It's been more than five years since The Haunted Windchimes made their breakout appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. And while the Pueblo-based band continues to tour relentlessly, band members still spend their downtime in a variety of side projects. Among them is Mike Clark's The River Arkansas, who are getting ready to celebrate their sophomore album, You Animal, with a St. Patrick's Day performance at the Ivywild School.
Looking back on it, Clark believes the Windchimes' national radio appearance was a breakthrough for the Colorado music community at large. He says the show "shone a light on the music scene that we have going in Colorado Springs; there are lot of great bands in the Southern Colorado region."
The River Arkansas continue to play a vital role in that scene with this newest release. Clark says that having more than one group gives him "an opportunity to play all types of different genres." It also provides an outlet for his "quieter acoustic songs, things that fit better with violin and strings."
Just as The Haunted Windchimes were not Clark's first rodeo, The River Arkansas are unlikely to be his last. The Calhan native started playing out in Colorado Springs as half of the bluesy guitar-and-drums duo Jack Trades, before forming the more bluegrass-inspired Crow Flies. After joining the Windchimes, he's since wandered into gypsy-folk territory with The Ghost of Mike Clark, and explored retro-soul as leader of the horn-driven Mike Clark & The Sugar Sounds.
Meanwhile, Clark is confident that You Animal stands as the best collection yet of his songs. "It starts out nice and slow and builds and breaks throughout," he says. "Some songs are really catchy, and others are really sad heartbreakers."
The band's instrumentation presents a very different side of Clark's music. "A cello and a violin together just make the most beautiful sounds," he says, noting how Danah Olivetree's cello allows his "more tender and slow songs to have a very powerful feel, and to be a little bit more emotionally charged. And when we play fast songs, the strings are sometimes playing what you'd consider a horn part, which I think adds a whole new texture."
The band, which consists of Clark, Olivetree, upright bassist Macon Terry, violinist Rachel Sliker and drummer Robin Chestnut, also likes to mix it up when it comes to where they perform. "We do musical festivals, bars, art galleries, private parties and weddings. We're talking about anything that comes our way," he adds with a laugh, "if the deal seems good."
The variety of settings also helps prevent the band from slipping into a one-set-fits-all mindset. Clark recalls a recent Valentine's Day performance in Nevada City: "There was no PA, and it was a loud bar full of people. We just set up with one microphone through an amplifier, and turned it into a dance party."
The very next night, The River Arkansas played "a sleepy little saloon" where the sad and slow songs fit perfectly. "You just have to try and get a feel for the crowd, and you've got to do it really fast," says Clark, who figures the band now has a few dozen songs in its repertoire. "Some nights we play for three hours, some nights we play a 30-minute set. So I walk into every space trying to get an idea of what I think people are going to want, and then I just come off the cuff and make [the set list] up on the spot."
Of course, that kind of spontaneity comes with built-in hazards." Sometimes I blow it," Clark laughs. "Sometimes I pick the wrong collection of tunes, and the show can be really awkward and really bad." But he can still count on the support of his band mates, at least to a point. "They're willing to go with me on whatever that journey is," he says. "But sometimes when I blow it, I can see it in their eyes."