INTERVIEW: Dr. Dog (Westword 2/19/2015)


Dr. Dog Explains How It Stays Scrappy
by Adam Perry for Westword, 2/19/2015

Dr. Dog rolls into Denver to play the Ogden Theater on Thursday, February 19 in the thick of a three-month tour that began January 9 with “4×4,” an eight-show Brooklyn and Manhattan run. The energetic and soulful Philadelphia indie-rock stalwart, whose best tunes juxtapose the Beatles and the Band, is celebrating the release of its first-ever live album, the 19-track Live At a Flamingo Hotel. Hanging out in his hotel room before heading to the first 4×4 gig, singer/bassist Toby Leaman spoke withWestword about Dr. Dog’s history, as well as Flamingo Hotel, which features an Architecture in Helsinki cover and reaches all the way back to Dr. Dog’s quirky 2002 debut, the self-released Toothbrush.

Toby Leaman: You’re in Colorado, right? I always love playing in Boulder. I don’t think we’ve played in Denver since we played, like, the Hi-Dive.

Adam Perry: You should do eight nights at the Hi-Dive.

TL: That’d be awesome. I’d be into that.

AP: A lot of your songs have unanswered questions in them. Would you try answering some of them for us, just free-association style?

TL: Yeah, I can try. Some of them are Scott [McMicken], I’m sure, but we’re old buddies. I know what he’s talking about. What have you got?

AP: “What do you do when the drowning stops?”

TL: In that song [“Hang On”] it’s referencing, like, when you’re in the heat of an argument and everything’s caving in; you’re drowning. You can’t really see. You’d do anything. Obviously the argument always ends, so you never actually drown.

AP: “What does it mean to be here?” [from “The Ark”]

TL: That’s a good question. To be is to do. That’s pretty much about it. There’s not necessarily any meaning behind being, but you know the basic act of being is doing something. That’s one thing you can definitely see. The proof is in the pudding. That’s one thing you can actually wrap your hand around.

AP: “How did the fox get the raven, the crow?”

TL: Those are taken from Aesop’s fables, that whole chorus of “Army of Ancients.” They’re all real short synopses of Aesop’s fables, and that one is…the fox, he flatters the raven.

AP: “Where do all the shadow people go?”

TL: That is a great mystery (laughs). That is a nugget of a lyric right there. That, actually…I think Dan Auerbach [of the Black Keys] wrote the “Shadow People” lyric. Scott wrote the rest of that song and they were texting back and forth with each other. He wrote Danny, “I need a two-syllable word before the word ‘people.'” Danny sent him a list of 30 or whatever and Scott picked “shadow.” It really worked for the song but, just so you know, Dan gets credit for that one.

AP: You guys have been around a long time [fifteen years] but had never released a live album. Why now?

TL: It just seemed like the right time, you know? We’re better than we ever have been, the way we’re playing. I think the songs on the last few tours, I think some of the songs we we’re beating into the ground, just playing them a lot; they’ve been in heavy rotation now for, like, eight years. So one of the purposes [of doing a live album] was purging ourselves of some of these tunes and try and come up with new set lists that we’re psyched about. With that in mind, and knowing that every night for 20 nights was being recorded, it’s important that you don’t shirk on any night. We don’t really shirk, anyway, or if we do it’s “band meeting” pretty much immediately. But I can’t even think of any time in recent years where that’s happened. There’s nights where it’s a really off night, though, where we’re playing atrociously.

AP: The whole night is off?

TL: Sometimes. Oh yeah. Sometimes it’s hard to right yourself, man. It very rarely happens [and] we’re professionals, so you don’t ever see it. We’re not the kind of guys who are gonna, like, throw mics down or yell at the audience or cut our set short. That’s not fair to anybody. But when you do something every night, sometimes it’s gonna be off. But over the years you learn a lot of tricks to get yourself back in, find that little doorway back into where you feel comfortable and where you feel like you can exist in whatever seemingly endless pit of anguish you’re in. “What little glimmer of hope can I find to make this all OK?”

AP: Kind of like a pitcher who doesn’t have his best stuff but fights through it.

TL: Yeah, or how a lot of ace pitchers will give up a couple early runs and then they’re lights-out the rest of the game. That’s it. That’s the same switch. Actually, I don’t know if that’s it but it’s a damn good analogy. (Laughs)

AP: Do you remember the first show you guys played together?

TL: Scott and I played a party. I think it was eighth-grade graduation, probably 1992. We’re old, man.

AP: And the first Dr. Dog show?

TL: 1998, probably. Early Dr. Dog shows were just…there’d be a party and we’d be, like, “OK, Dr. Dog’s gonna play in the upstairs bathroom. So that bathroom’s off limits for the two hours that Dr. Dog is playing, but if you want to watch you can open the door and watch them play.” It was a lot of weird stuff like that.

AP: How much have you changed as a live act since then?

TL: We’re better, fortunately. We’re a lot better. We’re not as scrappy, or as blindly optimistic. Maybe it’s just the difference between 17 and 35. We play a lot better together. The songs are better. Everything’s better. Just from playing together for so long, you’re quicker on your feet and better at responding to people. Pushing for a vibe, you can get into that pretty quickly. You can react quicker, and that makes everybody happier and makes everybody play better, too.

AP: About that scrappiness – you guys were known on your early albums and at the early shows for that kind of dustiness, and now…

TL: It’s still there. It’s not like we’re up there reading thesis papers or anything. We come for a party. When we come off the stage, there’s nothing left. That’s the point. And it’s our world. It’s a Dr. Dog show. You don’t have to pretend that your three hours of sanity are the same here; they’re different. Because they can be. Why the hell not? Why would you go to a show and want the natural order of things to play out like they always do every other time in your life, you know? Our recordings are kind of like that, too. “How can we make the situation strange enough where the result is gonna be even stranger?”

AP: How do you choose what to play every night, with so many songs?

TL: I feel like the past two tours got stuck in a rut with some stuff. We played 20 to 25 songs a night and were only rotating about 30, which is neither here nor there. It’s nice to have that sort of comfort level, but right now we’re doing eight nights in New York and we have 70 songs. So next time you see us hopefully it will be a completely different set. We’ll still do whatever our version of a hit is — people wanna see those — but the goal is to play all 70 songs [in eight shows]. And I can tell you why it was so easy to pick what songs we were doing, though: because we weren’t practicing.

AP: I’m from Pennsylvania, too. There’s a very clear identity there. Sort of like Ween, which is also from Philadelphia, you guys seem very firmly rooted in where you’re from and how it defines your attitude and ethos.

TL: “Yeah, there aren’t a lot of bands that come out of Philly, but they’re all weird, and they’re all these kind of strange amalgamations of stuff that doesn’t really fit in.

AP: Like the Dead Milkmen.

TL: Perfect example. Another band where there’s multiple lead singers, too. There’s never a “scene” in Philly. You know who the sound guys are and the promoters and the venues and who plays what in what bands, but it’s not like “This is the Philly sound.” There’s nothing like that going on. You have a band like The War On Drugs right now…there’s not another band that sounds like them. Name another band that’s big in Philly and there isn’t another band that sounds like them. They’re sort of these pop-up things standing on their own because they sound great.

AP: How do you keep that sense of where you’re from when you’re on the road constantly for fifteen years?

TL: That’s surprisingly easy when you’re in a bubble with the same [band and crew] every day and your interactions are really with the same 12 people. For an hour and forty-five minutes you’re yelling at a crowd of strangers, but every other minute you’re just seeing the same people you see at home. It’s a pretty standard thing among people who tour; you get into your routine and you become pretty into it. Even on your days off in the middle of, you know, North Dakota it’s 12 dudes doing this thing. At least for us; maybe we’re unique in that we do everything together. We’re good at surrounding ourselves properly with people who have the same sort of vision, same attitude, same work ethic.

AP: If you don’t do that, your band breaks up because you can’t be on the road together.

TL: There’s a million reasons why a band can break up, but that’s one of them, for sure. If you’re unhappy with the people you surround yourself with you’re doomed.

AP: Do you try to make every night a totally different experience? How do you capture that on one live album?

TL: Well we have the benefit of the album being from about thirteen different nights. There’s always something you can glom onto from your life, or within the band interactions, that makes it feel different. The fact that it’s a different venue makes it a different experience automatically. The place is different. And you can try to right whatever sort of wrong has been nagging at you. That’s something different. You feel different every day and you try to bring at least a piece of yourself every night to let people have a window into what you’re thinking and what you’re saying. And that’s not hard to do if you’re actively trying to express yourself in a way that’s meaningful.

“Colorado Music History Sold to Highest Bidders at Caribou Ranch Auction” (Westword, 2/4/2015)


Colorado Music History Sold to Highest Bidders at Caribou Ranch Auction
by Adam Perry for Westword
February 4, 2015

Legendary Denver bluesman Otis Taylor, chilling in the hall outside the hectic Leslie Hindman auction room at the Denver Design Center late last month, scoffed when asked whether he was bidding on any of the nearly 500 pieces of memorabilia up for auction from the Caribou Ranch recording studio. “Everything is going for three or four times the estimate,” said Taylor. “If you want to get something, get a catalog.”

Just browsing the 8,000-square-foot showroom at the Denver Design Center was a music-geek treat. Among the items on display were the Fender Rhodes that Earth Wind & Fire played on “Shining Star” and the piano on which Elton John recorded “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

But as Taylor pointed out, actually purchasing something at the auction — which saw a “Keep Out” sign go for $500 and an ashtray-and-matches set from Caribou open at $800 — was unrealistic for most of the nearly 1,000 Colorado music lovers who showed up to pay homage to the legendary recording studio, which operated outside Nederland from 1972 to 1985.

Among the attendees were a few people who actually played at Caribou Ranch. Kenny Passarelli — chiefly a bassist — is featured on memorable tracks by Joe Walsh, Elton John, Stephen Stills and many others. Before the auction, Passarelli said that Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” was his favorite song recorded there because “even today, when it comes on the radio, the drums and bass kick ass.”

“My brain cells are up at that studio,” said Passarelli, who wasn’t really worried about finding something at the auction; he already has his memorabilia. “Right before [James Guercio] sold the place, he handed me a music stand, and I saved that,” he said, “and some bark off a tree.

“The one thing [Guercio] absolutely had to keep was the ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ piano, which was actually Bessie Smith’s.”

Plenty of rock history was made at Caribou Ranch. The staggering list of songs and albums recorded or mixed at the studio from 1972 to 1985 includes everything from Frank Zappa’s One Size Fits All to part of Michael Jackson’s Bad. Forty-five albums that made Billboard’s top ten and twenty number-one singles were recorded there.

So the overflow crowd of old hippies, high-class Coloradans and generally curious music geeks at the Design Center on Saturday wasn’t a shock. Nor, according to Maron Hindman, who serves as managing director for Leslie Hindman’s west and southwest office and led the actual auction, was the sale price of such items as the Steinway piano featured on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which eventually went for $100,000.

There were about 1,200 bids made via Internet or phone before the auction started at 3 p.m. Saturday, and hundreds of people showed up in person. The small room where the actual bidding eventually took place was crammed by 2:10 p.m. The antsy audience participated in a Caribou-history pop quiz to pass the time.

Hindman led the proceedings tirelessly and with good humor. “Seriously,” she said at one point, “will you come to our normal auctions? That would be awesome. We’re usually lucky to get sixty or seventy people.”

“Colorado, baby!” someone shouted in response from a crowd that doubtless featured many more Broncos hats and Eagles concert T-shirts than any previous Leslie Hindman auction.

Before bidding on the 480-some items began, Hindman joked that she wished the auction could start with the first few bars of “Rocky Mountain Way.” A hopeful buyer pulled up the song on his cell phone and handed it to Hindman so she could play it through the microphone. The enthusiasm continued through the afternoon and well into the evening.

“It was a nine-hour marathon that ended around midnight,” Hindman said the next day. “Everything sold except maybe one item. Nothing went for lower than we thought [it would], but the small things were what surprised me. We sold a bell from the ranch for $11,000.”

WORDS FROM THE ROAD: Luke Redfield’s Life in Music (Boulder Weekly 1/15/2015)


Words from the Road: Luke Redfield’s Life in Music
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 1/15/2015

“It’s just like me singing in your living room with a three-piece band, or in some little dive bar,” indie-folk singer-songwriter Luke Redfield told me about his new album, The Cartographer, by phone from Minnesota just after spending Christmas with his family there.

Redfield, 31, grew up a preacher’s son in small, humble and peaceful Minnesota and Nebraska towns, and is quick to quote memes about the morality of work, such as “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”

Redfield consciously recorded The Cartographer in a more stripped-down, expedient fashion than his four previous releases. With a vocal style heavily influenced by Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan and Conor Oberst and lyrics steeped as much in folk and blues tradition as classic American literature, Redfield had been more of a patient perfectionist with past recordings. The Cartographer, the result of isolated woodshedding at a comically tiny house in Austin, is essentially Kerouac-style “first thought, best thought” set to music.

“It was a special time and a magical time, one of those magical moments when it all just comes together,” Redfield says. “And that’s what it was like for me in this little house. I enjoyed it while it lasted. I was working at a food cart while I was writing, and every day I devoted myself to five to 10 hours of playing guitar and writing these songs. I was ‘in it’ for a couple of months, where these songs would just come to me. “

Haunting, spacious tracks like “Frida” give Redfield the chance to muse — along with gentle harmonica, piano and acoustic guitar — on “making love to some actress” and being “just stardust.” Lilting folk-rockers such as “Sweetest Thing” find Redfield, playful like a young Bruce Springsteen, waxing romantic with the spirit of a troubadour: “I’ve been around this country and fucked it up and down / but you’re the sweetest thing I ever found.”

Growing up on Mark Twain, baseball, ice cream and fireworks in the conservative innocence of the Midwest had a deep effect on Redfield, but the wandering tales in his songs aren’t just for style. When he’s not on tour, Redfield (who has lived everywhere from Nashville to Alaska) works in food service — “waiting tables, cooking, working as a barista, whatever I need to do in the moment” — and when he’s traveling around America playing shows, he feels connected not only with his music but also his ancestry.

“My family is musicians as far back as we can trace the family tree,” he says. “That’s something that I always think about when I’m on the road: ‘This is in my lineage.’ My dad actually played folk music and rock ‘n’ roll [before becoming a preacher]. He was a flower child in the ’60s, served in Vietnam. I learned a lot from my dad about music and life and spirituality and work ethic.”

According to Redfield, recording The Cartographer, which was released Jan. 7, included choosing 10 songs out of approximately 100 he’d written in Austin.

“I generally have enough material to record an album every year,” Redfield says. “A lot of my favorite artists don’t make a lot of albums, but then there are singer-songwriters like Dylan or Johnny Cash who always seem like they’ve got more songs that I’ve never even heard of. And I think I’m more in that category. I got to a point where I thought, ‘I gotta just start recording.’ The Cartographer is really down-to-earth in a way that I hadn’t been on previous recordings. Our mind gets in the way so much when we are artists who care about what we do. I think just based on previous experiences, [I was] just spending too much time and too much money in the studio and just sitting with the songs too long. The Cartographer is more of a stream-of-consciousness thing. But I’m happy to have made albums on both sides of the spectrum.”

Redfield, who is also a semi-pro Frisbee-golf player, is on tour with a band for the first time, and is excited about bringing a fuller sound to his live performances. He’s also looking forward to sharing his love for the road with good friends.

“I’m pretty stoked. It’s been a long time coming. They’re musicians I’ve been working with for a while, friends of mine and people I feel comfortable living with or going on the road with, people who are enthused. I’m all about the right enthusiasm, because I have that about traveling and touring and I want people who will have that same sort of mindset and enjoy the adventure of being on the road in what I still think is an amazing country we live in, in terms of its natural beauty.”

Redfield might allude to “a bed of darkness in my soul” in his gentle, sometimes bleak songs, but he’s an optimistic, self-described “nature boy” whose only New Year’s resolutions are to “be kind and loving…eat better and make more money.” And, as evidenced on gorgeous tracks like “Holy Ghost, NM” on his last album, 2013’s East of Santa Fe, Redfield is proud of his Midwestern roots but has a distinct affinity for the West.

“I love it; there’s something about the air and the water and the mountains,” he says. “There’s something about Colorado that just draws me. I feel like I come alive when I’m in those spaces. It’s hard to really articulate. I think because I grew up in farm country, I really do connect with the earth. My soul is just happier; my heart feels happier when I’m in the kind of lush scenery you find in Colorado. I love that drive from Colorado to New Mexico. It’s one of my favorite parts of the country.”

Redfield is self-deprecating when it comes to his poignantly unassuming voice. He says he identifies more as a songwriter than as a singer, and even plans to write a book in the next year or two about his experiences living on the road.

“Probably because I have never been super amazing at playing an instrument or singing, I think my lyrics are definitely my strength,” he says. “And if I don’t want to be just another folk singer I have to think of myself as a writer. For some reason, I decided to write songs.”

Luke Redfield plays Shine in Boulder on Saturday, January 17 at 8pm and the Walnut Room in Denver on Sunday, January 18 at 7pm. Kismet & Dough opens both shows. 



The Ten Most Underrated Drummers in Rock History
by Adam Perry for Westword, 1/6/2015

With all the real injustice on the streets — and in the courtrooms — of America currently, you might consider it trivial to examine ten drummers who deserve more credit and attention than they’ve received. And you’d be right. But music is, if nothing else, a way to make sense of this wicked world through pure release; ostensibly, music geekdom — enjoying and dissecting — is a meaningful part of that release.

Widely read drum magazines, like their guitar counterparts, focus almost exclusively on musicians who want to stand out, often fatefully above the strength of a song, and who often sound like they’re getting paid by the note. We’re here to instead celebrate originality and overall effectiveness, rather than monster fills and rotating double-bass drumkits. Up for discussion below is a list of extraordinary drummers who are rarely, if ever, mentioned among the greats in rock history.

10. Aynsley Dunbar

Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix decided on Mitch Mitchell as his drummer for the Experience via coin flip; the reason for that flip was Aynsley Dunbar, a twenty-year-old Liverpool kid. Dunbar went on to play in two English institutions: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Jeff Beck Group before kicking all kinds of ass on about a dozen albums by some mad American genius named Frank Zappa. Dunbar’s simultaneously languid and hard-hitting style — most notably heard on well-known Zappa jams like “Transylvania Boogie” and Zappa classical freakouts like “Big Swifty” — is a more precise, intellectual-but-explosive version of Keith Moon, sounding less like the grand-finale of a fireworks show than a captivating lead-up. After starring on a couple of classic early ’70s albums by David Bowie and Lou Reed (Diamond Dogs and Berlin), Dunbar’s talents were somewhat wasted in collaboration with the likes of Sammy Hagar, Whitesnake and Journey; probably for that reason, he is terribly overlooked as one of classic rock’s most exciting and important drummers.

9. Stephanie Bailey (The Black Angels)

The Black Angels emerged out of Austin with a bang when 2006’s Passover was released, and drummer Stephanie Bailey — straight-faced and svelte with long blonde hair, preferring fury over flourish — has been the bold glue keeping the band’s hard-hitting psychedelic grooves together from the start. She plays nary a fill; plays a sparse kit; and leads the Black Angels’ dark, tribal stomps with beats that a friend recently described as having an “economy of language” not unlike Ezra Pound’s poetry. Sometimes being flashy and outgoing doesn’t make the most powerful drummer, and that’s definitely the case with Bailey, whose floor-shaking rhythms on tracks like “First Vietnamese War” and “You On the Run” juxtapose the simplicity of Maureen Tucker with the depth-charge drumming of Dave Grohl circa In Utero.

8. Topper Headon

The darkhorse, as far as musicianship goes, in the first wave of punk was Topper Headon. Before updating his wardrobe and learning to ride his floor tom in order to join the Clash in 1977 — just after the punk legends’ eponymous debut was released — Headon was a jazz-head who played progressive rock and R&B. The impeccable timing and chops Headon brought to the Clash helped them transcend punk with 1979’s diverse rock ‘n’ roll clinic London Calling and then experiment with rap, soul, reggae, calypso and even gospel a year later on the 36-track smorgasbord Sandanista!. Headon, who was sacked by the Clash in 1982 due to drug addiction, even wrote the classic piano hook that drives “Rock the Casbah,” which reached #8 on the U.S. singles chart. While countless other punk bands imploded with no means of evolving, the Clash’s catalog evolved Beatles-like in just five short years; without Headon, one of the most underrated drummers in rock’s history, the Clash’s exceptional musical growth (and continued influence) would not have been possible.

7. Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)

Deerhoof’s gangly, eccentric drummer Greg Saunier — famously called “virtuosic” by the New Yorker — is a veritable powder keg behind the drums. Saunier’s struggles with Tourette syndrome partly fuel his bombastic musicianship, which is captivating in the studio and jaw-dropping in concert, which is where he’s turned heads captaining Deerhoof’s marriage of ambitiously cute and explosively maniacal. Saunier makes a comically small drumkit, often with just one cymbal, sound like an avant-garde orchestra — like Keith Moon jamming with Frank Zappa — and can also get a stuffy indie crowd bopping with funky Deerhoof classics like “Spirit Ditties of No Tone.” Saunier, the driving force behind one of the few truly unique acts in the last two decades of American popular music, deserves a lot more attention in the pantheon of great rock drummers.

6. Thom Green (Alt-J)

When English folktronica act Alt-J sold out the Fillmore in December this past October, its most impressive element was the dynamic drumming of young Thom Green, who got the 4,000-strong Denver crowd bouncing with fervor while having only a tambourine, electronic pads, a couple of real drums, congas and a cowbell at his disposal. Playing a drum kit without cymbals — a revolutionary tactic in a craft that virtually never questions tradition — seems to unlock Green’s playful creativity, and playful creativity defines Alt-J. He deserves attention as one of modern rock ‘n’ roll’s most exciting young musicians.

5. Hal Blaine

One would think that a drummer who played on six consecutive Grammy-winning singles and 50 number-one hits would be consistently hailed as one of the legends of his craft, but Hal Blaine — whose impeccable timekeeping is featured on everything from “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to “Good Vibrations” — is a generally a mere footnote. Known mostly for the unmistakable intro to “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, Blaine was the veritable drum machine of early rock ‘n’ roll and, in the musically rich ’60s, played on hits by the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Frank Sinatra and a list of other bigtime artists nearly as long as Kerouac’s original scroll of On the Road. Not only underrated, Blaine is underestimated — he’s still alive, at age 85, and deserves any accolade he’s yet to receive.

4. Pete Thomas

Like Hal Blaine, Pete Thomas’ sticks are responsible for some iconic intros that even casual music lovers recognize instantly. The heroically gifted Thomas, however, wrote those iconic intros for songs by just one artist: Elvis Costello. Thomas, as a member of the Attractions and later the Imposters, has lent thunderous, soulful and nimble beats to Costello’s eclectic catalog, and first made his mark with the opening angular-reggae salvo of “Watching the Detectives.” Thomas has collaborated with the likes of John Paul Jones, Elliot Smith and Lucinda Williams, but it’s his longtime musical relationship with Costello, whose best work has been supported and highlighted by Thomas’ decisive and powerful beats, that’s made him one of rock’s most respected, yet rarely lauded, drummers.

3. Tommy Ramone

Born in Budapest to a Holocaust-surviving Jewish mother and father, Erdélyi Tamás was an unlikely candidate to invent punk-rock drumming, but as Tommy Ramone he gave the gift of simple, supercharged drumming from the boredom-filled Queens of the early ’70s to several generations of stick-wielding maniacs. Ramone’s drumming on early Ramones favorites such as “Beat on the Brat” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Around With You” seem like they came screaming out of a musical void to change music forever, and his no-frills performance on It’s Alive (a 1977 London concert that served as Punk 101 for a wave of British copycats) is as impressive, at least, as Keith Moon’s famed work on Live at Leeds.

2. Carlton Barrett

Not many musicians in history have had a greater influence on nearly every genre as Bob Marley, and Carlton Barrett — mellifluous, original, thick and precise — was Marley’s drummer. Without Barrett, the pseudo-Jamaican hythms of bands like Sublime, 311, No Doubt, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Clash, Fishbone and countless others might have no foundation. Funky, smooth and strong, but memorably hazy, as if it was played with two joints, Barrett’s drumming was a relaxed revelation. Unfortunately, he was shot to death at age 36 at his Kingston home.

1. Ringo Starr

In the most famous band of all time, of course Ringo Starr is one of the most famous drummers of all time, but he never seems to be considered a great musician, just a quirky, loveable Liverpool kid who lucked out by getting served a fantastic opportunity. Without Starr, however, the Beatles might have had a hard time transitioning from fun-loving mop-top stars to some of history’s greatest songwriters. Ringo’s breathtaking inventiveness on tracks such as “In My Life,” “Something” and “Paperback Writer” is often overlooked as nothing more than “straightforward,” but Ringo’s Zen-like minimalism with the Beatles — which influenced virtually every quality drummer since him — was deceptively ingenious, inspired and underrated.

SHOW REVIEW: Murder By Death at the Stanley Hotel (Westword 1/5/2014)

photo by Adam Perry
photo by Adam Perry

Murder By Death at the Stanley Hotel
Estes Park, Colorado 1/2/2015
by Adam Perry for Westword

The moment Murder By Death ended its nearly two-hour set at the infamous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park on Friday night, front man Adam Turla stepped off the front of the stage to chat with the audience, many of whom came from far away for the event. I asked Turla whether my love, Irene, who is a seamstress, could mend his jacket, which we’d noticed during the concert was torn at the right shoulder.

“Oh no,” Turla said. “That didn’t happen tonight. This jacket is over 100 years old. But maybe that’s a good idea; I’ll see you at the bar later.”

“Later” never came for us. We spent the next hour or so the same way we spent two hours before the show: wandering around the 140-room Stanley, which, like Turla’s old black sport coat, is over 100 years old, looking for ghosts and taking photos.

Nine months ago, Murder By Death — a critically acclaimed Indiana-based gothic Americana band — announced a three-night sequel to last year’s two-night run at the Stanley, the setting of Stephen King’s 1977 book The Shining. The 2014 shows were among the first times a rock band had played at the notoriously haunted hotel. The three shows over the weekend, held in a small, detached concert hall, sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale.

We were a little disappointed that the shows were not held in the large, old ballroom adjacent to the hotel bar, as that’s where the ghost of Freelan O. Stanley’s wife, Flora, has reportedly been known to play piano over the years. The ballroom is also just steps from room 217, which inspired King to write The Shining. But obviously a full-on rock concert there would mean loud music taking over the entire hotel. [Note: Turla emailed today to explain that not only does the concert hall have a larger capacity, it is also said to be “the most haunted place in the whole Stanley”]

The concert hall, while lacking in acoustics, was private enough for two hours of alcohol-fueled revelry set to devilish Americana. Turla’s deep voice fittingly conveyed lyrics such as, “spirits are restless / can’t you hear them yell?” while cellist Sarah Balliet played articulate, eerie melodies that gave most songs a cinematic quality worthy of a Tim Burton film.

We met Murder By Death fans from as far away as New Jersey and Las Vegas, most of whom attended just one show (at $50 a ticket) but stayed all weekend at the pricey Stanley. Most of the crowd was dressed to the nines, at the band’s request. Virtually the entire audience sang along to nearly every word, drinks in hand, but barely bobbed their heads. We wondered whether that’s the norm for Murder By Death shows or if the couple hundred concertgoers were staring at the stage, waiting for ghouls to appear alongside the band.

The 22-song set was fantastic. Rather than rely on its most well-known material, Murder By Death only played a few songs – including, of course, “Ghost Fields” – from its most recent album (2012’s popular Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon) and otherwise crept deep into its six-album catalog. The band also debuted a couple promising selections from the forthcoming Big Dark Love. Fans lucky enough to attend all three shows at the Stanley must have heard nearly every song Murder By Death has written.

Irene and I enjoyed a night of great music and mingling. We also may have experienced some of the paranormal activity that drew Murder By Death to the Stanley. Standing in the snow on the hotel grounds an hour before the concert started, we looked down at the hotel bar; we both heard a breathy voice whisper something clear but wordless, as if an invisible man was pressed against us trying to communicate with us. There wasn’t another human within 50 yards.

And after the show, Irene reached into her coat pocket and produced a guitar pick with “MBD” written on one side and images of an eye and a switchblade on the other. Bassist Matt Armstrong threw his pick into the crowd after “I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe,” but Irene’s coat had been on the floor during the show. How the pick made its way into her possession, let alone deep in her coat pocket, we’ll never know.

Casey James Prestwood and the Burning Angels Nominated for National Honky Tonk Award (Westword, 1/1/2015)

Casey James Prestwood and the Burning Angels Nominated for Ameripolitan Award
by Adam Perry for Westword, 1/1/2015

The term “Ameripolitan” has been most notably championed by outspoken Texas singer-songwriter Dale Watson. But in recent years, other traditionalists, fed up with mainstream country music and looking for a way to separate themselves from the likes of Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift, have adopted the term as well. Some of those people founded the Ameripolitan Music Awards, the second installment of which will be celebrated this February at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. Denver’s Casey James Prestwood and the Burning Angels just received a nomination, in the category of Best Honky Tonk Group, and Prestwood says it’s not just “pop country” artists who have been giving country a bad name lately.

“Being a Colorado guy, I’m sure you see it all the time,” Prestwood explains. “‘Oh, I play country’ — and you find they’re a jam band or more of an Americana band, but they sound like Weezer. I think it’s cool that Dale Watson has tried to rebrand it and sort of redefine what it is, with honky-tonk and Western swing and outlaw country. Modern country has no resemblance to country at all.”

Prestwood and his Burning Angels — in Manuel Cuevas suits and cowboy boots — have been spreading authentic country music, highlighted by pedal-steel guitar, around Colorado just about every weekend for the past five years, and they’re well known in Tennessee and Texas. The bandleader, who grew up all over the music-rich South, is a veritable country-music encyclopedia and has performed and recorded with many country legends. He pulls no punches when discussing the state of country music.

“I don’t think I’d be hurting anybody’s feelings by stating the obvious — that it seems like country today is just mainstream pop being produced out of Nashville. I don’t think Nashville or the CMAs have 100 percent shunned [authentic country]; there are some steel guitars and fiddles every once in a while. But I think those are guaranteed givens with the Ameripolitan thing.”

Being nominated for an Ameripolitan Music Award is a big deal, and Prestwood hopes the band is invited to perform at the February second annual ceremony at the Paramount in Austin.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he says. “It’s pretty cool. I think it being in its second year, it still has a lot of growth and potential to become something pretty awesome. The nomination might make some people in Colorado more aware of what we’re doing. Maybe if they’re fans of Dale Watson and bands they hear on Willie’s Place on Sirius XM or something like that, maybe we’ll gain some fans out here that wouldn’t normally come out and see us.”

The Burning Angels will open for Whitey Morgan and the 78s (voted Best Outlaw Group at the inaugural Ameripolitan Music Awards last year) on January 31 at the Marquis Theater in Denver. And Prestwood, who got deeply autobiographical on last year’s Nashville-recorded Honky Tonk Bastard World, says a new album is already in the works.

“I already have probably between ten and twenty song ideas, and if you were to come see a Burning Angels show, you’d see a couple of those we’ve kept in the flames live. We’ve got four songs in the bank right now, but we’ve got an idea of doing singles for this record — three or four singles over the course of a year — and then releasing those as a full-length with some cuts that didn’t make it onto the B-sides. It’s definitely a continuation of Honky Tonk Bastard World, with a couple of new flavors mixed in, as usual.”

How Murder By Death is Bringing Live Music to Colorado’s Most Infamous Hotel (Westword, 12/30/14)


How Murder By Death is Bringing Live Music to Colorado’s Most Infamous Hotel
by Adam Perry for Westword, 12/30/2014

With song titles like “As Long As There Is Whiskey in the World” and “Rum Brave,” Murder by Death — whose best album is 2012’s ambitious Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon — is a little bit like Jack Nicholson’s legendary character in The Shining, who famously said, “I’d give my goddamn soul for just a glass of beer.” The Indiana-bred American Gothic indie-rock group is led by baritone-voiced singer/guitarist Adam Turla, who makes MBD sound not unlike Arcade Fire fronted by Johnny Cash.

Speaking by phone recently from his new home base of Kentucky, Turla says he’s just hosted a yearly “whiskey party” and is about to rehearse for MBD’s much-anticipated return to Estes Park’s infamous Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for the setting of that same classic 1980 horror flick.

“It’s our way of having the band throw a whiskey party,” he says. “Everybody dresses up if they want to, and we just play and hang out with people until they shut us down. It’s a rock-and-roll ball.”

Last year, Murder by Death announced two Shining-inspired shows — according to Turla, the first-ever concerts at the Stanley — and sold out in one day, quickly adding another. Nine months ago, when MBD announced another run (January 2, 3 and 4) at the haunted hotel, the shows sold out “instantly.”

“It was just an idea I had about five years ago,” Turla explains. “I’ve played every club before, but sometimes it’s nice to do something that’s an experience outside of just a concert. The band has always had such a great cult following, but it never felt like the right time, and we’d never tried anything like it before. I’d always wanted to do concept shows. I just went out on a limb and talked to Scott Campbell at AEG and said, ‘Hey, this is something I want to do. Am I crazy? Do you think this will work?’ — and he helped connect us with the Stanley people, and we figured out how to make it work.”

The fire marshal okayed a larger capacity than last year, and Turla hopes this time around will be even more special.

“[The hotel] has multiple haunted rooms. There are all these different figures who have died there or are claimed to haunt the place and revisit it. We were reading up on these people last time, and I stayed in one of the haunted rooms, [but] I didn’t have any ghostly experiences. None of us did. If ghosts are more likely to appear at night, with the amount of whiskey we were drinking, there could’ve been an earthquake every night and we wouldn’t have known.”

Murder by Death will release Big Dark Love, its seventh album, in February, and will debut most of the new material at the Stanley shows. The beautifully written and recorded Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon‘s mood and subject matter were about as haunting as the Stanley Hotel claims to be, and Turla says the soon-to-be-unveiled new songs will fit right in.

“The thing we realized made us stand out when we first started playing is that most of our songs are [in a minor key]. Not that many bands do that, so it’s just natural for a band that has that to have a connection with an old haunted hotel. It makes sense to me, and based on the response, I would argue that it made sense to a lot of people.”

Tickets for the threes sold-out Stanley shows were originally $50, so expect to pay at least several times that if you’re a latecomer hoping to make one of these intimate gigs part of your holiday season. Turla, who says the quintet will come “flexible and prepared,” with plans for a different set list each night, laughed when asked if his band “shines.”

“I wish I had the shining, but I don’t. I actually went around wandering the halls last time at like three in the morning, trying to get into some ghost trouble. I will say I hope somebody has an awesome ghost experience this time around, because it’s a fun element.”