Colorado Springs may be a quirky place to live, but when it comes to seeing well-known touring bands in ridiculously small venues, it can also be pretty amazing.
Examples? Well, Primus and Sublime with Rome sell out Red Rocks; they play here at the City Auditorium. Conor Oberst, who's sold out Carnegie Hall, played here at the Black Sheep, as did Fitz & the Tantrums, whose "Out of My League" single hit No. 1 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart this week.
All of which brings us to Califone, a Chicago indie-something band that will appeal to fans of Low and Magnolia Electric Co. Although not as famous the aforementioned musicians, they've played two-night runs at their hometown's 600-capacity Lincoln Hall, made the New York Times' year-end critics' lists, and routinely been interviewed by Pitchfork and other indie-music tastemakers.
But here's where it gets weird: Califone will be playing here this Wednesday, Oct. 2, at Urban Steam Coffee Bar. The show is limited to 40 tickets, being sold exclusively through undertowtickets.com.
A guaranteed advance sell-out, right?
Maybe not. As of this writing, just one day before the show, only 14 tickets have been purchased.
One big reason is the fact that the tour was put together by Undertow, a music collective that specializes in under-the-radar house shows. The group began its online ticketing service five years ago when Pedro the Lion frontman David Bazan embarked on his first "living-room tour." The way it works, essentially, is that the host donates the performance space, and the entire ticket price — in this case, $20 — goes to the artist.
Compare that to Ticketmaster, which routinely shakes down customers by tacking on a 50 percent "convenience fee," and Undertow starts to look like the Mother Teresa of the music industry.
In a lot of ways, Undertow is carrying on the DIY spirit of the original punk movement, but with some significant differences. Since most of these shows actually are in living rooms, even the locations are kept under wraps, the only promotion being through mailing lists and the occasional Facebook post. And it was only late Tuesday morning that the venue got permission to sell tickets at the door.
In any case, Urban Steam owner Kelly Bubach appears to be taking it all in stride. No stranger to promoting shows, he once booked a relatively unknown DeVotchKa into the now-defunct Acoustic Coffee Lounge. He also put on shows at Tejon Street's short-lived 32 Bleu, an original music venue that operated on the site of what's now the Thirsty Parrot.
"We got a little too ambitious, especially for Colorado Springs," he says of the latter venue. "We would book Americana bands before there was Americana."
Bubach says he'll be satisfied if even 20 people show up Wednesday. After all, this is one of Urban Steam's very first shows, and there'll be more to come. At the moment, he's looking to recruit a part-time booker so that he can stay focused on that whole coffee thing.
Meanwhile, Califone has released a new album called Stitches. Steven Hyden's review on Pitchfork sums the band's role in the current music scene nicely.
"Stitches is exactly the sort of Americana record that can act as antidote for what's happening in the genre right now," he writes. "At a time when 'hey!' folk has fully infiltrated rock radio, and made questionably bearded banjo players the guitar shredders of this generation, somebody has to stand up and represent how truly weird and wondrous this music can be. Stitches isn't a record designed to bowl anybody over — it eschews easy Mumford-like payoffs. Like desert sand, it slowly washes over until it finally crushes you."
As I write this, it's anyone's guess how many local music fans will turn out to hear Califone's alternative to "'hey!' folk" malaise. But it's a pretty safe bet that artists who come here to play smaller-than-usual venues, and then find them relatively empty, are never going to come back. Would you?