by Josh Johnson
On a given Friday evening, downtown Colorado Springs teems with revelers seeking the decades-long promise of rock 'n roll: the thrill of the night and an escape. For the most part, the seekers find what they're after. Dozens of venues serve up a smorgasbord of bands, from precious acoustic folk to blazing death metal, from progressive hip-hop to edgy indie rock. No matter what the taste, it likely can be satiated.
Yet the Springs doesn't have a reputation for being a music town. Set beside Denver, Boulder and even Fort Collins, the area seems musically bland, dominated largely by hardcore and cover bands. According to Chuck Snow, this hasn't always been the case.
During the '80s and '90s, Snow fronted the Springs-based indie rock band The Autono. To many fans, The Autono was the Great White Hope for Colorado Springs, the band that would finally point the gaze of music fans to the city. And, to a degree, the band was successful.
They received regular airplay on radio stations usually reserved for the heavy hitters. They opened for INXS, and performed with the Volgograd Philharmonic Orchestra in Russia. With a fair amount of street cred, The Autono had all the ingredients to break nationally like Big Head Todd and the Monsters did, from just up Interstate 25. But they disbanded in '97, before reaching that level.
Snow talking about the scene in the '90s sounds similar to Napoleon Dynamite's Uncle Rico talking about the glory days "back in '82."
"I wouldn't say it was a renaissance for original music, but at least there was the chance to be heard and taken seriously, which people don't do [today] until you are No. 1 on a radio station."
He continues, "[In the] early '90s, there were small venues where you could get away with 50 percent covers, [50 percent] originals," he says. "Nowadays, it's just full-on entertainment, basically."
The "full-on entertainment" aspect means lots of cover bands, and a local scene that resembles the music industry at large, which spoon-feeds audiences pre-digested crap. If the scene truly were healthy and supportive, it seems more genuinely original bands would percolate to the top.
Snow says there are good local musicians he cites The Mansfields, Cobra Kai and Laymen Terms, for example. But he says a lot stands in their way.
First of all, he claims there was more support for original music from the media and the venues back in the '90s.
"There's no support system now. One, you've got no radio support. Back in the '90s, Triple-A Alt 102.7 [The Max] hosted live music on the air. ... And KILO 94.3 really got behind the local bands," he says. "Papers pay lip service, like the [Independent's] Playing Around feature. [But they ask,] "What's your favorite color?' What the fuck is that?"
Snow also thinks audiences at The Autono shows were more "discerning" than audiences today, and bands often have to appeal to the "lowest common denominator" of folks who go out to drink, expecting the music simply to fill the background. Snow has a solution: Turn the amps to 11 and drown out all other sounds.
Finally, speaking of drinkers, he says, "Drunk driving laws killed clubs," since any venue that works has "gotta be a club downtown."
Hard to believe there was a time when The Replacements played Benny's basement, when The Deluxe Tavern could charge a cover for local acts, and UA Cinema 150 hosted Nobody in Particular Presents shows that local bands could open. (Cinema 150 is now a church.)
"There are still local bands playing original music in the big clubs now, but it's not the same focus as it once was. The only place you'll find mostly original stuff is at The Black Sheep or house parties."
Today, Snow plays with The Broadcasters, joining the ranks of cover band musicians who make up a large part of the area's scene. While he still writes music on his own, with hopes of releasing a disc this fall, Snow now plays songs to please the people, before pleasing himself. And since a cover band is a glorified jukebox, he has to deal with people yelling requests. He often responds, "Stick a quarter up my ass."
"I play at Southside Johnny's and Thirsty Parrot because we get treated right and paid well," he says. "Some of these people deny it, [but] for me, [playing covers] is like stealing your soul. As long as I know, and the people I'm playing with know, that I have my own stuff."