Live Show Review: The Velveteers at Gothic Theatre 11/26/21

The Velveteers at Gothic Theatre, 11/26/21, photo by Tom Murphy

It’s probably inevitable that someone in Denver music is going to think The Velveteers appeared out of nowhere with a record produced by Dan Auerbach of Black Keys. But after more than half a decade of playing house shows, DIY venues, some touring, UMS appearances, playing more commercial venues and some solid opening gigs the trio finally celebrated the release of its 2021 debut full-length Nightmare Daydream headlining a venue the size of The Gothic Theatre, a big deal for any local band.

Dreadnought at Gothic Theatre, 11/26/21, photo by Tom Murphy

I got to the Gothic too late to catch the first opening act, Highlands Ranch-based dream pop trio Dry Ice, but got there in time to see Dreadnought setting up its hefty array of gear. A mainstay of the local doom scene, Dreadnought wasted no time in delivering a catharsis of low end psychedelic drone punctuated by primal riffs and ghostly atmospheric melodies. The vocals both sublimely ritualistic in tone and tenor also engaged in a explosion of pent up emotion to accent finely crafted moments of peak mood at the apex of one of the band’s glacial builds.

Demi Demitro of The Velveteers at Gothic Theatre, 11/26/21, photo by Tom Murphy

From the backdrop with the band’s name and figures of a moon and sun with clouds and other celestial bodies flanking each side of the stage to each member of the band dressed up to take you out of mundane life for an hour and a half or so, The Velveteers prepared us for a theatrical rock show that put the focus on the music. Lead singer and guitarist Demi Demitro came out in a sequined get-up like a cross between a 70s glam rock space alien and Stevie Nicks. Jonny Fig and Baby Pottersmith dressed up like they had walked out on stage after touring in Vanilla Fudge. There was always something special about the band even when I last saw them at the UMS at the Hi-Dive in 2016 but their presence and confidence this time out, however much of an act that might be, was palpable. This was a band that had long since refined its sound and then sought out a direction for the music and its execution, honed that to a high degree, and put it on an album and brought a raw freshness to that material on stage.

Baby Pottersmith + Jonny Fig of The Velveteers at Gothic Theatre, 11/26/21, photo by Tom Murphy

If the band didn’t play all of the new record it sure felt like it covered a lot of territory playing more than twelve songs including some older material. Live the songs of course hit harder with an emotional intensity in a way that is different from the album. The album doesn’t have Demi Demitro crowd surfing a couple of times during the set while still playing guitar. The albums doesn’t have Jonny Fig staring out into the crowd with a mix of heightened focus and sheer joy, the album doesn’t include getting to see Baby Pottersmith and Fig drumming furiously and elegantly in perfect sync with each other and Demitro. Demitro’s beguiling blend of strength, vulnerability, passion and broadly nuanced vocals while captured finely on the records struck one as exhilarating as she and her bandmates moved about caught up in the moment. That much power behind lyrics that actually have meaning and point to an astute assessment of the dubious intentions of various people in one’s life and one’s own human frailties and aspirations is uncommon enough but certainly so relatively early in a band’s career. Hopefully this Gothic show in the end was both a celebration and a graduation to more than the unjustly maligned local band status.

The Velveteers at Gothic Theatre, 11/26/21, photo by Tom Murphy
The Velveteers at Gothic Theatre, 11/26/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Live Show Review: Julien Baker at The Gothic Theatre 11/13/21

Julien Baker at The Gothic Theatre 11/13/21, photo by Tom Murphy

At one point in the Julien Baker show at the Gothic Theatre, the singer and songwriter acknowledged, in her offhand, dryly humorous way, that mostly the set would consist of full band songs since she had released a full band album (Little Oblivions) earlier in the year and that it may not be for everyone but that if it was, thanks for supporting the music. Her wry and self-aware wit graced much of the show when the occasion presented itself as a kind of contrast to the intense and raw emotional territory of the music itself.

Dehd at The Gothic Theatre 11/13/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Chicago art punk band Dehd opened the show with their own brand of irreverent intensity. Drummer Eric McGrady seemed to hold the music together while Emily Kempf and Jason Balla traded off and came together with emotionally charged vocals, Kempf’s expressions both refined and eruptive, Balla’s fiery yet thoughtful. After being on the fence listening to the band’s recorded output over the last few years taking a closer listen to the band’s 2020 album Flower of Devotion and seeing the band in action made it obvious that preconceptions of where its music fits in a box are best left aside in appreciation for how its various creative impulses work together well when in the context of a live music setting.

Julien Baker at The Gothic Theatre 11/13/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Julien Baker has always had an uncommonly powerful voice with a widely expressive delivery as a live performer. Impossible to ignore or dismiss because her turns of phrase are often so creative and coursing with genuine feeling. Seeing these qualities in the context of the full band and an expanded sonic palette. Sure, the middle section of the show where Baker performed solo with guitar and then piano were intimate and poignant and a showcase for her immense talent as a songwriter and performer. But it felt like in some ways that not having to make all the sounds of the music happen left her free to express her feelings in an even more potent and direct way. Certainly the band rehearsed before the tour but when Baker got swept up in the moment and cried out in peak moments of soaring vocals it felt like she was really putting herself out there in a radically vulnerable, elemental way, putting her trust in the audience emotionally. And to its credit the audience responded in kind. It seemed like everyone had more than a singular moment throughout the show and Baker seemed to give voice to thoughts and feelings maybe other people don’t know how to articulate as well or as artfully with as much cathartic energy in public.

Julien Baker at The Gothic Theatre 11/13/21, photo by Tom Murphy

There wasn’t a lot of banter during a set of around twenty songs but when Baker did speak it was with a charmingly self-deprecating humor and a spirit of kindness that was unmistakable. Yes, Baker’s song speak to pain and suffering in a poetic yet real way, especially the songs from Little Oblivions. But always with a sense of a shared experience. When her words address or speak about someone it isn’t with a sense of spite or accusation so much as honoring the raw emotions and with an aim of understanding and processing experiences that can be incredibly uncomfortable. Her performance, as with the new album, came across as opening these moments that can get stuck in our heads with an inspiring honesty minus the cruelty that too often accompanies when people are “being real” with one another. Rather Baker showcased a way to be real and honest with compassion and kindness while also feeling in full the power and sometimes psychologically transformative experiences of those feelings.

Julien Baker at The Gothic Theatre 11/13/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Perhaps most telling was a moment mid-set when someone in the audience commented on one of her early songs and Baker said she wrote it when she was 18 years old in her dorm and that she hopes she has grown and developed as a person since then but that yet she feels compassion for the person she was then. There are many lessons to be learned about life over the years but that’s one that Baker learned earlier than most people and a bit of down to earth wisdom she shared without couching it as such and that spoke volumes about her approach to her music and with other people, a subtle yet strong kindness that isn’t common enough.

Julien Baker at The Gothic Theatre 11/13/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Live Show Review: Wolf Alice at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21

Wolf Alice at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21, photo by Tom Murphy
The Blossom at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Opening act The Blossom was reminiscent of one of the better bands that you might have seen performing at a party or the prom in one of the better teen comedies and dramas around the turn of the century. Its pairing of pop hooks and production with indie rock riffing and attitude and expansive energy seemed a good fit for the bill. Singer Lily Lizotte brought a sunny enthusiasm to the performance that included songs like “Shapeshifter” and “Hardcore Happy” from the group’s 2021 debut EP 97 BLOSSOM.

The Blossom at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21, photo by Tom Murphy

From the moment Wolf Alice took stage, bassist Theo Ellis looked out into the crowd of the sold out show with a palpable joy. Both nights at the Bluebird had sold out, as singer Ellie Rowsell remarked upon later in the show, something that doesn’t happen much at the venue before bands end up having to play larger rooms so the next time around expect the group playing at least the Gothic or the Ogden.

Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21, photo by Tom Murphy

With the 2021 release of , Wolf Alice revealed that it wasn’t just an able and interesting rock band, it fully demonstrated a knack for eclectic songwriting and masterful dynamics. Live, the songs helped the group’s already powerful and commanding performance style shine brighter. The impressionistic “No Hard Feelings” wherein Ellis left stage and Jeff Oddie played a hypnotically ethereal bass figure and Rowsell sang in what might be described as a soulful folk style going into the more electrifying “Visions Of A Life” is the kind of shift one might expect from someone like PJ Harvey and Wolf Alice this night was reminiscent of that artist had she brought on some shoegaze-esque soundscaping in the guitar work and synths.

Wolf Alice at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Though Wolf Alice took us on what felt like a journey into intense and dramatic feelings in a kind of collective catharsis, at no point did the show drag. That happens at most shows at some time but the enthusiasm displayed by Ellis at the outset seemed to run through the band and the audience both in a synergistic dynamic. When the main set proper ended with the thoroughly enveloping and warm atmospherics of “The Last Man On Earth” punctuated by the scorching rocker “Moaning Lisa Smile” you’d have to be more than a little dead inside to not think you just got to see one of the greatest live rock bands operating today making music that isn’t beholden to some trendy style, rather, having established one of its own.

Wolf Alice at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21, photo by Tom Murphy
Wolf Alice at Bluebird Theater 11/3/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Live Show Review: itchy-O at Summit Music Hall 10/30/21

itchy-O at Summit Music Hall, photo by Tom Murphy
Xordox at Summit Music Hall, photo by Tom Murphy

When Xordox took stage the duo including J.G. Thirlwell looked like space mystics from a post-Solaris society with lights on their headsets and wearing pendants with symbols that seemed to have a significance for the performance ahead. A backdrop of abstract, evolving projections provided an unconventional grounding to melodic synth compositions that gave a sense of a mysterious future. Tonal sequences and distorted, flaring drones over inexorably flowing beats and rhythms captured that feeling you got from some of the more presciently utopian and dystopia science fiction movies from the 80s where bright sounds were often paired with dark themes. “Between Dimensions” from Xordox’s 2021 album Omniverse had one wondering if the robotic voice was a clear nod to early 80s hip-hop and its taking inspiration from Kraftwerk but that and the rest of the performance was a bubble of the otherworldly before the grand ritual of itchy-O’s set started.

J.G. Thirlwell of Xordox at Summit Music Hall, photo by Tom Murphy
itchy-O at Summit Music Hall, photo by Tom Murphy

Between the drum corps and the taiko crew set up on and in front of the main stage and a more electronic cadre set up opposite the stage near the sound booth, itchy-O established a sense of space beyond the confines of the venue. In the band’s earliest days and through the mid-2010s the sheer physicality of the band in small spaces and larger places was an undeniable presence that in all its moving parts created a raw and chaotic energy even though the songs were written ahead of time and heavily rehearsed. It always felt like it could go off the rails even as it operated with great cohesion. Sometime between then and now the band has streamlined its performance. The set list felt sequenced in a way to orchestrate the tonal and rhythmic nuances so that the energy never dropped off. Sure the bombast of earlier shows was there but what might be considered by many to be a gimmick wears thin but the flow of the show now seems to reflect the ways itchy-O’s albums worked as a listening experience. The seamless integration of both approaches to executing the music in studio as worked out in rehearsals and composed outside of those and the live show appears to be complete. A listen to the newly released album SYPHERLOT & HALLOWMASS DOUBLE LIVE 2020 (out now on Alternative Tentacles) hints at this reality though thoroughly enjoyable on its own.

itchy-O at Summit Music Hall, photo by Tom Murphy

The two poles of command at the concert established an unspoken creative tension that reconciled and then parted again throughout the evening. The “creeps” that once most often mingled in the crowd also acted as living dramatic props at points in the show as when the speaker read from the book and appeared to criticize its contents as if to suggest that at some point you have to go beyond the rules, beyond established and entrenched authority to grow as a person and as a group. The clawed hands raised around him made it look like some Lovecraftian cult but one more benevolent and more keyed into the dark mysticism of the collective unconscious. One of the creeps did some riding of the crowd across the room while the two lion’s prowled playfully about. Whereas in some older shows the appearance of Larry the Lion could bring some pause to the forward motion of the event, nothing really diverted attention and all components seemed in sync and keeping the audience engaged beginning to end. If the live album is a marker in the life of a band, this show was a display of the lessons of focus and intentionality that the preparations for those shows necessitated and a clear signal that itchy-O has much more to offer with creativity in presentation of its art and the music that drives its expression.

itchy-O at Summit Music Hall, photo by Tom Murphy
itchy-O at Summit Music Hall, photo by Tom Murphy

Live Show: cleopatrick at Bluebird Theater, 10/11/21

cleopatrick at Bluebird Theater, 10/11/21, photo by Tom Murphy

The Jonathan Glazer-esque music videos for cleopatrick’s songs certainly suggested there was more to the band than a casual listen to its debut full-length BUMMER made obvious—a depth and exorcism of personal darkness and angst in the storytelling. On this cold night before the first freezes of the year since winter hit Denver the live band provided a personal warmth that contrasted a bit with the timbre of some of the music. The scorching and pile-driver cadence guitar work and percussion combined with introspective passages and what proved to be a vulnerability mixed in with the dynamic aggression of much of the performance. In moments Luke Gruntz’s vocals hit your ears like Josh Homme and the informal arrangements of the songs reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age but more fuzzy and raw.

What was not at all obvious from the album, though there are elements of musique concrète at the end of songs and of course the track “Ya,” was how the band deployed ambient soundscapes between songs whether processed beats from Ian Fraser or delay manipulation from Gruntz’s guitar or pre-recorded keyboard atmospheres and the like. It showcased how sure this is amped up rock music but some of the sensibility and attitude is out of hip-hop and electronic music, even the way the songs are arranged. For various songs Gruntz’s vocal cadence is borderline spoken word but more akin to rapping. The hybrid style reminded me of early Kasabian where grimy, psychedelic post-punk and electronic music melded together seamlessly.

cleopatrick at Bluebird Theater, 10/11/21, photo by Tom Murphy

“Victoria Park” hit hard and the visceral motion of Gruntz and Fraser seemed to be working in perfect lock step while exuding an eruptive spontaneity, the music seeming to burst from inside them yet orchestrated for all involved in the show to get swept up in the momentum. “Family Van” provided surprisingly nuanced moments of nearly unhinged energy and tenderness as a way of coping with strong, mixed emotions and memories of desperate times. “2008” was a calm moment amidst a maelstrom of activity and sounds. At one point Fraser introduced a song with hits on a drum pad to create a resounding low end bass tone riff that gave a soundscape the likes you might more likely hear at an EDM or deep house show. It was just not just some neo-grunge thing, not a rap rock show or try hard eclecticism. It wasn’t a macho display of aggression though it was an expression of a release of frustration in a way that was easy to relate to, especially these days with collective anxiety at a high state. In fact, during one song some people were getting a little too rowdy with moshing and Gruntz asked if people could chill it with that and jump up and down. Which is the original punk way and although cleopatrick seem to have created a soundtrack for primal release of tension, it was not one that lacked for the recognition of the frailty and humanity of others as the band’s lyrics make abundantly clear if you take the time to read them.

cleopatrick at Bluebird Theater, 10/11/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Toward the end of the set, Gruntz told the audience that normally he and Fraser would meet people after the show and sign records but with the pandemic still raging and a long tour ahead they had pre-signed a bunch of vinyl. And he was good to his word as seen below adding another reason to like this Canadian duo beyond just the music.

Live Show Review: Japanese Breakfast at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21

Japanese Breakfast at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21, photo by Tom Murphy

For the first tour since the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Japanese Breakfast performed as though that downtime spent not being able to operate as usual as a band incubating the new material and developing a live show that felt somehow both spontaneous and refined. As someone who hadn’t seen the band since 2016 at Larimer Lounge the tasteful yet robust light show simply enhanced the impact of the band’s already evocative songwriting.

Luni Li at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21, photo by Tom Murphy

The show started off with opener Luni Li. The Toronto, Ontario-based songwriter brought her eclectic style of pop that sounded as rooted in 90s R&B and smooth jazz as 2000s indie rock. But just when you thought you had her sound figured out the singer/guitarist would lay out some superb display of guitar or violin prowess showing that sure she could write pleasant, tuneful songs imbued with her charming stage presence but she also had chops that could add that dimension to the music. She recounted to us how she had looked up to Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast because for maybe the first time in her life she saw someone who also had Korean ancestry represented in the realm of music she might aspire to join. Li had written some demos of instrumentals in the early part of 2021 that she shared a bit of with us with the full band that brought to full bloom other songs like the ethereally gorgeous “Afterglow.”

Japanese Breakfast at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21, photo by Tom Murphy

As a six-piece for this show, Japanese Breakfast utilized the large stage of The Ogden well with back lighting as circles or spheres upon which colors and patterns were projected along with streaming and sweeping lights from above to create a palpable ambiance and an intimate mood befitting the vulnerable energy of the music. Sure, the first two Japanese Breakfast albums were written in the wake of deeply painful experiences and processing the intense emotions related to them in a way that didn’t leave one in a state of dissociation. Much of the set list was drawn from the 2021 album Jubilee, as one might hope, and the older songs took on a similar emotional timbre. That is to say, and perhaps projecting a bit here, a tentative embrace of those things in life that brighten your lived experience after a long period of feeling under a cloud of a necessary and natural time of having your head and heart in a space where your joy and other positive emotions can feel alternately muted and amplified, your negative emotions similarly outsized. The songs of Jubilee felt like an attempt to find a healthy balance without going toxically posi and pretending everything’s cool just because you want it to be especially after a year and a half of some of the most confusing times in the country’s history both in terms of the impact of the pandemic and the seemingly endless string of crises brought on by political and cultural turmoil that are impossible to ignore. Like most of us, Zauner and the band intuited that living in that existential zone is unsustainable even when caution is still necessary and there is so much work left to do. And one way to break that emotional and spiritual stasis is to make creative work looking to an inevitable and hopefully better future rather than stay focused on the worst possibilities.

Japanese Breakfast at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Beginning with one of Jubilee’s introductory song, and one of Japanese Breakfast’s most immediately catchy and appealing, “Paprika,” brought us along on a journey of deep emotional honesty that is the hallmark of Zauner’s songwriting. From the emotionally complex “Be Sweet” to the poignant “Kokomo, IN” in the first third of the set we experienced a gentle and vibrant side to the newer material. The cover of Dolly Parton’s classic “Here You Come Again” seemed a perfect fit for the way Zauner sings about love and relationships as never simple and never the cliché of love solving all your problems and that the falling in love is pretty much never happiness ever after and that it often simply doesn’t work out and not often too catastrophically but in the regular, everyday way that our failings and our adherence to outmoded personal narratives can create conflict and disappointing experiences without our intending them to be. Certainly following up the Parton song with “Boyish” and “The Body is a Blade” solidified Zauner’s gift for articulating these multi-layered human experiences and emotions with a poetic economy.

Japanese Breakfast at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21, photo by Tom Murphy

In the final third of the set proper, Japanese Breakfast treated us to a bit of Zauner’s soundtrack to the video game Sable and the track “Glider” and ending with a a rousing yet somehow wry rendition of the great Psychopomp track “Everybody Wants To Love You.” But it was an early night and though having already played fifteen songs, Zauner and her bandmates returned for an encore closing the night with one of the band’s greatest songs, the psychedelic, space rock, cool jazz celebratory anthem “Diving Woman.” That song from Soft Sounds from Another Planet struck one before and seemed this night a peek into the next chapter for people who have been through a long period of feeling like everything has been oppressive and tentative and maybe forward motion, however cautious we must be, is possible.

Japanese Breakfast at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21, photo by Tom Murphy
Japanese Breakfast at Ogden Theatre, 10/8/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Live Show Review: Modest Mouse and Future Islands at Red Rocks, 9/28/2021

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

On what turned out to be the last night before the rains and chill nights of fall came to stay in the Denver Metropolitan area, Modest Mouse and Future Islands brought an impressive display emotionally charged, melancholic pop. The great art punk band Empath opened the show but some of us ran into some of the gnarled traffic of rush hour, road construction and computerized misdirection getting into Red Rocks and had to miss their set.

Future Islands at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

It would be easy to be jaded about what might be called classic indie rock at this point but something about the music of both Modest Mouse and Future Islands have built into their songwriting an enduring quality borne of the music coming out of genuine, heartfelt emotions and not coming at that songwriting from a conventional direction. That bands this idiosyncratic and imbued with a gloriously raw sense of heightened feeling are able to draw a crowd of size speaks to the validity of music that clearly isn’t being honed or polished to be anything more than what it was in the beginning and from which it developed organically.

Future Islands at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

After having seen Future Islands at much smaller venues from the more intimate like the Denver DIY space Rhinoceropolis in 2008 and 2010 and Larimer Lounge in 2011 and small/medium sized rooms like The Bluebird Theater and the Gothic Theatre it was refreshing to see that the band was able to take its hushed and reflective yet expansive art pop and its delicate sensibilities to the big stage and translate songs of such deep personal meaning for such a large performance space. Of course frontman Sam Herring treated us to his acrobatic movements, dramatically acting out the powerful feelings coursing through him as he relives some of the experiences that inspired the lyrics and as melded with the dynamic and evocative music that gave those words such a resonant context. In one moment Herring went for it so hard, swept up in the moment that he fell down and joked about the last time he played Red Rocks he tore his ACL with the moral of the story being “Don’t try to impress Morrissey” as that’s for whom Future Islands opened in July 2015. The set consisted of some of the band’s most beloved songs including breakthrough hit “Seasons” as performed memorably on Late Night With David Letterman in 2014 as well as deep, older cuts like “Tin Man” and “Little Dreamer.” Songs from the band’s 2020 album As Long As Your Are, “Plastic Beach,” “Thrill,” and especially “For Sure” with its tonal nods to early Depeche Mode hit the perfect mood for the night and a strong reminder that Future Islands has from the beginning established an aesthetic that is equal parts nostalgia and immediacy, a mix that seems somehow to help with processing regret and the kinds of emotional trauma that don’t crash into your psyche so much as haunt the back of your mind.

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Nearly 30 years into his career writing music with Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock might be excused for resting on his laurels some but if his recorded output and this performance are any indication that’s not exactly happening. The band is supposedly known for having bad live shows but having seen the group in 2000 for the Moon & Antarctica tour and in 2008 opening for REM at Red Rocks while Johnny Marr was in the band I’d say the only Modest Mouse gigs I’ve seen have been solidly emotionally stirring including this concert. I also read some reviews of the band’s latest album, 2021’s The Golden Casket, with criticism of how there’s too much going on in every song. Perhaps we heard different albums or someone missed how eclectic the band’s music has been since very early on making for a fascinating eclectic body of work that isn’t stuck in a stylistic rut yet possessed of a signature sound. Maybe this new record didn’t work for those more critical reviewers.

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Seeing newer songs like “We Are Between,” “Wooden Soldiers,” “Fuck Your Acid Trip” and “Back to the Middle” alongside classic tracks like “Cowboy Dan,” “Bukowski,” “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” “Float On” and “Dark Center of the Universe” made it all seem like part of the band’s colorful and unique storytelling style with a broad palette of sounds that reconcile punk, synth pop, Americana, funk, Eastern European folk etc. into one of the distinct branches of indie rock that Modest Mouse helped to establish. That is to say a kind of music that makes it acceptable to write music that encourages you to take it on on its own terms without it needing to conform to something more familiar and established. The band’s multiple instruments were arrayed across the stage like a kind of orchestra in miniature so that its layers of sound could be brought to bear with ease and a precision that doesn’t seem there as the emotions are frayed around the edges in the vocals and expressive instrumentation. But seeing Modest Mouse in this incarnation made the intentionality of its sprawling and patchwork style obvious.

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

Later in the set proper Brock mentioned, with some amusement, how he was made aware of how his shouts of “Well” in “King Rat” had been made into a meme, providing a moment of humor in a set of music brimming with emotional intensity and insightful observations on personal psychology and society that have aged surprisingly well since the 90s. Perhaps this tapping into universal and long term human psychology explains some of Modest Mouse’s continued popularity but seeing the newer and older songs together in a touching demonstration of authentic feeling in musical performance it was also obvious that one of the classic bands of indie rock as we know it could evolve without losing sight of why it wrote music earlier in its career and why someone might connect with its songs.

Sleater-Kinney at The Ogden Theatre October 13, 2019: A Sustained Spark of Hope in Bleak Times

Sleater-Kinney at Ogden Theatre, October 13, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

When Janet Weiss, longtime drummer of Sleater-Kinney, said she was leaving the band and partly due to creative differences on the band’s 2019 album The Center Won’t Hold, it came as a shock to most fans. I had seen Sleater-Kinney the first time in October 1998 at The Fox Theatre in Boulder and Weiss was a standout performer among impressive turns by Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Having then found out about the band through Brownstein’s insightful commentary on her influences in Roni Sarig’s book The Secret History of Rock I was not let down when I decided to see if it was possible to see Sleater-Kinney in Colorado. Picking up Call the Doctor and then most recent album Dig Me Out felt revelatory like this band was saying things that needed to be said at a time when not a lot of that was in the public discourse. I also saw Weiss perform in other bands over the years. In Quasi basically I was awestruck by her raw power and versatility and how her style seemed different in that band as well as when she was a drummer in Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks.

Sleater-Kinney at Ogden Theatre, October 13, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Before Sleater-Kinney split that first time I’d seen the bands four times and bring along noteworthy artists on the tours the way independent bands used to and sometimes still do. Bands like Ailer’s Set, The Gossip and The Quails. I was in retrospect impressed with how the band brought on Rainbow Sugar and The Pauline Heresy to open at The Fox as Rainbow Sugar became one of my bands at that time and so did Pauline Heresy when Yoon Park and Claudine Rousseau formed the post-punk band Sin Desires Marie with Germaine Baca of Rainbow Sugar. Going to see them always seemed inspirational and transformational. Their records seeming to be exactly what I wanted to hear when they came out. When Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006 it felt like the beginning of the end of an era of music.

Sleater-Kinney at Ogden Theatre, October 13, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Then the reunion happened and following the release of No Cities to Love in 2015 it was obvious the trio was back into the swing of things and the band’s show at the Ogden Theatre with Lizzo as the opening act was fantastic. When Sleater-Kinney returned for Riot Fest in 2016 I felt I had seen a lot more music during the interim and braving an injury I decided to stick around to see them, though feeling for some reason I’d seen the band several times already and knew what they were about. I don’t know what I was expecting but it felt like the band was having fun and rediscovering their power even more as a live band and keeping the vibe casual but electric. It hit me as refreshing and as though somehow the band was tapped into some general mood a lot of people were in with culture and politics. It was a bracing reminder that this band still had something to offer someone like me who has seen and heard so much and didn’t even want to be at a festival given aforementioned injury. It’s easy to get jaded especially when you’re not feeling well. Yet Sleater-Kinney made it seem worth it even if only to catch the band’s set (I also saw Danny Brown, Vince Staples and Ween before going home, all also worthwhile).

Sleater-Kinney at Ogden Theatre, October 13, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

So what would a post-Janet Weiss Sleater-Kinney look and sound like live? The album The Center Won’t Hold certainly showcased a band that was evolving in a direction that maybe many fans didn’t appreciate. But it also contained some of the band’s best songs to date and let us know that the band felt the need to do something different and not get stuck in a rut. Weiss has publicly said why she left the band and one can hardly blame her given her reasons. There’s no replacing someone like Janet Weiss whose unique and powerful style uplifts all of her projects. But for this tour Angie Boylan of Aye Nako and Freezing Cold stepped in and more than ably performed songs that would have to be challenging for most other drummers to play. So much so that it felt like Brownstein and Tucker were able to relax and project a sense of joy and solidarity. Katie Harkin and Toko Yasuda helped fill out the instrumentation especially on keyboards so bring that deeply atmospheric sensibility of The Center Won’t Hold.

Sleater-Kinney at Ogden Theatre, October 13, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

The set with the current touring lineup felt like a sustained spark of hope in a bleak time in America. Once again, to me, Sleater-Kinney was singing about the things people need to hear, about which many of us are thinking. They also brought to bear insight into the insecurities and psychological trauma that seems to be striking our lives with increasing regularity whether economically, our social lives, the death of friends whether you’re young or old through illness, murder or suicide. The songs on the new record also addressed issues of isolation, being able to look forward when world events seem so paralyzing with a sense that everything is broken and beyond our ability to repair or redeem. The songs don’t try to sugar coat or to say that everything will be okay. But it also isn’t a set of nihilistic songs as that mindset is its own form of despair obsession. The show felt like the band sharing with us a sense that we’re going to need each other in a real and vulnerable way if we have any hope of getting through this period without throwing up our hands and letting the fascists and their cronies take over the world and dictate what’s left of the future of the human race if their program prevails.

Sleater-Kinney at Ogden Theatre, October 13, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Set List:

The Center Won’t Hold
Hurry On Home
Price Tag
The Future Is Here
Reach Out
Bury Our Friends
What’s Mine Is Yours
One More Hour
Bad Dance
The Fox
Can I Go On
A New Wave
The Dog/The Body

Words and Guitar
Modern Girl

Encore 2:
Dig Me Out

Sleater-Kinney photo pass for Ogden Theatre, October 13, 2019. When a band makes special photo passes for their tour it definitely signals they care.

The Beautiful Heartbreak of Hancock and Washington at Mission Ballroom on August 14, 2019

Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington at Mission Ballroom, 8/14/2019, photo by Tom Murphy

The relatively new Mission Ballroom hosted two living titans of jazz on August 14, 2019 when Herbie Hancock headlined with Kamasi Washington opening. Hancock has been an innovator in the genre and an influence on plenty of other styles of music going back to at the 1960s as a genre-bending genius whose contribution to other people’s music and his own band leading has expanded what jazz can be and sound like and look like. Washington has long established himself as a choice player in modern R&B, hip-hop, jazz and funk in his own right including turns on the last two Kendrick Lamar albums. Hancock the piano wizard, and Washington a brilliant sax player. The room proved itself apt for letting both musicians and their players shine through impeccable sound, something that isn’t the case with a lot of rooms of comparable size.

Kamasi Washington and band at Mission Ballroom, August 14, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Washington’s band looked almost tranquil when it performed but if expressions speaks volumes and listening and trusting collective musical instincts is the telepathy of music this group took us through a soul stirring journey. Playing select songs from across Washington’s repertoire, the band’s flow of feeling and expression thereof through its creative chemistry demonstrated that this was a living music that invited you in for the experience of what went behind the writing of the songs beyond the clearly masterful arrangements that were open enough for collective orchestration. The raw power of the music was heartbreaking. You heard the sorrow, the pain, the struggle, the grace in the face of adversity and the urgency of wondering when things would finally be better in the world. Without many words excepting “Fists of Fury” and other pieces with lyrics the group conjured an elegantly yet passionately articulated sense of people hurting from a lifetime, generations, of oppression. The weight of it, of not being taken seriously as a human, not being valued for contributing to culture or society but being barred from doing so in so many ways. The disenfranchisement that cuts deep and affects your psyche. But Washington’s music also brought out the beauty of the underlying knowledge that things don’t have to remain this way if we have the will to cast it off even if that will take a daunting level of work and the willingness of people to change. The music offered no solutions, no solace while also not sitting deep in despair. It was a channeling of that soul crushing sadness into something that couldn’t help but affect you and bring you to tears.

Kamasi Washington and band at Mission Ballroom, August 14, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Herbie Hancock seemed to be in high spirits when his own group took the stage and performed music from a broad spectrum of his career including choice cuts from his 1973 landmark Head Hunters, 1974’s Thrust and 1978’s Sunlight with a trip back to 1964 and “Cantaloupe Island.” Hancock told us he’d played Boulder and Denver many times and had a certain affection for the now defunct Tulagi’s in Boulder. When Hancock asked the crowd, “Are you ready for some weird stuff?” the band ably delivered with a psychedelic funk festooned with a maximalist improv groove on the core of the established songs like “Actual Proof” and “Chameleon.” When the group went into “Cantaloupe Island” it got a modern flavor.

Herbie Hancock and band at Mission Ballroom, August 14, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Lionel Loueke played like a space alien visiting to play in this band and laying down some of the most out guitar licks anyone is likely to on anyone’s tour now. Hancock told us something like how he’s played with the top ten drummers but that Vinnie Colaiuta was in the top echelon of even those players and he lived up to those words. James Genus held down the low end with an elegant flow of bass on loan from Saturday Night Live. But perhaps surprising was Terrence Martin playing not only keyboards but impressive sax chops to boot. Having produced the most recent two Kendrick Lamar albums we came to find out he’ll be working with Hancock soon on the pianists next record. The sheer joy of Hancock’s playing and his humor and chemistry with the band was riveting and vital.

Herbie Hancock at Mission Ballroom, August 14, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

At the end of the set, following “Cantaloupe Island,” Hancock and company performed a bit of “Rockit” including his signature keytar, brought out earlier in the set, and for the closing jam Washington came out with members of his own band and it seemed like everyone was on the same page, sharing the same spirit and showcasing some of of the best of what has been produced in American culture over the last six decades and not a passing of the torch so much as an acknowledgment of one classic master for the talent of a relative newcomer and vice versa as people who have helped make our world seem more compassionate and not functionally drab.

Kamasi Washington and band at Mission Ballroom, August 14, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Kamasi Washington and band at Mission Ballroom, August 14, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Herbie Hancock at Mission Ballroom, August 14, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Mitski’s Farewell For Now Show at Red Rocks Was Theatrical, Witty and Self-Aware

Mitski at Red Rocks, June 25, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

[This series will highlight some of the best shows that I (Tom Murphy) saw in 2019. My better camera proved to be broken when I checked it before leaving to Red Rocks and then getting caught in the traffic jam getting into the venue and not being able to get the proper credentials to be at the front of the stage and did the best I could between my back-up camera and my phone]

Mitski at Red Rocks, June 25, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

When Mitski Miyawaki announced in spring 2019 that the next set of shows would be her last indefinitely. This lead many to believe she was quitting music or at least quitting live performance. But the songwriter later clarified her intention in needing to step away from performing live and the rat race of touring for five years that can’t help but have a deleterious effect on one’s psyche, one’s sense of place and one’s identity in the end by unmooring one from the meaningful contexts that ground one’s existence. One can hardly blame her for wanting to step away from that situation for however long it takes to feel like a normal human again and cultivate one’s creative instincts rather than channel that energy into getting on stage and delivering what’s expected.

Given where Mitski must have been when she worked on the tour performance for her opening slots with Death Cab For Cutie at larger venues than she would likely headline on her own it was telling the care put into making it a show for the big stage. Mitski is probably not a millionaire from her music and yet her using a stage set with a chair and a table as props for a highly theatrical performance was an interesting balance of concept executed to give people that know her music something extra while presenting to those that didn’t something they were likely not expecting from an opening act for a beloved, established older band whose emotional earnestness and 90s-esque, stripped down, raw performance style was the expected aesthetic. In moments her set-up was reminiscent of the spoken word shows from Spalding Gray.

Death Cab For Cutie at Red Rocks, June 25, 2019

Deathcab for Cutie put in a fine performance proving it had transitioned well from a band some of us saw at a small club that held less than a hundred people to popular indie elders statesmen playing Red Rocks and still making music with meaning and power evolved naturally from its roots. Mitski brought what felt like a stage production of her 2018 album Be the Cowboy with some highlights from previous records. She strutted about the stage, leapt about like a gymnast and seemed to orchestrate the music in the foreground with the band in the wings giving her movements their emotional context in sync with Mitski’s commanding vocals.

Mitski at Red Rocks, June 25, 2019, photo by Tom Murphy

Near the beginning of the show Miyawaki, in a display of acute self-awareness, said, “You may be asking yourself if this is the set. This is the set.” She knew plenty of people were not expecting something so “arty” based on other shows the songwriter had played in Denver at places like Larimer Lounge and The Bluebird Theater at which Mitski played guitar as well as sang. This was Mitski in a stylized outfit and using props while delivering her thought-provoking and psychologically insightful lyrics. Toward the end Miyawaki broke the fourth wall of the show again and addressed those in attendance who weren’t familiar with her work by wryly stating, “If we’re not your flavor, don’t worry [Death Cab For Cutie is] up next.”

If Mitski is taking time off to learn to be human again on her own terms away from the rigors and demands of the road and being something of a public figure, reconnecting with the foundations of her own creative spirit, at least she left off, for now, with some shows hinting at the possible future and the best record of her career and one of the most incisive examinations of identity and the American psyche through a deeply personal lens in recent memory. I, for one, am looking forward to her return to making creatively ambitious pop music.