Nov 262012

Photo: Laura Crosta

If you’re the least bit familiar with the Denver live music scene, you probably already know that the Larimer Lounge is known as a loud venue. By “loud”, I don’t mean the volume of the music, but the volume of the crowd. Generally, the later it gets, the more talkative the audience gets, to the point that bands sometimes have to work a bit harder to make themselves heard.

So when Rachael Yamagata brought her fall tour to the Larimer Lounge last Saturday night and kicked off her set with a decidedly soft, down-tempo number, the hush that fell over the crowd marked a true feat of talent and stage presence, evoking looks of utter disbelief all around. “I’ve never heard the crowd this quiet,” remarked one bartender.

What arrested the crowd’s attention so profoundly? Perhaps they wanted to hear the music.

In reality, singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata’s current tour is quite different from what she’s done in times past. Her previous album Chesapeake leaned more toward uptempo tunes, while her new EP Heavyweight (released digitally last week, with physical copies for sale Nov. 27) is more reflective, with plenty of lush string and piano arrangements. To that end, Rachael wanted to put together a show that echoed the vibe of the new album, so instead of a full rhythm section, she brought string players.

To the Larimer Lounge.


“I’ve gone out before with full bands and sort of the rock show, and it’s been a certain type of energy that’s been awesome,” Rachael said in a recent interview. “This just seemed like something I hadn’t tried in a while.”

Rachael gave fair warning to the crowd as she opened her set, apologizing in advance to anyone who had expected a rock show. “We’re gonna depress the hell out of you,” she said, tongue in cheek, then proceeded to open with a melancholy, string-heavy ballad, dark, haunting and beautiful.

The result was captivating. The room quieted down because people wanted to hear this side of Rachael Yamagata.

The tempo never really picked up much through the course of the show–nor was it expected. However, the mood was lightened in between songs by Rachael’s onstage wit, funny stories and interactions with the crowd. At one point, she lost her place in one of the songs with a case of the giggles, apologizing to the crowd for being “loopy.” While the mood of the music itself remained somber, it was apparent from the relaxed atmosphere that she and her band were enjoying themselves. And it was also apparent that the audience was enjoying it.

If you have a chance to catch Rachael Yamagata at one of her future tour stops, you definitely should. This tour is a rare treat from a gifted songwriter, worth catching–so I’m including her remaining tour dates below.

November 26, 2012
The Varsity Theater
Minneapolis, MN

November 27, 2012
City Winery
Chicago, IL

November 28, 2012
Radio Radio
Indianapolis, IN

November 30, 2012
Mr. Small's Theatre
Pittsburgh, PA

December 01, 2012
Virgin Mobile Mod Club
Toronto, ON

December 03, 2012
La Sala Rossa
Montreal, QC

December 04, 2012
Paradise Rock Club
Boston, MA

December 05, 2012
Joe's Pub
New York, NY

December 07, 2012
First Unitarian Church - Sanctuary
Philadelphia, PA

December 08, 2012
The Night Cat
Easton, MD

December 09, 2012
U Street Music Hall
Washington, DC

December 10, 2012
Local 506
Chapel Hill, NC

December 12, 2012
Atlanta, GA

December 13, 2012
The Bottletree
South Birmingham, AL

December 14, 2012
3rd & Lindsley
S Nashville, TN
Aug 212012

I’m beginning to realize that the “songwriters circle” format is one of my personal favorites when it comes to live shows. When you have an intimate setting in which a group of singer/songwriters share their songs in turn, it offers a window into the souls of the artists that doesn’t always show up when someone is just “playing a show.” It can also breed a strong sense of connection among the artists themselves, as well as with the audience. I could keep analyzing the crap out of it, but let’s just say songwriters circles move and inspire me probably more than any other kind of show.

The latest installment of the Colorado Songwriters Circle was held last Friday at Swallow Hill, an established Denver music institution and venue that celebrates roots music through concerts and classes. One of the songwriters (John Common) I know and count as a friend; the other three (Matthew Moon, Nina Story and Melissa Ivey) I recognized as part of the Denver scene, but had not yet had the privilege of hearing. But hearing four of Denver’s finest songwriters sharing their songs on stage (and sharing the stories behind their songs) felt like a privilege in itself. They are four very different artists, with different styles, but the diversity among them worked exceptionally well on the stage.

And each one of them knocked it out of the park.

No kidding. I laughed. I cried. (Quietly. Only a little.) I laughed. And I enjoyed. Every. Moment. From Melissa Ivey’s self-proclaimed “gypsy rock” vibe, to Matthew Moon’s stunning performance on a lap steel, to John Common’s self-deprecating comedic timing, to Nina Storey singing in French.

Oh. And the songs they wrote were pretty awesome, too. Some older “fan favorites” and a lot of freshly written material, also. Well, crafted, and well-performed, all in a relaxed setting that made us feel almost like we were sitting in someone’s living room. With a lot of instruments.

The evening was further enhanced by Denver “live artist” Laurie Maves, who created a painting of the artists live as they performed during the first half of the show. During the midpoint, the painting was auctioned off to benefit the Children’s Hospital.

On the whole, this songwriters circle at Swallow Hill embodied all the reasons why I love to go to shows: great music, terrific performances, and overall good entertainment. But mostly, good songs. As a songwriter myself, I know I’ve heard a good songwriter when I come away inspired to write. Friday night, I was inspired times four. All of these Colorado artists are worth checking out, listening to, and buying their music.

Mar 152010

This post supplements my article on

Those who know me personally or through other blogs already know that one of my passions is to celebrate and support the voice of the woman in our culture.  It isn’t a political thing for me, but rather a deep sense of conviction that God doesn’t play favorites, that the female of our species is blessed with every bit as much giftedness as the male–but in a culture long dominated by men, the talents of women aren’t always seen or acknowledged or taken seriously.  That said, some of the most amazing art around is created by women, and I appreciate anything that celebrates the voice and talent of women in our culture, especially when it comes to creativity.  So when Angie Stevens headlined a lineup of four top-notch acoustic/vocal female-fronted acts last Friday, my photographer wife Shelby and I made a point to be there.

Of the four acts that appeared at the Toad Tavern that night–Angie Stevens, Wendy Woo, Goldie and the Bears and Megan Burtt–I already knew three of them to be exceptionally talented, so my expectations were pretty high going in.  But I’m happy to say that my expectations were even exceeded.  It’s rare that I go to a music event where I thoroughly enjoy every performer on the bill–and that even goes for larger tours with big names.  This was one of those rare times. Every one of these ladies could easily have carried the show on their own; we got to see all four of them on one stage in one night.

You can catch my full recap of the concert on, but just to give the highlights: 

Megan Burtt (whose new record I reviewed here) performed songs from the record and some new tunes, and did a great job opening the show with just a voice and guitar (she had left her band on the road to come home for the show). 

Megan Burtt.

Megan Burtt. (Photo: Shelby McQuilkin.)

Goldie and the Bears, the newest band and the one act I had not yet heard, blew me away. Goldie is young, yet has one of the strongest, yet controlled, set of vocal pipes I’ve heard in someone her age. Her band (all guys) has a rich, bluesy, neo-soul vibe that matches her voice. I’m already looking for the CD.


Goldie (Photo: Shelby McQuilkin.)

Wendy Woo and her band filled the dance floor with fans with the first song. This was the third time I’ve heard her perform (once solo, once with the band), and despite a few technical difficulties, this was the strongest set of the three–one of those times when the sound quality was there, the band was together, and the crowd was connecting.  Just felt right.

Wendy Woo

Wendy Woo. (Photo: Shelby McQuilkin.)

Angie Stevens’ set was less like a performance, and more like a jam session with old friends–not to suggest it was less than a good performance, but just that it was relaxed and fun. She’d invited the band Something Underground to join her, and the set was a mixture of performances with different combinations of Angie and the guys and her own bandmates, all done with an infectious energy that just made you love the music right along with them.

Angie Stevens

Angie Stevens. (Photo: Shelby McQuilkin.)

Thanks, ladies, for sharing your gifts with us.  What an awesome evening of music.

Mar 032010

Turtle Island Quartet. Photo: Shelby McQuilkin

(This post supplements my article on

Before I was the kind of guy who listens to (and likes) my kid’s music,  I was classically trained in piano and was a composition major in college. (My profound apologies to my instructors–you did the best you could. And for you young whippersnappers who are thinking about skipping this blog post because it’s gonna be [kind of] about classical music instead of modern rock or indie bands…read on.  You might actually learn something.)

The classical string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) has been around for over 200 years, but many people don’t realize that this musical form was revolutionary in its day.  Popularized by great composers like Haydn in the 1700s, string quartet players often relied on improvisation as well as an ability to read and interpret music scores.  It was essentially the “jazz” of their day.

In our time, one group in particular has successfully reinvented the string quartet as a modern, progressive art form.  That group is the Turtle Island Quartet, who played a tribute to John Coltrane Saturday night at the Lakewood Cultural Center.  What makes this quartet unique is that they play a successful fusion between classical chamber music and contemporary music.  When I say “successful”, I mean it is no joke, no novelty, no gimmick.  I mean these guys make it sound like jazz and rock were meant to be played by two violins, viola and cello.  And in their time they’ve also incorporated styles like bluegrass, world music, R&B and even hip-hop into their chamber-music format.

This was my first time hearing this quartet, and I have to tell you it was nothing short of amazing to hear four classical string instruments playing improvisational jazz– and really good jazz at that.  As if that weren’t enough, midway through the first half of the program, they announced that they were going to play a selection from their upcoming record, a four-part suite of classic rock–by Jimi Hendrix.  If the thought of that makes you laugh, try to imagine hearing a violin or viola imitating the electric guitar riffs of the legend himself, every nuance and arpeggio and rock lick in place–and you’ll stop laughing and just start smiling.  What is most amazing about this quartet is that it really works.  They make it work, and they make you take them seriously by their outstanding musicianship–which, by the way, has earned them two Grammys so far.

Not only did I have the privilege of hearing these guys play, but I also had the privilege of sitting down with the two original members, David Balakrishnan (violin, baritone violin) and Mark Summer (cello). In talking with them, I discovered that Turtle Island Quartet is the brainchild of composer/arranger Balakrishnan, whose love for both classical and jazz prompted him to try and blend the two in his compositions.  It is essentially the teamwork of Balakrishnan (who oversees composition) and Summer (who oversees the implementation of the arrangements) that makes this combination work so well.  Their passion for these various styles of music drives them to blend the traditional and modern into something that must be taken seriously–and thus far, no one has really duplicated their efforts.

Balakrishnan and Summer never said as much in our conversation, but really, the music of Turtle Island Quartet is sending a message.  Whether intentional or not, the message is this: Hendrix is just as legitimate as Haydn.  The music of Coltrane is just as legitimate as that of Mozart.  By putting serious rock and jazz into a 200-year-old musical framework, they are legitimizing the music our grandparents and great-grandparents once dismissed as “noise”.  In so doing, Turtle Island Quartet has actually done more than just reinvent the string quartet–they’ve made it revolutionary all over again.

And that’s why I’m digressing today from talking about modern bands and artists to talk about Turtle Island Quartet–because many of the musicians we follow today because they are “revolutionary” will be looked upon as the legends and masters of tomorrow.  Great musicianship and great writing are timeless, regardless of the genre or style. 

So even if you aren’t the type who is into classical music, you ought to pay these guys a little respect–because in a way, they are legitimizing the music you love today.  If you ever get the chance, go see Turtle Island Quartet perform.  No matter what kind of music you’re into, you will be enriched by the experience.

Buy Turtle Island Quartet from

Mar 012010

Photo by Traci Goudie.

This post is supplemental to my article on

Since starting to scope out the Denver local music scene to write about it here and on, I’ve seen a lot of bands and artists with promise.  I’ve experienced soul-stirring moments, heard some great musicians play (both veterans and newcomers), and met some awesome friends in the music community.  There is a lot of genuine talent here, and I’m a fan, for sure.

Every so often, though, amid all the good music, you get a standout moment where the bar is raised, and someone performs in a way you know you will remember for a long, long time–that soul-rocking moment that reminds you why you are a fan of music, where you want to jump out of your chair and yell, “YES! Now THAT’S what I’m talking about!” 

I had that kind of moment Friday night, watching Angie Stevens and the Beautiful Wreck.

I’d read a lot of great stuff about Angie Stevens’ alt-country-roots-rock sound, and had actually been looking for an opportunity to catch her act, to see what all the fuss was about–and time conflicts prevented me before now.  I’m glad I went when I had the chance. 

Angie and her band took the stage at Bender’s Tavern after 11:30 PM, and to tell you the truth, the opening acts had just about put me to sleep.  But from the first few bars of the first song in Angie Stevens’ set, oxygen came back into the room, and I remembered why I’d come.  Pretty much everything I saw and heard, from catchy songs to engaging stage presence to fantastic raw talent (as much with the bandmates as with Stevens herself)…all of it was captivating.  To say it was one of the most solid performances I’ve seen so far in Denver is putting it mildly.

One of the key things that makes me a fan and a believer when watching a band or artist play is when you can tell they love what they are doing, and that they believe what they are doing.  When they believe it, I believe it.  You could just tell Angie Stevens loves what she does, and her excitement was absolutely contagious.  Not only that–but she’s very, very good at what she does.  It isn’t just hype–there is a real voice and talent to match it.  It’s apparent that Angie Stevens believes it–and it made a believer out of me. 

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about.

OOMPH scale: 10 (the first 10 I’ve given since starting this blog).

Feb 012010
Manchester Orchestra

Manchester Orchestra--one of the bands I'd like to hear more from

I’ve probably said this before (I’m not looking back in the posts to see if I have)…but I’m a lifetime student of music. I’m the kind of guy who listens intently to music, who prefers it in the foreground rather than the background. I’m also the more reflective type at concerts. I don’t do the stage diving thing. I do the sit-in-the-back-and-watch-intently thing. Because I’m studying when the band is playing.

I hear a lot of stuff that shows promise, and stuff I like personally; but these days, honestly, it’s rare that I go to a gig and really like every band on the lineup. So Saturday night, when I went to the Fillmore Auditorium and saw Brand New, Manchester Orchestra, and Dusty Rhodes and the River Band, I was given a real treat. It was my first time to see any of them play, and every band knocked it out of the park for me in one way or the other.

Take the opening act, for example: Dusty Rhodes and the River Band. (No, the wrestler didn’t turn musician–that’s another Dusty.) From the first few lines of the opening song, I was hooked; I literally couldn’t stop smiling. Their quirky blend of rock, folk and soul, headed up by a guy with an 70’s afro and leisure suit to match, just won me over.

I’d heard Manchester Orchestra before, but I don’t think I understood their vibe, or why they call themselves an orchestra.  Not a violin among them (heck, even Dusty Rhodes had a violin).  But I understand now. They play rock & roll “symphony” style.  I loved it.  At times they have two guys playing drums, but during one particular song, I turned my eyes away, and when I looked back, there were four drummers.  (I do not need glasses, and no one conked me on the head. I think it was the percussion section from Brand New–they joined Manchester for one of the songs.)  Pretty freakin’ cool.

Brand New I loved for their combination of energy and passion, even when doing their slower, softer stuff.  And obviously the crowd loved them, too.  At times I could hear the crowd singing louder than Jesse Lacey.

Like I said, it wasn’t just one band that stood out for me; it was all of them, for a variety of reasons.  But there were a few common threads that tied the bands together that made me love the whole experience:

  1. Stage presence. I once heard a guy say that performers either demand attention from an audience, or they command it.  There’s a fine line between the two, but when a band commands the stage instead of just doing a bunch of antics to attract attention, that’s what makes them professional.  Every band, in my opinion, commanded rather than demanded–even the quirky antics of Dusty Rhodes seemed honest and believable.
  2. Dynamic range. So often bands think there is no other setting but “10” on their amplifiers, and they play everything loud.  Don’t get me wrong–I like loud–but when loud is all you get in a performance, that’s not true musicianship.  (In fact, it ties in with the point above–some bands demand attention by playing it loud all the time.) You need a dynamic range in music, to provide contrast, so things stay interesting.  That’s part of what makes it music, not just noise–and that goes for every genre.  All three bands used a wide dynamic range; sometimes they were loud, other times soft–often in the same song.  And because they were commanding the stage, they had as much clout with the audience either way.  This is why Brand New could open their set with Jesse Lacey alone on the stage, playing their entire first song alone, quietly, with a guitar–and the audience totally bought it.
  3. Above the other two things, though…the one common thread that completely hooked me about this concert was passion.  Every band gave it their all. Every band meant what they were doing, and I believed them. That’s what hooks me about a performance more than anything else–passion. They all had heart.  They didn’t let me down.

I hadn’t seen any of these bands play live before Saturday night. But every one of them left me wanting to hear more from them.

So…what bands leave you wanting more? (Don’t be shy…talk to me.)

Sample and buy Dusty Rhodes And The River Band on
Sample and buy Manchester Orchestra on
Sample and buy Brand New on

Dusty Rhodes on Dusty Rhodes and the River Band

Manchester Orchestra on Manchester Orchestra

Brand New on Brand New