anyhow, I have had some positive responses to some of those posts, and it just seemed that there ought to be a different place for that kind of thing.   So tonight, I’m rolling out a brand new blog called The Developing Artist, where musicians can find useful resources and information, encouragement, and occasional advice to help them on the path to success.  So if you’re a performing artist (or just have an interest in the artist-development side of things), go check out the inaugural post here.  If you like what you read, subscribe to it and share it with anyone you think might enjoy it.

This blog isn’t shutting down, by the way; we’ll still be putting up band and artist information here.

Jan 132010

HighRaceVine at the D-Note. Photo: Shelby McQuilkin.

I’ve observed two schools of thought when it comes to band debuts. On one hand, several bands I’ve talked to deliberately refrained from “going public” until they had played together for months and maybe even made a record first.  Then on the other side, there are bands who choose to evolve publicly, being willing to step out there and play gigs during their formative phase, letting the experience shape them.

I’d place Jay Ryan and his new band, HighRaceVine, into the second category.

Jay, you might recall, hosts the weekly open stage at the D-Note in Olde Town Arvada.  He’s all about encouraging people to get up on stage and explore the possibilities. Indeed, the three talented musicians who make up HighRaceVine really had their origins jamming on the open stage, experimenting together.  They discovered that a classic blues-rock guitar, a bass guitar and a cello played like a rock-and-roll instrument just might put a new spin on the whole rock sound thing.  They decided to try it.

Tuesday night, in home territory at the D-Note, the fledgling band had its inaugural concert. They did lots of cover tunes, covering rock-and-roll from The Beatles to Kings of Leon, threw in a couple of originals, and even wrote a song on the spot using the “random song generator”–asking the audience for random information and forming a chord sequence out of it.

Was it rough? Sure, it was rough, at least in spots. But remember, this is a band from “school number 2”.  All three musicians are skilled veterans who know when something sounds good, and when it’s rough.  (“The more you drink, the better we sound,” Jay quipped.) They weren’t there to knock it out of the park on the first swing; they were there to grow together, to evolve, and they’re letting us in on the process.  It actually takes a level of self-awareness and humility to join school number 2, if you think about it.

And you know what?  There were some really awesome moments, also.  We liked the cover tunes, because they showed us that these three instruments really do put a twist on rock-and-roll, without sounding cheesy. We heard some of the cool sounds that made these musicians want to start this band in the first place.  We watched three friends who really enjoy playing together, having a good time with the music–and it made us have a good time, too.

And isn’t that what it’s about?

So welcome to the Denver music scene, HighRaceVine. We look forward to watching the evolution.

Dec 222009

Yesterday I posted this piece on Examiner.com about Jay Ryan’s Big-Top Open Stage, held each Monday night at the D-note here in Arvada. I won’t reiterate here–just go read it if you want–but I will say that one thing that impressed me in my conversation with Jay is his passion for making room, for giving artists a hand up.

For Jay, something compels him to put on a crazy coat and hat and make a huge deal about each person that gets on the open stage and tries to make a go of it; and that drive is his desire to see people make it. Jay sees it as a community–a place where musicians learn from one another and grow from interaction. And where he feels it’s appropriate, he offers advice and challenges some of his regulars to stretch themselves. He’s more than a ringmaster–he’s a cheerleader, and sometimes a coach.

This part of Jay’s passion resonates with me because I feel the same way. When I hear a band or an artist with promise and potential, it makes me want to give them a path, to advise, to counsel, to coach (as if I totally know what I’m doing). I just want to do what I can to help them make it; I start pulling for them. I heard a bit of this in the way Jay talked about the musicians that come to his open stage.

I think there’s a bit of a stigma about open stages where people who think they can sing get on the stage and annoy the people who just came in for pizza or a beer. Admittedly, an open stage isn’t the same as going to a ticketed concert, and the people who get up there have a wide range of skill (or lack of it). But I’ve been visiting the D-note open stage for awhile now, and I’ve found out a couple of things in the process:

  1. Sometimes the most important thing is not how good the person playing happens to be. Sometimes it’s just the joy of doing the music thing. As a musician myself, I get a lot of pleasure out of making music. When I see someone else sharing in that joy, it doesn’t really matter in that moment if they sing every note on pitch. I get a kick out of seeing the joy. And sometimes you see that element more on an open stage than in a professional event–because the people on the stage aren’t taking it for granted.
  2. The open stage isn’t just for amateurs. Sometimes a real diamond in the rough comes along, someone with a lot of potential–like Brookefield H., who’s been mentioned here before, and whom Jay mentioned by name as one of the most promising regulars currently visiting the stage. Sometimes you hear a real gem before anyone else gets to, and you get to watch them rise to the top. (Lots of musicians with record deals started on open stages.) And every once in awhile, a seasoned pro will make a surprise visit to an open stage, perhaps to test out some new material. Every night is different, and you just don’t know until you go.

So if you live in Denver and haven’t ever been to the D-note on Monday nights…it’s worth it to come out a couple of times and check it out, or go visit one of the other many open stages that happen in Denver each week. And if you live somewhere else, and you find a club that has an open stage…go there, at least once or twice. Go and listen, or get up there yourself. You might be surprised by the experience.

Dec 152009

Yeah, it’s an end-of-year thing, and lots of people are doing it. Naming their favorite this or that. Naming their favorite albums of 2009. All that stuff.

The problem is, this blog is new. Too new to have gone through a whole year. And since we’re still getting to know each other, I thought I’d just generalize and try to nail down my top five albums…ever. These aren’t just my personal faves, or the ones I listen to the most. I’d say it’s more like looking over time, these are five records that have influenced me most.

I like too much music, so it’s hard enough to pick five records; so that’s as far as it goes. I’m not ranking them 1 to 5–they are in random order here:

The Joshua Tree by U2

You know something is a classic when the songs still seem current over 20 years later. This was where U2 hit the top of their game, and they’ve pretty much stayed there. (Yes…even after No Line on the Horizon.) It’s more than just the sound; it’s the passion. And as far as frontmen go…stage presence, audience connection, all that…I measure all frontmen against Bono. He’s the ultimate.

At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash

I cut my teeth on this record. (Well, actually, I already had my teeth by then–but you get the idea.) When I was three, I earned a free beer for my Mom by singing Johnny Cash songs to the jukebox in the pizza joint. I would tell people I was Johnny Cash. Even then, this record represented to me the ultimate of who Johnny Cash was. I didn’t know about the drugs; I didn’t know what drugs were–and anyway, he was on the upswing when he made this record. Years later, watching Walk the Line (one of my Top Five Movies), the significance of Johnny Cash making a live recording in a prison was driven home to me, and it revived my respect for this record.

For Him Who Has Ears to Hear by Keith Green

This is one I don’t expect everyone to know–because it was a Christian record made at the heart of the Jesus Movement. But for me, as a kid, it was the first time I’d heard Christian music that wasn’t an organ in a church–and not only that, but this long-haired, beared hippie-looking guy pounded the piano like it was the drums–and it was so cool. I was just learning piano, and Keith Green forever affected my playing style–much to the chagrin of every piano teacher I ever had.

The Beautiful Letdown by Switchfoot

A more recent one, but there’s an honesty and passion in this record that just hit at a key moment in my life. I just related…especially to the ballads.

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2/ Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini by Earl Wild, pianist

All right, so I’m a geek. Actually…I was trained classically on piano and was a composition major in college. As a “tween” I got to see pianist Earl Wild play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 live, and it was a “forever” moment for me. Not only to see someone play something so complex and make it look so easy…but to this day I think Rachmaninoff’s melodies are among the most beautiful in history. I got the record shortly after seeing the concert, and wore. it. out. I don’t think that version is in print anymore, but the link above is for a different recording of it.

So…what are your Top Five?

Dec 022009

This is expanded coverage from my article on Examiner.com.
As I begin to write this, I’m sitting at Arvada’s popular D-Note, watching a young band called iconoClass.

Basically all they’ve done for the past 45 minutes is jam. Almost all of it is guitar solos over rock beats and repetitive chords. There is one microphone set up, but nary a lyric has been sung. Which is okay–if your instrumentation carries it. But being an instrumental-only band takes more concentration, in-depth songwriting and technical skill than most folks realize. And iconoClass isn’t there–at least, not yet.
I went into this gig not knowing anything about iconoClass except their name, because I’d seen some flyers around town. At first, after a song or two, I was tempted to say I had nothing to write about. When I write reviews, especially of local talent, I tend to steer clear of guys who are just jamming to have fun and don’t really care whether they go places. But I don’t get the impression that this is what iconoClass is about; I think they want to go places. As I’ve sat here listening to them (and writing), I have actually heard some good musicianship, some awesome rhythms, some striking sounds from these guys. Right now, they’re four guys taking up space and time on a stage–but there is actually potential here. If I were to fast forward a couple of years–who knows where these guys might be?

So I decided I have something to write about after all: bands in formative stages. Because this is the best way I could describe iconoClass. It’s like I’ve caught a glimpse of an embryo band, or a band in an incubator. Put another way, iconoClass is still in their garage phase. A group of guys who can sort of play, and have found out they can make some really cool sounds–but haven’t really learned yet how to be a band.

But it’s not like these guys are just gonna stay off the map. That remains to be seen. They could really become a band people would want to come out and see. It’s just too early to tell.

Since I began writing this post, the band has wrapped up, and I went and talked to a couple of the guys–and found out I was exactly right in my assessment of them. They are a band in the embryonic stage; they’ve been playing together for six months, and this was their debut public performance. The reason no one sang is that their bass player hasn’t worked up to it yet.

But what impresses me–and I’ll explain this momentarily–is that these guys have no delusions about where they are at. They know they are a band in formation, and they don’t think they are better than they are–and they want to grow. That impresses me because when musicians don’t see their weaknesses honestly, they can’t grow. Frankly, I have little regard for bands who think they are more than they are.

The fact that these guys know their weaknesses tells me iconoClass will go places. How far they go, will still be up to them.

So here is some free advice for my new friends in iconoClass (I told them I was going to post this):

  • Yes. Get some vocals going. You won’t be able to carry an audience without them. And be willing to explore some options with vocals, and don’t be afraid to admit if your vocals suck. :) Again, being honest with yourselves will help you grow.
  • Concentrate on playing with one another. Listen to each other. This is happening a little, especially with your drum/bass combo, but it needs to happen more. Practice a bit more give and take with one another–when someone has the lead, everyone back off a bit and give them room.
  • Network with other bands; form some relationships with local bands you respect, and try to open for them. Being around musicians who are more advanced will challenge you.

So for the rest of you who were listening in on my iconoClass pep talk–the band will be playing their next show at Old Curtis Street Bar in downtown Denver on January 7, 2010. Don’t take my word for it; go hear a band in formation. (They promised the audience here they would sing next time.)

Best to you guys. Looking forward to watching your journey…

Nov 092009

I have to admit–Regina Spektor is a bit of anomaly to me.

I showed up at her concert here in Denver last Saturday night, at the Fillmore Auditorium. I wrote a full concert review on Examiner.com, so I won’t repeat all that here–just go read the review when you’re done here. :) The house was packed, and I felt like a sardine standing there among so many excited fans. Regina put on a great show, and I truly enjoyed the performance.

But I actually spent most of my time in that concert hall–and a lot of time afterward–marveling at just how popular she is. Not everyone knows Regina Spektor, but those who are fans are really fans. And I’m left sort of scratching my head at what it is about Regina that packs places like the Fillmore with ecstatic twenty-somethings who can sing her wordy, quirky songs word for word.

It isn’t that I don’t like her, because I do–a lot. I just wonder why everyone else likes her.

I mean, if you think about it–and if you don’t know Regina Spektor, you wouldn’t think about it at all, but if you did–there doesn’t seem to be anything about her success that is according to formula. Russian-born and classically trained, she doesn’t really fit the image of a modern-day pop star. She wears a dress–I mean, one that actually covers her–and she sits at a real piano with a couple of string players and a drummer, and she writes and sings these quirky songs with lots of staccato vowels that remind me of a little girl making up funny-sounding stuff while playing in a sandbox. Sometimes she even purses her lips a little when she sings so it sounds a little bit like Shirley Temple. And people just eeet-eet-eet-eet it up.

Truth be told, I think if Regina Spektor had tried to make a go of this ten or fifteen years ago, she probably wouldn’t have got very far. She would have had to pick a genre instead of blending seven or eight of them together, and she probably would have had to let someone else pick her clothes (or lack thereof) and write her some formulaic pop songs–or maybe she wouldn’t have made it at all.

But these days, it’s the very fact that Regina Spektor defies categorization that seems to make her so popular. She is what she is, and she’s very good at it. And there’s no doubt she has stage presence. I mean, just coming out on the stage with that winning smile, courtseying to the cheering crowd–she had me at “Thank you soooooo much!”

My point is, we’re living in a time when we kind of don’t want things to fit in a neat little box anymore. We like stuff that can’t be labeled, that crosses boundaries and genres. And more and more, that includes music. It’s the perfect cultural climate for someone like Regina to come on the stage and just be who she is. And there’s something about her personality that makes people relate–especially the girls, but really all of us, in a way. It’s a blend of the geekiness we all wish we weren’t ashamed of with the boldness we wish we had, set in a young woman who seems surprisingly normal. Her songs are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and sometimes highly introspective–and we sing along because we wish it was us who thought of them. It’s a connection I don’t think would ever happen if she were shoved into the bigger-than-life superstar image. And so, a generation inundated with hype finds themselves falling in love with an understated kind of music remarkably similar to what our parents (and–gasp!–grandparents) used to listen to…because it’s presented in a fresh way that appeals to the postmodern sensibilities of our time.

So maybe we love Regina because we see ourselves in her. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

If you’re a Regina Spektor fan…what is it that you love about her?

Oct 202009

I like indie music. And apparently a lot of other people do, too.

All you have to do is browse through the music section of MySpace, or spend a little time on YouTube, to see how the indie music wave is growing. (For newbies…indie music is a nickname for independent music, meaning the music was produced and released without the backing of a major label or corporation–essentially from the “outside” of the established industry.) Although the musical styles are wide and varied, indie music itself has pretty much become its own genre. And although not too many indie artists are getting rich (yet), I think they are part of more than a trend–I think indie music is set to reshape the musical landscape. It’s a grassroots shift that we haven’t seen in music since rock-n-roll was born in Sam Phillips’ little Memphis studio.

There are a lot of dynamics all feeding into the indie music phenomenon–for example, modern technology, postmodernism, even designer coffee!–but among the different musical streams, indie music is the only one truly maximizing the positive benefits of these cultural changes. In short–indie music is doing everything right at the moment.

Having said all that…here are four specific reasons why I think indie music represents the future of music in general:

REASON ONE: The music industry machine is set in its ways.

Generally speaking, the music business–the community of major record labels, distributors, and decision-makers, the “movers and shakers”–hasn’t been “moving and shaking” in quite some time. They have become a fairly exclusive club–the “establishment”, if you will. They are in business to make money from music sales, and they have certain formulas they follow to bring in predictable results. The industry majors take fewer and fewer risks; these days, an artist has to generate a huge buzz, to prove he/she can sell records, before the big guys will even look at them. The creativity and risk-taking spirit that built the industry is seen more and more as a liability, and musical innovation must take a back seat to the tried-and-true methods of selling records. The end result is–all the music is starting to run together. High-quality production, excellent recordings, and lots of marketing–but standout artists are getting much harder to find.
The point is, the industry has rules, and those rules take precedence over creativity. Play ball, and they’ll help you sell records; otherwise, you’re on your own. When the vehicle that should be encouraging creativity in new artists actually becomes the obstacle standing in their way–creativity will find a way around it. And that’s really what’s happening with indie music. People are finding alternate ways of delivering their music to the public, without industry bigwigs deciding what can and cannot be tried. And because the music industry product is becoming more and more stale–the fresh sounds coming out of the indie camp are a breath of fresh air to more and more listeners.

REASON TWO: Modern technology has made it easier to self-publish.

The rise of cheap digital technology and the Internet could not have come at a more opportune time for indie artists. Who could have predicted that one day people could record their music on their laptop, make a video of themselves with a webcam, post their stuff on places like PureVolume, MySpace and YouTube, spread it virally through the social networks, and gain an international following–all without the help of the music industry? We’re seeing it happen more and more; smarter computers and the self-published Internet are creating new celebrities simply by giving them an unprecedented level of access to the public. True enough, there is a lot of garbage and mediocrity out there to weed through, and you can’t be a star just by posting on YouTube (artists still have to create something people want to hear). But these things are the marketing tools of the 21st Century–and they are in the hands of indie artists. Through the Internet, the public can hear and enjoy indie bands, buy their music online, find out where they are playing live, and go support them. The growth of indie music wouldn’t be happening without this.

REASON THREE: Our culture is tribalizing.

What this means is that as a people, we are identifying less and less with our larger national identities, and more and more with smaller segments of society. We are forming new “tribes”, if you will, over our shared interests and passions. This is especially true of the younger generation, and it’s affecting our tastes and preferences. We are getting jaded by the constant bombardment of highly-polished mass-marketing messages, and we’re beginning to react by leaning more toward the organic, the grassroots, the less-than-perfect–the diamonds in the rough. This is a perfect breeding ground for indie music, which appeals to smaller fan bases, is less polished, is promoted at the ground level, and has a definite “underdog” appeal. Even as the larger industry is turning out fewer “superstars”, it may also be that the age of the music “superstar” is on its way out. The younger generation is beginning to favor the unknowns and the lesser-knowns, and more bands may be reaching out to smaller audiences. This dynamic also favors the indie scene, because smaller audiences means there is plenty of room for new bands and artists to emerge.

REASON FOUR: The public is hungry for creativity.

This really ties in with the first point, but is probably the single-most important factor in the rise of indie music. The tight control the music industry/establishment exercises over its artists, by definition, squelches creativity; being creative is all about doing something differently than before, finding fresh ways to express ideas. The thing is, it isn’t just about the artists having the inspiration and freedom to create; we, the people, draw inspiration from their inspiration! We need the artist’s creativity, too. Because creativity is ebbing in the mainstream, the overall output is getting stale–and we’re getting hungry, even desperate, to hear something new. Indie music is now beginning to meet that need in us where mainstream music is not.

Now, none of this is to suggest that people aren’t still buying music by Britney Spears, Beyonce or Nickelback, because they are. Even with the piracy problems in the age of the Internet–by sheer volume, the mainstream music industry still rakes in billions of dollars a year, and won’t necessarily be going the way of the dinosaur overnight. But the cracks in the foundation are showing, and due to the unique combination of trends we’ve just discussed…the industry bigwigs are no longer holding all the cards. If an artist is overlooked or dismissed by the major labels, or just doesn’t want to jump through the hoops–there are now other options, other ways of getting things done. And that’s probably the biggest reason why more and more musicians are now “going indie”: because they can. If these trends continue–barring a major overhaul of the music industry–I think it spells a huge shift in the way music is produced, bought and sold, and a shift of creative control from label to artist. As it is with any major change–those who will adapt, will survive. Those who will not, won’t.

Indie music is riding the wave of change in a nearly perfect manner. Beyond just adapting to the moment–it seems this moment was made for the indie artist. And that’s why I think indie music is the future of music.

Oct 132009

So if you’ve read any of my posts so far…particularly the reviews…I could easily understand if you were to say, “So who the heck is THIS guy? Some kind of armchair quarterback?”

Maybe you haven’t said that. But you could. I mean, I’m still new here. Who am I, really? What credentials do I have to critique these people, anyway? Especially when I have something negative to say?

When you’re new, that’s not exactly the best way to make friends, now, is it?

Well, first of all, I’m not going to try and defend my right to have an opinion. I have one, and so do you. None of us needs credentials to have an opinion, or to offer one. What I can do, though, is share just a little background behind what forms my opinion. So if you can bear with a few moments of pure narcissism (shared with the utmost humility, of course)…here are just a few of the details of my musical background and history:

  • I am a songwriter, with a degree in Music Composition.
  • I am a keyboardist, classically trained in piano. I’ve been playing since age nine–over 30 years.
  • I have perfect pitch, a good ear, and a natural understanding of music theory. I can usually play a song after hearing it once.
  • I am a lifelong music enthusiast, and a lifetime student of music. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t want you talking over the car radio. :) When I listen to music, dang it…I’m listening to it. Studying it.
  • I have played in numerous bands, directed fine arts teams in churches, and trained up and mentored multiple musicians. I’ve lived a life around music, and I have a natural instinct for what makes music good. (Remember this one–I’ll bring it up again momentarily.)

You’ll notice the following things weren’t on the list: producer, music mogul, national recording artist, or industry insider. Those things aren’t on my resume–although some of what I’ve done in churches could qualify as “producing”.

So no, I’m not a guy with connections. I’m not a music industry veteran. They didn’t call me when Paula quit American Idol (although I’m not exactly sure why they called Ellen). And when I critique a band or artist, I don’t have the ability to connect them with the big guys or groom them for the “industry.”

And for that matter–opinions are subjective. I can get it wrong. Even industry experts get it wrong. A major label once passed on the Beatles, saying they’d never make it. NBC cancelled Star Trek for the same reason.

So of what value is my critique, then–from a new guy with no real connections and few credentials?

Well, as I said (but can’t yet prove)…I have a natural instinct for what makes music good. That’s why I named this blog The Oomph–it’s a fun name for the intangible “it” factor in music. I don’t have connections, but I do know music. I know what makes it good, and how to make it better. And I know The Oomph when I see/hear it, and I know when someone has it. Even if I don’t have the pedigree to prove it.

I’m still new here. All I have to offer at the moment is an opinion, and some advice, much of which no one is currently asking for. I get that; I don’t have any delusions about my own self-importance. I’m not really a narcissist. Honest. :)

But I’ll say this much…if you’re an artist or band, and you accept my criticism and advice, and act on it…I believe time will bear out that I’m right.

At least most of the time. :)

Oct 022009

Okay, so I know a lot about musical taste is subjective–although a lot of what makes music good is actually pretty measurable. As I look for The Oomph in the bands and artists I look at, there are a number of factors that affect how I review them. Like everyone else, there are certain musical styles I personally prefer, and I can’t promise that some genres won’t get reviewed more than others. However, I am going to try to make it so that most styles will get at least some representation here, and to be as fair as possible when reviewing them.

That said…no matter the style, there are some things I think make music good, and things that I think make music suck. Even if you don’t agree with these criteria, at least you’ll have a grid for where I’m coming from.

Here are some things that make me lean toward giving a good review:

  • Original songs–not necessarily songs the band or artist has written (there are great musicians who aren’t songwriters), but songs unique to the act.
  • Innovative sounds–not just random stuff I haven’t heard before, but what I call “controlled creativity”–something new that is still musically appealing.
  • Passion–when the band apparently believes what they are playing and/or singing.
  • Great stage presence–the ability to command and keep the audience’s attention, to engage them.
  • Chemistry–when the bandmates work well together and function as a unit.
  • Raw talent (duh)–when the band/artist is really good at what they do! Few things scratch my musical itch more than hearing a musician who has mastered his/her instrument. I love it.

On the other hand…here are some real musical turn-offs for me:

  • Musical sloppiness. I prefer tight, clean sounds and accurate rhythms, although I respect a level of looseness depending on the genre. But when it’s obvious that the music is unrehearsed, or that the band is a bunch of individuals who aren’t connected with each other, it sends a message that the act doesn’t really care about what it’s doing. And if they don’t care…why should I?
  • Excessive, needless profanity or vile content. I’m a Christian, but I’m not a prude. I respect freedom of speech, and I can even accept some strong content when it makes sense in the context or is important to the message. But when it is apparent that someone is celebrating vileness and calling it “art”–it’s just unnecessary. Express yourself all you want, but I have the right not to listen to it if you want to be crude for crudeness’ sake.
  • Unprofessional conduct. I know this frame’s certain artists’ image and gets some attention, but that kind of crap is not about music–it’s about attention. (Think Kanye.) If you have to make that much of a stink, then maybe you’re not all that talented, and you have to act like a moron to conceal that fact. If you’re a good musician, the music will stand on its own. I can smell B.S. a mile away.
Sep 282009

This post is adapted from my article on Examiner.com

If you’ve never been to Beale Street in Memphis, it’s worth a trip to experience it. Several blocks of nightclubs with high-quality blues music and some of the best barbecued ribs you ever ate. It’s almost other-worldly because you can practically feel the history pulsing around you.

And if you’re anything like me, the blues riffs stick in your head for days afterward.

When I found out there was a band named “Roadhouse Joe” doing a “blues jam” at a place called Ziggies on Sunday night with no cover charge, I thought I’d go check it out. Honestly, the place looked like a dive on the outside, and no off-street parking (except at a friendly nearby hair salon, I found out afterward). I parked on the street and walked inside just as the fellas were tuning up.

Moments later, I was carried back to Memphis. Sort of.

Not that it wasn’t good; it was. But first of all, it wasn’t really “Memphis” blues; it was more Chicago style, a little less southern fried. Second, there were no ribs. (That wasn’t the band’s fault–it was a bar, not a grill.) Third, the band kind of hum-hawed around between numbers while they tried to decide what to play next.

But when they played, and when the lead vocalist graveled his way through the words …oOOOH, YEAH…

I don’t spend a lot of time listening to blues music, but I must like the blues a lot. Because when I hear them live, it carries me away someplace. So yeah, these guys held their own, and put me right in the mood.

But the forty-minute set was actually just the warm up. It turns out when they say “blues jam”, they mean it. As Roadhouse Joe played, musicians with guitar cases and gear started piling into the small, dark club, signing up on a sheet in the back. And after the set, the band turned the stage (and their gear) over to the crowd, a few at a time, according to who had signed the list. The new musicians tuned up, introduced themselves to one another, shook hands, picked a key…and played and sang the blues, with every bit as much passion (if not as much polish) as Roadhouse Joe had done.

It made the moment much more powerful to realize that what I’d walked into was an actual blues jam session–that these people hadn’t just come to listen to the blues, but to play them, to own them. This was the place where anyone could play the blues.

Lots of people I grew up around don’t care much for the blues–they think it’s depressing, negative, dark, and all that. But for me–and maybe I’m the guy who just doesn’t catch on–the blues make me happy. And apparently, I’m not the only one, because while these people rail on about the girl that done them wrong, the holes in their pockets, and all that sad stuff…they’re smiling. They’re jumping around the stage, losing themselves in the music. The blues may start from a sad place, but when they work their cathartic magic…they seem to take us to a happier place. It’s kind of like venting, I guess. You might spout and scream and hiss and moan, but you feel a lot better afterward. :)

As I found out later, Ziggies club actually does two open blues jams per week–every Tuesday and Sunday night–hosted by about four different bands through the course of a month. So if you’re in Denver, if you have it in you and you want to be part of the gig…go down there around 7pm and sign up. Ziggies is at 4923 W. 38th Avenue in Denver.

By the way…the blues stayed in my head all the way home.