Welcome to your introduction to the Indy Music Artists Showcase! In lieu of featuring winners of a contest as in previous years, this year's Indy summer music event, co-sponsored by RXP/Kilo and KRCC, will look a bit more like last year's Freewheelin' Music Fest in format, and serves to show off some of the standout bands and artists in the region. And with the new approach, we also have a new location, and you can catch the full day of music split amongst three downtown stages on Saturday, Sept. 10, held in conjunction with the 2016 What If... Festival of Innovation & Imagination.
While musicians, fans and other acolytes of the Colorado Springs music community already know about the breadth and level of talent on display in our town, the showcase offers a chance for locals who might not be as familiar with the city's music scene to get acquainted with this circle.
Despite some critical and commercial success from Springs-based acts over the years, you still don't regularly hear Colorado Springs mentioned in the same breath as Austin, Athens or Portland on the national level. So what can newcomers expect from the local music scene?
The funny thing about music scenes, and the press thereof, is that ability is rarely debatable. From a statistical standpoint, any city with a population above 400,000 people is bound to have a few folks who play guitar, and some of them will undoubtedly play it quite well. Before you know it, you'll have quite a few rock bands popping up.
One such artist is Ben Scott, the lead singer and guitarist of the rock band Knight in Colors. The band formed in 2011 as the result of Scott's informal jam sessions with drummer Dan Cusson — who previously played and toured with bands from his old home base of Connecticut — and Scott's childhood friend Chase Perry on bass.
From these humble beginnings, the band proceeded to hone its grunge- and indie-rock-inspired sound, playing shows and putting out two EPs and a Christmas single over the next two years. The band is currently putting the finishing touches on its first full-length album, which they expect to release in September.
"Our experiences in the Colorado Springs music scene this year have been overwhelmingly positive," says Scott. "We always meet at least a handful of new people at each show we play, and just connecting with the other bands is always a good thing. That has been unique for me. We'll play shows with other bands we've never met, or be put on bills that we probably shouldn't be on, and everyone is genuinely cool and respectful of what you are trying to do as a local band. That has had a huge impact on us, for sure."
The "mismatched" shows one can catch locally aren't indicative of a lack of venues in town, but more telling of the heterogeneous sounds found within the rock music umbrella in Colorado Springs. Shows at venues such as The Flux Capacitor and Black Sheep frequently get even more adventurous, mixing up genres for nights that can easily subvert audience expectations or reveal some previously unobvious similarities.
A quick survey of the many guitar-driven acts appearing at the showcase highlights this diversity: The hooky, synthpop-influenced alternative rock of Hydrogen Skyline — who just released a new album, Photovoltaic — sits comfortably alongside the pub rock-meets-alternative country stylings of Rough Age, the complex, instrumental post-rock of Blind, The Thief, the angular post-punk of Salt of Sanguine (featuring former members of Water Bear and El Toro de la Muerte), the melodic indie rock of Mark's Midnight Carnival Show, and the versatility of popular cover band 40 Oz. Freedom Fighters.
"I think the local artists are doing a great job supporting the scene," Scott reaffirms. "I can name a ton of people running blogs off their own dime, opening DIY venues, serving on local arts committees, etc. All to help grow the community. As for fans, I would say get out to as much shows as possible, scour these local blogs or publications for new music, just explore more. There's a ton of good music here and it won't take very long to find it. As for our performance at the upcoming showcase, we hope people just have a good time. As clichéd as that sounds, it's all we really hope for each show. Maybe a few people will come to our release show as a result, or maybe they'll check out more local acts now, which would be great. It also gives us an opportunity to play for an audience that we normally wouldn't be in front of, so that's kind of exciting and scary. We're also looking forward to checking out the other acts, as well — we're probably most excited for that."
While the guitar-driven rock music you'd often hear on local stations KRCC, RXP and KILO is well represented, Colorado Springs also boasts a thriving hip-hop movement that many outside the scene might not realize. Despite hip-hop enjoying a good 36 years in the popular culture mainstream, the development of local scenes seems to often be overlooked in the media.
Nonetheless, it's hard to discount the achievements of local groups such as the ReMINDers, who impressed audiences at a national level at last year's South by Southwest festival, or Stoney Bertz, who has shared the stage with national acts such as Del the Funky Homosapien's collective, Hieroglyphics. Bertz has built a reputation as one of the area's most highly regarded emcees.
"I started rapping in the Springs in 2011," Bertz explains, delving into the humble beginnings of her involvement in music. "It was something I mentioned to a few people, and eventually someone let me record a verse. They actually liked the flow, so I ended up with a show at the Black Sheep, and it just kinda went from there. I gathered up my own equipment, of which there wasn't much to speak of, but I was able to manage the recording of my first project. Later projects would be recorded with the help of others, but I was really grateful to have gone through that process. It definitely serves as an advantage to be privy to the recording process from the other side. I made a concerted effort to do as many shows as I could at that point, with the help of a lot of good people and venues that were into the music. I felt I was able to make an impression ... though the work is never done, I'm happy with where it's come to now. I hope folks can see the progression from the beginning to now."
Bertz's latest record, Say Anything, a collaboration with fellow emcee and producer Elimence, is an exciting listen. Based on the 1989 Cameron Crowe film of the same name — Bertz confesses to being a big fan of John Cusack — the album puts the thematic elements of the film into new contexts courtesy of Bertz's thoughtful lyrics and Elimence's elegant, soulful production. And even if you're not a regular hip-hop music listener, Bertz's skill on the microphone is immediately obvious, as she boasts a rapid-fire delivery that manages to be remarkably fluid and relaxed.
"I feel like I've had some really dope experiences this year, especially coming off the end of last year with the release of Say Anything. It kind of opened up the lane to take that next step to really get out there and continue the journey. I think the scene has grown a lot recently, in terms of different outlets opening up and being open spaces for different shows and events that really foster growth for the scene here."
Bertz points to the emergence of musical events at Mountain Fold Books, Bar K, and the return of "Word Wednesday" at the V Bar as complements to venue staples such as Zodiac and the Black Sheep.
"I can only speak for myself, of course, but I think that we as artists have started to understand that you really have to give that love back in order to get it; that it can manifest itself in many different ways. A lot of times it's not worth it to just worry about who's not into the music or won't support it. Focus on those who do, and try to make the events the best quality for those [who] show up and the other artists in order to make sure we keep the energy right, and eventually spread the vibe to the world."
In Bertz's case, that energy seems boundless and prolific. New fans can look forward to plenty of music from her in the near future, as she's currently working on a full-length LP with Not Just Entertainment, a smaller EP, and releases from Company 8, a group that features Bertz. In addition, she's been toying with the idea of developing a podcast.
"I would definitely say that I am staying true to form in regards to what I normally do," says Bertz of her new musical endeavors. "I feel like the 'complex lyricism,' so to speak, is something I am always gonna gravitate towards, and the introspective, kinda emotional type of music as well. However, I have been examining things a bit more, and just trying to make sure to continue to put a little more life into the innovation, I guess you could say. I'm looking at new avenues and ways to do what I do, but across different soundscapes to make sure there's always something new and room for improvement."
Although "alternative" musical movements originally sprang up as reactions to tired mainstream stylistic cliches in rock and hip-hop, today you'll find artists who diverge from the usual genre paths simply because the sheer amount of music available allows artists greater autonomy to follow any sort of individual muse.
Take showcase performer My Name Is Harriett, for example: Harriett Landrum's solo project doesn't conform to any single genre, using her violin and looping pedals to create textured soundscapes that draw equally from the bass-heavy motor rhythms of hip-hop, the confessional, narrative-driven lyricism of folk and singer-songwriter music, and the soaring melodies of classical music, all driven home by Landrum's fiery, soulful vocal style.
The music of Kellie Palmblad's Water Bear project stretches the guitar-heavy sound of indie rock into a more sultry and ethereal dimension. Alex Koshak's band, Charioteer, plays experimental pop with a spacey, lo-fi take on the psychedelic and baroque pop stylings of the 1960s. Mitchell Macura's project, Cocordion, uses synthesizer loops to create hypnotic, electronic dream pop.
Of course, one of the most notable "alternative" musical movements — before alternative became a commonplace label — was the emergence of punk rock as a response to the bombast of late-1970s arena rock and pop. Punk was conceived as a sort of populist musical genre, where ostensibly anyone can participate and play by their own rules. As such, almost every music scene, regardless of location or dominant musical inclinations, is likely to have a few punk bands, and Colorado Springs is no exception.
Artists at the showcase who carry on that spirit include Shiii Whaaa, a band with deep roots in the local punk movement.
"We all graduated from Blair College, where we studied music theory as well as music history," says guitarist and vocalist Peter Sisson. "[Bass guitarist] Webby and I have been playing in bands here for too long — Nicotine Fits, Conjugal Visits, Blighter, and the Tunguska Event come to mind. James Ivy used to drum for the Spin Doctors when he was only 1. Bryan Sespico was in some bands while he lived in Ohio... The Prohibitionists and Bad Matches."
Shiii Whaaa's music is less about a reaction to anything else in rock music tradition than it is an opportunity to craft short, fast and excellently concise garage-punk tunes, played with an equal helping of buzzsaw guitars and eminently hummable melodies.
"The more I listen to what we write, the less I know how to describe it using genres. Not to say we're oh-so-different and original, because we're not — it's more that I'm too old to understand what the hell kids call it these days," says Sisson. "It's just punk, I suppose."
Shiii Whaaa have already appeared with punk rock mainstays on the national level, backing The Angry Samoans, Adolescents, The Weirdos, and more. In September alone, they're set to play shows with Gringo Star, Midnight Reruns and The Vibrators, in addition to working on new recordings and, if the shipment ever arrives, a release of their debut album on custom-colored cassette tapes.
"This year has had its ups and downs in our music scene," says Sisson, "But every show I've personally been to has been a very positive one. Great people, great bands and mixed-genre shows. I just think it would be nice if we had more Silly String, Otter Pops, pizza parties, and hi-fives. It's a start."
The iconoclastic and experimental spirit driving many Colorado Springs bands doesn't necessarily mean there's not value to be had by going back to more traditional styles of music. The recordings put out by local labels Blank Tape Records and Western Jubilee Recording Company boast rich catalogs of Americana, country and folk-inspired music, and many local bands find new ways forward by drawing inspiration from those traditions.
Woodshed Red has earned a reputation as dynamic live performers with a bluegrass-inspired sound, featuring the virtuosic playing of guitarist Rob Fulton, upright bassist Craig Haughton, fiddle player Deirdre McCarthy and drummer Skye Lewis.
"We all come from different musical backgrounds, although we've all been playing for most of our lives and have dabbled in most types of music at some point," explains Lewis. "Rob comes from blues, Craig comes from various types of rock, Deirdre comes from Irish traditional music and classical, and I come from indie rock and jazz."
While the band started out frequently playing covers with a bluegrass twist — including an extended Pink Floyd medley that always seems to get crowds excited — the band's melding of genres and adventurous improvisation eventually settled into the broad yet fitting category of a "jam band." They released their first studio album, Rosin on the Bow, shortly after their formation three years ago, and are looking to release their sophomore effort in the summer of 2017. Until then, they plan to keep up their ambitious performing schedule.
"We love being based in Colorado Springs! We've developed a fairly steady following here, and love to see so many familiar faces at our local shows. The people here are more supportive than we could have ever imagined. There's no shortage of venues to play at, and having been a musician in the area for most of my life, I can say that the music scene is stronger than ever, especially in the folk/bluegrass/Americana genres."
Indeed, the city's folk-minded will find plenty to like at the Indy Music Artists Showcase. Folksinger Iggy Igloo will likely be a familiar face to anyone who spends time catching live music in Manitou Springs, as will Ryan Flores, the accomplished singer-songwriter who founded Heart Shaped Records and has appeared with groups such as Leopard & the Vine and Moonhoney.
Changing Colors' Conor Bourgal and Edith Makes a Paper Chain's Sarah Hope will also represent the west side's more singer-songwriterly approach, while The Tejon Street Corner Thieves throw together elements of ragtime, country and blues in their self-described "trashgrass" style. From a more world-music perspective, Mo Mungus will bring their brand of vintage rocksteady reggae, a popular Jamaican genre from the 1960s that bridged the styles of ska and reggae.
The diversity of the Colorado Springs scene, combined with the growing interest and listener base as the city continues to grow, has many musicians excited about the possibilities for the future.
"All in all, we have a great scene, and as long as musicians keep working hard, venues pay bands what they deserve, and people come out to support local acts, it will continue to grow," concludes Woodshed drummer Lewis. "Many may disagree, but from a strictly 'music scene' standpoint, the thousands of people moving to Colorado doesn't hurt, either. We just hope that people who haven't seen us before have a good time, and that people who have seen us enjoy the energetic, fun show that they've come to expect over the years."