Ever wonder what cities have the best music scenes?
Earlier this year, a site called livability.com made headlines with its list of the "Top 10 Cities With the Best Music Scenes Outside of Nashville, NYC and LA." The anointed American cities, in ascending order, were Concord, Calif.; Tulsa, Okla.; Madison, Wis.; Fort Worth, Texas; Cambridge, Mass.; Omaha, Neb.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Athens, Ga.
Actually, the list is most impressive for what it leaves out, with music meccas like New Orleans, Austin and San Francisco all failing to make the cut.
But consider an alternative view: What if the best place to hear exceptional music is actually your own hometown, no matter where that happens to be?
Indeed, after decades of consolidation and homogenization, music appears to be returning to its more regional, grassroots origins. Whether you're in Colorado Springs or Cape Town, South Africa, there are remarkably talented local musicians whose work is both culturally diverse and regionally relevant. You just to have to find them.
So we figured we'd try to help. In 2011, Independent readers voted for their favorite local artists in more than a dozen musical categories. Winners were profiled in our Local Music Issue, and subsequently performed at the inaugural Indy Music Awards Festival. For many — including a number of the musicians themselves — it was surprising to discover just how much talent we have in our own backyard.
This year, we're doing it all again, only a little bit bigger and better. We've increased the number of categories, which means you'll find more winner profiles in this issue. We're also planning a substantially larger celebration for Sept. 6, with more than 20 acts performing on three stages during the free Indy Music Awards Festival at Stargazers Theatre and Event Center.
Of course, none of this would be happening if it weren't for the many musicians featured in the following pages. Come hear them for yourself next Thursday, and get ready to meet some of your favorite new artists.
Hip-Hop (Duo or Group)
Locally, the ReMINDers' Aja Black and Antoine "Samir" Zamundu have kept a relatively low profile during the unconscionably long gap between their 2008 debut album and this month's Born Champions follow-up. But that definitely hasn't been the case outside our city limits.
Colorado Springs' favorite hip-hop couple — whose music combines the conscious hip-hop of Black Star and Dead Prez with the crossover appeal of the Fugees — has made repeat appearances at SXSW and CMJ festivals. The ReMINDers have also toured the country, and played concerts in such far-flung locales as the Czech Republic and Morocco.
There have also been heavyweight endorsements: Last September, the duo was the opening act for the sold-out Aspen stop of Snoop Dogg's Doggumentary tour. The following morning, the hip-hop megastar posted a picture of himself with Aja and Samir on the home page of his website, and also sent it to his Twitter followers, who now number nearly 10 million. Never a bad thing. And earlier this summer, A Tribe Called Quest legend Ali Shaheed Muhammad lent his support to the ReMINDers' album-funding campaign, encouraging his online followers to contribute.
Back here on the home front, the duo has mixed feelings about the state of the local scene. "I think Colorado Springs could use more venues that are created specifically for live performance, that support a wide range of musical genres," says Samir. "There are more artists, but there are less venues that support them."
Later this month, the ReMINDers will be going back out on the road for a national tour with Rhymesayers artist Brother Ali, to help promote Born Champions.
"We've developed a strong sense of direction, and our travels have provided us with new inspiration for our sound," says Samir. "We're pushing to make our recordings and performances even stronger."Second Place: Heavy Gravity
Third Place: BullHead*ded
When We Are Not a Glum Lot played last year's Indy Music Awards Festival, it wasn't just the fact that they're still high school students that made them stand out. It was also the band's blend of original post-rock and indie-pop songs, all performed with tight ensemble arrangements that take advantage of members' instrumental proficiency.(It's no coincidence that readers chose WANAGL frontman Sam Erickson as this year's top guitarist, and violinist Colin Foxwell as best in the wide-ranging "Other Instrument" category.)
But as befits a band still in its formative years, the Indie Rock category winners' upcoming festival performance may hold a few surprises.
"Our songwriting style has changed drastically — in my opinion, for the better — over the past year, due to my taste in music expanding," explains Erickson. "R&B and soul music have influenced how I view melodies greatly. Singer-songwriter-style music has influenced how I approach writing lyrics. And as far as instrumentation goes, I've been drawing from hip-hop all the way to alt-country."
On a broader level, Erickson sees changes taking place within the local music scene at large. "The sense of community has developed so overwhelmingly," he enthuses. "Everyone in the scene is so supportive and into the betterment of local music in Colorado Springs that it's ridiculous."
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign last September, the band (which finished second in last year's Rock category) has been gigging a little less relentlessly than usual, in order to finish recording a debut album and to get it pressed in time for a 2012 release. "After that," says Erickson, "we're going to spread it around on the Internet and to a few labels we have in mind, and start getting ourselves out there."
So if Erickson were to choose one thing in order to improve the local music scene, what would it be?
"A venue or a DIY space with an awesome location that hosted a bunch of cool all-ages shows would be fantastic," he responds. "But that's just wishful thinking."Second place: El Toro de la Muerte
Third place: The Flumps
Even after spending much of this past year in semi-retirement, Jake Loggins has hung onto a sufficiently avid following to repeat his first-place showing in this year's Blues category, and to once again be among the top vote-getters across the board.
Loggins started playing around town in his mid-teens, and it was the same nonstop gigging that's made him so popular that ultimately burned him out on the local bar-and-club scene. To add to the irony, Loggins had finally released his first album, the excellent Have a Nice Day, when he decided to hang up his guitar and start a family.
Luckily for fans, Loggins began playing the occasional gig after the birth of his son. But he's still not especially thrilled with the state of the local music scene.
"I miss the musicians that paved the way for myself and most of the other musicians here," says Loggins. "There needs to be more community between the musicians and music-lovers in this town. It's nowhere close to how it used to be."
And while Loggins will perform at this year's Indy Music Awards Festival, he's already planning another hiatus. But this time, he's not calling it a retirement.
"I'm taking the winter off, but I will get back at it a little in the summer," he says. "The overall goal is just to enjoy playing and not burn myself out ... again."Second place: Grant Sabin
Third place: Big Jim Adam & John Stilwagen
A year after his trio took second place in the Jazz category of the inaugural Indy Music Awards, Charlie Milo is everywhere.
In addition to placing first in this year's R&B/Funk/Soul category, he also won the write-in vote for Best Bassist. And then there's Heavy Gravity — Milo's side project with V Bar deejay Mike Dewitt (aka DJ Gravity) — which took this year's second place honors in Hip-Hop (Duo/Group).
And while Milo can lay down amazing bass lines that run the gamut from Meters-style funk to jazz-rock contortions, what he's most excited about these days is collaboration. He's currently recording and remixing tracks featuring local emcees, a number of whom make guest appearances at his live shows. In addition, the Charlie Milo Trio is working on a piece with belly dancer Joy Hearten-Johnson.
"It has been so great to see a shift from the competitive attitude," says Milo, "and to see everybody working together. We've seen everything from songs, mixtapes, albums, event planning and new bands being formed over the last couple of years, and it's been pretty epic."
Along the way, Milo's trio has also seen lineup changes, with Benjamin Pratt replacing Eric Blackmore on guitar and Paul Kaiser replacing Chris Combs on drums. Milo and his cohorts are currently working on their debut studio album, which will join the previously released CM3 EP and live album.
"I feel like we are getting closer and closer every year to reaching some sort of perfect harmony with our scene," says Milo, who hopes the growing sense of community among musicians will get more people out to live music venues. "One of the biggest ways we can all help the scene is by going out to shows and supporting the musicians, artists, dancers and actors who pour out their heart and soul into their craft."Second place: Molly Boyles & Lipstick Voodoo
Third place: Kopesetik Soul
Prior to making a name in his own right with last year's Sleeping While You're Awake album, Che Bong already had a significant presence in the local hip-hop scene. He's half of the duo Too Tone Taurus, who placed third in our 2011 Hip-Hop category, and is also one of the four emcees in BullHead*ded, who took first in this year's Local Live Act write-in category.
"I've been doing music since I was 9 years old," says the former military brat, who spent his early years in London, Sacramento, Calif., Albuquerque, N.M., and Great Falls, Mont. After he and his wife moved to Colorado Springs six years ago, Che Bong fell in with BullHead*ded and other acts on the Sound Powered Engine label.
Recently, the SPE collective has begun releasing a small torrent of albums and mixtapes. "In this past year, I've been able to drop my first solo album as well as a video by [director] Hussain Sola for 'Okay,'" says the emcee. "I've also been a part of Ashtray Confessional by Nato, as well as the new Made Up Minds album, the Summer Heat mixtape by Chuck City and DJ Prominent, and a compilation EP called Stages produced by Milogic."
Meanwhile, the BullHead*ded gang continues to gig relentlessly throughout Colorado and beyond. "I've been able to take part in countless shows across the country, which has given me opportunities to work with talented out-of-state and local artists I respect," says Che Bong, who sees potential for an increasingly vital hip-hop scene here. "I'd like to see venues show more support for hip-hop artists," he says. "The quality of music has gotten so much better from when I first started. The fans and all the groups have really stepped it up."Second place: Black P
Third place: Milogic
It's hard to think of a local deejay with a more unusual approach than Animus Invidious.
In a live situation, the most immediately noticeable giveaway is the Ableton software and video-game-controller setup he employs to produce his electronic sound-collages.
Definitely not your standard "hands in the air like you just don't care" aesthetic, although he can do that, too.
These days, Animus also spends a lot of time in his home studio, writing songs on guitar, and working up new material with emcee Stoney Bertz for a project called Flodignatic, whose sound he enthusiastically describes with a laundry list of tangled genres that range from "mystic desert dub" to "a healthy dash of robot jazz."
In addition to his video game controllers, Animus says he uses tricks like sidechaining and filtering in order to keep his densely layered mixes from sounding like total mush.
"I also like doing lots of glitches, effects and dynamic changes while deejaying," he adds. "Just letting a track play doesn't feel like performing to me."Second place: DJ Brandon Lee
Third place: DJ Gravity
Listen to "Invisible Arrows" off Claymore Disco's debut album, and the first question that may come to mind is: Does this band really come out of Colorado Springs?
Atmospheric synths, angular guitar riffs, punchy melodic bass lines, thumping dance-floor rhythms, and infectious vocal hooks add up to a sound that has more in common with the '80s-inspired electronic pop of bands like Cut Copy and Holy Ghost than with anything currently coming out of the Springs.
So maybe it's no surprise that two of the trio's major influences — Muse and Two Door Cinema Club — hail from the British Isles.
Also significant is the fact that the other band they most admire, Switchfoot, regularly appears at Christian music festivals. Together for less than two years, Claymore Disco is already making headway in that direction, having recently returned from the Sonshine Festival in Willmar, Minn., where after winning a battle of the bands, it got to play the main stage, opening for Relient K.
"We are all Christians and have firm beliefs," explains frontman Garret Myers, "but do not label the band 'Christian'— same as In-N-Out Burger isn't a Christian burger joint. It's just a fast-food restaurant run by a Christian family."
So just as Claymore Disco's music stands apart from much of the local scene, its lyrics seem more universal than what gets played on conventional Christian radio stations.
"Our music has a positive and uplifting message that is relevant to all people," says Myers of the band, which already has an EP and full-length album under its belt. "We definitely consider ourselves to be family, as well as all our fans to whom we owe so much. It's been a very exciting yet humbling experience thus far, and we are excited to keep learning."Second place: Knight in Colors
Third place: Get Along
The Haunted Windchimes are a tough act to follow, as their fellow nominees in the Americana and Best Album categories are well aware. The Pueblo-based group has placed first in both categories for the second year in a row.
In the past year, the group released its fourth album, Out With the Crow, and toured extensively, its gypsy folk diaspora reaching from Acacia Park to Sitka, Alaska, and most points in between. It hasn't hurt that the Windchimes reached some 4 million new listeners when A Prairie Home Companion chose them to perform on last October's live broadcast from the World Arena.
"Our show schedule has doubled since 2011 and nearly tripled since 2010," says bandleader Inaiah Lujan. "We want to hit 2013 hard with more tours, a new album and some overseas adventures."
Closer to home, he sees the local scene going through its own metamorphosis: "There's a lot of cross-pollination, and a sense of artists taking matters into their own hands, with house concerts, rooftop performances and real community-driven and -focused endeavors. There has been more or less something going on every single night."
Part of the reason for that is the return to a more DIY aesthetic. "It seems, for me at least, that the scene has returned to its roots, and taken its shows more or less out of the bars and clubs and back into the homes and the underground," says Lujan, who, as his band's national profile has risen, has learned to place even more value on a grassroots approach.
"This is important," he adds, "because it's easy as a musician to get caught up in the business side of things and sacrifice artistic creativity to appease promoters and venues. This has allowed the scene to really blossom and do things on its own accord. I only hope venue owners and promoters can find a way to integrate the intimate vibe of a house show onto the big stage."Second place: Chuck Snow & the Lo-Fi Cowboys
Third place: The Mitguards
Tony Exum Jr. may spend as much time playing abroad and up in Denver as he does in Colorado Springs, but that doesn't mean he's not enthusiastic about his hometown scene. A top-flight sax player with a penchant for the smooth sound of genre-blurring artists like Ronnie Laws and Grover Washington Jr., Exum has a new local project called Musik Theory that aims to combine conscious hip-hop with elements of pop and jazz.
"I think that the Springs is no longer 'that military town south of Denver.' It's now blossoming into a major city," says Exum, who released his second album of soulful originals back in July. "Bands like Kopesetik Soul — and artists like Jake Loggins, Charlie Milo, Black P and the ReMINDers — give the city its solid reputation as a place with talent you wouldn't think exists here."
The musician also credits Earl Klugh's annual Weekend of Jazz with putting Colorado Springs on the map for aficionados of the genre that informs his own music.
Upcoming plans for Exum include more touring and the release of a full-length album by Musik Theory, whose newly released "Summer Dress" single features vocals by Rellion, a backup singer on Bobby Brown's recent album, The Masterpiece.
"I'm also looking to continue exploring my straight-ahead roots and maybe even make an attempt at recording a traditional jazz record," says Exum, who, in addition, has some extracurricular activities in mind. "Hopefully I'll also put on my teaching hat and grab a few students, and throw on my promoter hat and get some national stars in the contemporary jazz, R&B, classic hip-hop and old school vein to the Springs. We need it badly."Second place: Barbara Ernst
Third place: Bob Tudor
Being an artist is all well and good, but sometimes it's nice to actually get paid for what you do. And when it comes to creative endeavors, most musicians don't even break even on the resources they put into recordings and live gigs.
And that, of course, is why God — or someone — created the cover band, a way to support your music habit that's potentially more lucrative than clerking at Wal-Mart and less soul-destroying than being a stockbroker. Even the Beatles spent their formative years playing Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Little Richard covers before going on to more celebrated accomplishments.
So it should come as no surprise that the musicians in Colorado Springs' favorite cover act, 40oz. Freedom Fighters, have other bands that don't fill their set lists with Sublime, Metallica and Billy Idol covers. Anthony Welch also drums in We Are All Destined to Fail and is lead vocalist in Another Shade of Hate, alongside Freedom Fighters guitarist Tim Mako.
But when it comes time to crank out the covers, 40oz. Freedom Fighters also put their hearts into it.
"We're constantly trying to stay fresh, so we continue to cycle songs in and out of the set lists," says frontman Nic Caballero, whose band placed first in the Indy Music Awards cover band category last year as well. "On top of that, Phil has spent a lot of time increasing the production value of our shows with his awesome light show that he simultaneously controls while playing keyboards. Also we've taken on a special guest singer, Lauren Johansen, who is absolutely amazing and will be performing with us at the awards show."
In terms of the local scene, Caballero wishes there were more venues for live music here in the Springs, and is optimistic there will be. "With new places like the DIY [Event Center] putting on shows like 'Punk vs Hip Hop' and 'Punk vs Metal,' I have a feeling things are looking up."
So what are 40oz. Freedom Fighters' goals for the coming year? "To learn a thousand songs," says Caballero. "And win the 2013 Indy Music Award, of course."Second place: Martini Shot
Third place: Wrestle With Jimmy
It takes a special kind of band to impress folks predisposed to dislike its particular genre, and Malakai can do just that.
Not that Colorado Springs' favorite thrash/death metal collective waters down its music. Far from it. There's just something contagious in bandmembers' enthusiasm for what they do, and the precision with which they do it, that wins listeners over.
"The people that like our band can't be easily defined," says Malakai frontman Chris Forsythe. "We like and respect that."
Of course, the band has given fans plenty of opportunity to like it over the course of its eight-year existence. "We have played a ton of shows, in a huge range of venues," notes Forsythe. "Unlike most metal bands, we like to play with acts that range from punk to hip-hop, indie rock to reggae. We will play anywhere, anytime, with anyone."
And while Malakai took a five-year break from the studio between its second and third albums, the band started writing a new album this month and plans to have it ready for release in early 2013. Meanwhile, newcomers can catch up with Malakai's recording history by picking up the recently released Monday: Deluxe Version, which reprises the 2011 album of the same name, while combining it with the band's first two releases.
In addition to fronting Malakai and Tree of Woe, the gravel-throated Forsythe is also the Black Sheep's sound man, which gives him further insight into what does and doesn't work in Colorado Springs.
"We've seen so many trends come and go in this town in our time as a band: metalcore, emo, Americana, alt-country, iPod rock. It's hard to keep up with what is the new big thing," says Forsythe. "Bands that stick to their guns and stay honest with their music will survive and thrive in any music scene. Colorado Springs is no different."
When asked about his recommendations for improving the local music scene, Forsythe offers up a unique proposal: "If we knew how to improve the scene, we would have done it long ago. I guess we would encourage venues to put Mike Stephens playing acoustic sets to open every show, no matter the genre, venue or the lineup. Ladies and drunks like Mike Stephens. Both of those are good for the scene."Second place: Inelements
Third place: Sonic Vomit
Like DeVotchKa to the north of us and the Decemberists to the west, Colorado Springs' Edith Makes a Paper Chain are folksy and literate, with an eclectic approach that takes traditional influences in new directions. In a world of aggressive self-promotion, frontwoman Sarah Hope and her bandmates have taken a deliberately low-key approach, focusing on their music and gigging infrequently, which has served to give their performances a kind of event status.
Meanwhile, the group has gone through some changes since winning the Folk category in last year's inaugural Indy Music Awards.
"We've gained and lost members," says Hope, "which has caused us to adapt and change. Mike [Kimlicko] becoming our bass player has influenced the sound a lot — also Miette Hope with her amazing harmonies, vocals and fresh perspective."
Hope cites a performance with Colorado College summer music students at the Modbo gallery as "probably the most amazing experience we've had as a band.
"The music scene has really developed momentum over the past year or two," she enthuses. "Every time I see a new band or artist, I feel like it's Christmas. There are so many great talents popping up everywhere, and everyone is really supportive of everyone else."
What's next for Edith? "We really want to finish our next CD, support other musicians, and have some fun," says Hope. "Oh yeah, and one sort of secret wish I have is to make a storybook of the songs. I would love to get together with one of our fantastic surrealist local painters and make the stories come to life."Second place: The Changing Colors
Third place: Lindsay Weidmann
Jazz (Duo or Group)
Since winning the Jazz category in last year's Indy Music Awards, Mango Fan Django has continued its quest to "make the world safe for gypsy jazz, one gig at a time."
"It's been a fun and busy time," says bandleader Archtop Eddie, who started out playing electric guitar in the tradition of Charlie Christian and Slim Gaillard before becoming obsessed with spreading the music pioneered by Django Reinhardt. "It was a great honor to be selected as Indy Music Award winners in 2011, and then again in 2012. We have a great fan base to credit for that."
In addition to playing two or three gigs a week at venues like Rico's (where the group recorded its second album five years ago), the trio appeared at the MeadowGrass Music Festival and released its seventh album, Indigo Dreams, this past May. A month later, Mango Fan Django took on violinist Dave Siegel as its fourth member.
When asked about changes he's seen in the local music scene, Eddie says it's more about how the band itself has changed to be part of the scene: "We've learned to adjust our material to suit broader situations and opportunities, and we're realistic about what we can expect from a venue."
The musician is also enthused about cost-cutting advancements in music production and the promotional aspects of the Internet.
"More than ever it is an opportune time for independent artists, but one must do their homework," says Eddie. "There's a lot of good competition out there."Second place: Colorado Springs Big Jazz Band
Third place: Moonhoney
Although the Nobodys haven't recorded an album in more than a decade, Colorado Springs' longest-running punk sensations have periodically risen from the dead to play at least a couple shows a year.
By comparison, 2012 is turning into the perpetually irreverent trio's version of a full-fledged zombie apocalypse. The Nobodys had already racked up three gigs — including the Front Range Punk Fest — before the year was half-dead. And now, in a development few dared to expect, the two-time Indy Music Award winners actually expect to have a new album recorded by year's end.
"Since last year, we are actually a band again," says J.J. Grueter, aka JJ Nobody, who also plays bass in Drag the River and is the owner of the Triple Nickel Tavern. "We've played a handful of shows and plan on playing a lot more in the future. We're working on a new record and planning some touring. Oh yeah, and I'm about 15 pounds heavier. Thanks, Jäger bombs."
As for the new songs, Grueter offers up a few titles: "Drinking With Chinaski" is a reference to Charles Bukowski's alter ego. "Joe Queer Kicked Me Out" is an homage to the frontman of the Queers, with whom Nobodys drummer Justin Disease toured Europe last year. "Cheap Love is Hard to Find" is pretty self-explanatory.
As a venue owner and a musician who's been active for nearly two decades, Grueter takes an ambivalent view in regard to the current music climate and how it could be improved.
"I think the scene has its ups and downs, as it always has. As far as what I hope to change in the future? Nothing. That's the kids' job. I am playing again strictly for the fun of playing.
"I lost faith in music with the second coming of boy bands, and I'm not talking about 'N Sync or that shit. I'm talking about what passed itself off as punk rock in the late '90s and 2000s."
And while Grueter spoke to the Indy back in June about putting his venue back on the market, the For Sale sign hasn't gone up yet. Asked if he's having second thoughts, he responds in the affirmative.
"Yes, I've had second, third and even fourth thoughts about selling the Nickel, but I still plan on it. Just not this year. Where would I watch football this season?"Second place: 99 Bottles
Third place: Mostly Don'ts
Grass It Up was already one of the highest-profile bands in town when it won last year's Indy Music Award for Country/Bluegrass. Working in a genre that demands an exceptional level of musical proficiency, the group has also won over fans with a coterie of originals that have no problem standing alongside the traditional material they've been performing the past seven years.
With this summer's release of Alabama Tory, an album that's, in part, a tribute to the late Earl Scruggs, Grass It Up now has five releases under its belt. The group also began working with Scott O'Malley, the local manager who helped get the Haunted Windchimes on A Prairie Home Companion last year, and has played several shows at his Western Jubilee Warehouse.
"This year we plan to play more than ever before," says Grass It Up co-founder (and Indy staffer) David Jeffrey. "We booked the High Mountain Hay Fever in Westcliffe and have several more festivals on the radar." The group was also featured at this year's MeadowGrass Music Festival, appeared on the cover of the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society's Pow'r Pickin' magazine, and plays steady gigs at local venues ranging from The Broadmoor to Front Range Barbeque.
So what's next?
"Who knows, we may buckle down and record another album or go to Costa Rica, or both," says Jeffrey. "The biggest thing is keeping up with the demand for bluegrass in the newgrass state of Colorado. Coloradans love their bluegrass."Second place: The J. Miller Band
Third place: Joe Johnson