Everybody and their mother has a box set out these days. Release a debut CD, make a live recording, then add in a bunch of outtakes and basement tapes, and you're in business.
But as the gift-giving season hits high gear, you might want to consider the opportunity to build your own box. With three CDs culled from the extraordinary performers who either live along the Front Range or frequent its stages, you couldn't dream of a better homespun holiday package then these excellent recordings.
E-Town Live 2
(E-Town Recordings, www.etown.org)E-Town Live 2 is the most focused of these three CDs in terms of its musical mission. While KBCO may be one of the last commercial stations to boast a wide spectrum of adult rock music (including broadcasts of E-Town on Sunday nights), E-Town has risen to the surface of the live music radio programs to emerge as a vanguard show with a conscience.
Unfortunately, E-Town has left the airwaves of KRCC, but who can forget when E-Town was recorded live at Colorado College eight years ago, with guest performer Michelle Schocked momentarily suspending her Amendment 2-inspired boycott of Colorado to come to town and sing "Prodigal Daughter" in a special dedication to our local religious right? A vintage E-Town moment. Too bad we're missing the ongoing legacy. (Write letters! Promise to give money! Write letters!)
The album opens with a great one-two punch of Shawn Colvin and Bruce Cockburn, two singer-songwriters known for having something to say. The performances are almost entirely acoustic, by performers comfortably wrapped around wooden boxes strung with silver wire. We get the treat of hearing Tim O'Brien -- host Nick Forster's old Hot Rize bandmate -- playing a 1991 version of "Hold to a Dream." We hear Sarah McLachlan, singing "Path of Thorns" as the "undercard" performer on a bill that was topped by Richard Thompson in 1994. E-Town has always been a dependable way of expanding musical horizons, and though McLachlan was an unknown when she played her first show, she quickly elevated her stature.
E-Town has always featured Colorado favorites like Colvin, O'Brien, Ben Harper, Barenaked Ladies and Sonia Dada well before the rest of the music world caught on to what they were up to. They're all featured on the CD, with intriguing live interpretations of "Ashes" (Harper), "Jane" (Barenaked Ladies), and "Zachary" (Sonia Dada).
The CD is ceaselessly eclectic, but always grounded in the ethos of the program itself. Additional performances come from a folked-out Peter Himmelman, a smoky Latin-tinged Suzanne Vega, little-known bluesman Johnny Long, renowned Norteno accordion player Flaco Jimenez, legendary Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt singing a song from his Rocky Mountain days, "Snowin' on Raton," instrumentalist extraordinaire Michael Hedges, and the politically charged rocker from Iris Dement, "Wasteland of the Free."
As with Doc Severnson's old Tonight Show orchestra or Paul Shaeffer's World's Most Dangerous Band, one of the treats for audiences and musicians alike is to hear the stellar house band, the E-Tones, featuring Forster on guitar and mandolin, Chris Engleman on bass, Steve Ivey on drums, and Ron Jolly on keyboards. Catch the first E-Town CD if you can find it, with an even broader mix of acoustic legends and new discoveries, and be sure to keep your eye out for their third release, due in 2001.
Studio C, Volume Twelve
(KBCO, www.kbco.com)In the 12 years since Melissa Etheridge first let loose on an acoustic guitar in a hallway at the Boulder radio station, KBCO and its annual self-made CD of in-studio recordings have become the vanguard for FM radio stations nationwide. If anything, Volume 12 is a confident step back from relying on highpowered acts like Dave Matthews, Sting, Phish, and Indigo Girls, all of whom played in Studio C this year, but none of whom made the cut for the limited release CD benefiting the Boulder County AIDS Project.
Although the disc is sprinkled with big names like k.d. lang ("The Consequences of Falling"), Tori Amos ("1000 Oceans), and Ben Harper ("Burn to Shine"), it is some of the lesser-known artists that make the disc a delight of discovery. Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise ("Baby") is one of the highlights, offering a slow-grooving swamp riff destined to send listener's scrambling into the Bradley catalog.
The disc opens with a straightforward performance of "Babylon" by David Gray, recorded this summer when he was in town to be introduced to a conference of radio programmers. Other highlights from those conference sessions include two of the treasured cuts, Sister Seven's "The Only Thing That's Real" and Shelby Lynne's irresistible "Thought It Would Be Easier."
The album kicks into high gear in the final third, with expansive renditions of a new "Odessa" from Bob Weir and Ratdog, a beautifully raw "Me and Bobby McGee" from Kris Kristofferson and the special offering of "Outside and Inside" from local favorites String Cheese Incident.
The album is traditionally released shortly after Thanksgiving and sells out in a matter of hours. You can hear tracks on the station's Web site, where you can also check out the 11 previous volumes.
The Black Rose Acoustic Society Sampler 2000
(The Black Rose Acoustic Society, www.blackroseacoustic.org)For honest-to-goodness home-grown music, you can't beat the local connoisseurs at The Black Rose Acoustic Society, who have produced their first-ever sampler of music from the roster of performers who have taken their stage this year.
The CD is a combination of artists who have played the Black Rose in either special concerts, as featured acts, or as part of the open stage acts that open their regular shows out on the northernmost edge of Colorado Springs. The breadth of the project is evident in the first five songs, including a folky "Johnny Appleseed" from Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, the instrumental "Life's Too Short," the cowboy swing of "Under New Mexico Skies" by Syd Masters & The Swing Riders, the piano ballad "Beyond This Place" from Denver's Dakota Blonde, and the bluegrass original "Jenny Dear" from Denver's High Plains Tradition. The rolling banjo and high lonesome vocals of "Jenny Dear" kick this collection into high gear, offering one of the album's best moments and hitting a ringing tone of authenticity.
Among the local contributors are Rick Stahl, whose "Angel with a Sixstring" hearkens back to the Steve Goodman sound and Black Rose, whose rendition of Pat Donahue's "Matter of Time" is another joyful highlight that features the tight bluegrass musicianship and jubilant vocals of a band that came together on the open stage. The evocative songwriting in "Sweet Molly's Eyes" from Manitou's Doug Miles with Dave White gives way to the humorous "Five Song Limit," an ode to the open stage from Paul Schwotzer and Lyn Boudreauw. The pickin' and grinnin' of Woodland Park's Lost Creek on "Caney Run," and the Celtic-tinged traditional "Blow the Candles Out" from Troubadour are both highly enjoyable. Among the most accomplished and polished songs is "Galen and Marliss" from Phil Volan, and Dan Kirchner's tender guitar instrumental "Lorraine" is the album's most beautiful cut.
Other highlights from neighborly participants include Safe Harbor, from Nederland, who offer one of the album's most upbeat moments with a worldly arrangement of the traditional "Freedom" and a down-home version of "Dark Hollow" from Niwot's Pete and Joan Wernick, featuring the subtly restrained wizardry of Dr. Banjo.
The Black Rose recordings are occasionally a little rough around the edges, but always very listenable. It's hard to tell whether the shows make a better advertisement for the CD or whether the CD is an irresistible invitation to head up to the cozy log building on the second and fourth Friday of every month for a show or two in the Black Forest.