Over the Weekend: Ian Cooke Band, Alan Alda and Tauntaun at the Bluebird
Ian Cooke Band, Alan Alda, Tauntaun
Better than: Seeing three of Denver's most dynamic and promising bands in three separate venues.
It was challenging to find obvious common threads in the three performances at the Bluebird on Friday night. Separately, the Ian Cooke Band, Alan Alda and Tauntaun can all lay claim to the title of being among Denver's most innovative and promising ensembles. But the groups specialize in different genres. The Ian Cooke band, buoyed by the frontman's syncopated cello lines and haunting lyrics, pull cues from folk, pop and classical sounds. Alan Alda's frenetic, art-rock drive offers a noticeably different appeal, while Tauntaun's well-honed paeans to '80s metal stand in an entirely separate musical sphere.
Yet, for all of bands' divergence in terms of sound, their grouping on one bill worked surprising well. Solid, engaging performances by each act helped lend the evening continuity, but the true glue for the three acts seemed to come in common community. In three distinct idioms, all of the groups have carved a unique sound, one that's unique and specific to Denver's scene. Even with the differences in their sounds, the groups shared appearance made sense in the final analysis.
The Ian Cooke Band's opening set included a wide range of sounds and structures, from the meditative and understated to the forceful and driving. Cooke's plaintive, musing lyrics and subtle, serpentine cello licks on tunes like "Monster," "Vasoon" and "Trouble Progress Report" found commanding backup in Sean Merrell's drums, Ian O'Dougherty's guitar and Whit Sibley's five-string bass. O'Dougherty, who would reappear on the stage later in the evening in his role as the guitarist for Tauntaun, especially helped to balance Cooke's more pensive moments with driving, rock riffs.
The set also saw Cooke take a stint on the keyboard for several songs, a touch that added a new dimension to the band's sound. With soaring, expansive piano lines, Cooke's music gained new grandeur and scope.
Alan Alda's set offered similarly novel moments. While the trio performed all four songs from the EP that they released last year, the performance included several new tunes. While the older material showed the benefit of more rehearsals in their refinement, the new tunes like "With Wings" showed promise, even for their raw sound. In old and new material alike, the trio offered their standard instrumental prowess and contagious energy. Vocalist and guitarist Luke Goodhue alternated between standard and dropped-B tuning, juggling the two sounds seamlessly, while drummer Matt Grizzell made the full use of his standard kit, finding the optimal moments for a quick cow bell strike or an innovative combination of cymbal lines. Bassist Chris White's acrobatics on the instrument were a highlight of the set - with a dizzying use of pedal effects and harmonics, White coaxed sounds out of the instrument that were truly unprecedented.
White's instrumental gymnastics would offer a fitting preview for the headlining act.
After the stage was flooded in a fitting amount of artificial smog from a smoke machine hidden near the drum riser, Tauntaun took to the stage and wasted no time in offering old-school, authentic metal theatrics. With vocalist Chris Fogal's arched and angry vocals as a continuous element, the group easily weaved through its tributes to the formative era of metal. Guitarists Ian O'Dougherty and Fogal immediately laid down well-honed solos and rhythm accompaniments, as bassist Matty Clark provided a speedy, spotless musical foundation. For the intense and aggressive feel of songs like "Behold the Priestess" and "For Us to Destroy," drummer Dave Barker's straightforward, eloquent cadences didn't come off as to flashy. Instead, his tasteful use of cymbals and toms helped carry the group's nonstop set.
The quartet didn't bother to pause between songs, and their performance quickly took on the feel of a continuous stream of driving music. The effect on the audience was clear from the first song - the crowd quickly packed close to the front of the stage, and many exchanged devil-horn hand gestures with members of the band while screaming their support. What's more, the front floor was dense with dancers, audience members who moved along to even the heaviest and most distorted tunes from the band's catalogue.
As the smoke billowed continuously from the stage, and as Fogal sang strains devoted to dark priestesses and destruction, the mood seemed positively cheery. It was an ambience that stretched through the entire night, as loyal local music fans came out to cheer hometown heroes.
Indeed, no matter the genre or the sound, the crowd recognized native musical skill in all its diverse forms.
Personal bias: The last two times I'd seen Ian Cooke, he played solo, so seeing him backed by a full trio was an especially engaging and interesting part of the show.
Random detail: A huge sign with Christmas lights spelling out "ALAN" in cursive decorated the stage during Alan Alda's set.
By the way: Alan Alda offered free copies of their EP at the merch counter, along with a generous supply of Pixie Stix. I'd forgotten how much I love those things.