On August 10, 2009, I arrived at Boulder, Colorado with my 1997 Saab full to the brim, and my soul excited to start another chapter of my life.
Although I was only a novice musician when I moved out here, luck quickly pushed me into Boulder’s rock/jam/funk music scene, its singer/songwriter scene, and its bluegrass scene. This article is a summary of my experiences playing music in the Boulder Valley, and I hope it paints a picture of some of the musicians and music styles that I was lucky enough to run into.
Like any young new musician coming to Boulder, I needed to find a band to play with, so I searched my network far and wide before finding The Pamlico Sound, who is still currently lead by the lovable lunatic, Will Baumgartner. Talk about striking gold! This band gave me the opportunity to meet some really talented players, some “rock stars,” who lived the lifestyle to an extra level of excess for those of us who couldn’t afford to, and just some really good people. I’ll get to the good people later in my story, and no one wants to get called out for unwarranted debauchery, so let’s focus on the talented players.
My favorite of all these rock/jam/funk players is saxophonist and composer Kyle Stersic of Drop Odyssey. I’m not sure as to his music training, if there was any, but every project he plays with makes sure to push the boundaries, and push them as a coordinated unit.
“Pushing the boundaries” is an obvious cliché in the jam band scene, but Kyle’s uniqueness here is his ability to bring even the most conservative of players with him. He doesn’t go out of bounds alone; he takes his bands along for the ride and works with them to see where else they will go.
We once had a conversation, and I’ll never forget it, about the backing band being the key to a good solo. If you can get the band behind you to drop when you want to drop and build when you want to build, you barely even need to play, and your solo will stand out as fantastic.
Another player who really floored me was Matt Flaherty of Hot Soup.
He does certainly work with his band, and they do know how to put on an entertaining show, but what really stands out is his playing. Simply put, this guy can fucking play the guitar. A lot of guitarists have moments of solid, crisp and lyrical playing, but Matt seems to always play lyrically and never pinch a note. Each note is exactly as clean as he wants it to be.
Without going overboard on Boulder’s rock/jam/funk scene, some other players I suggest checking out are the guitarist Derek Weiman of the Casual Sinners, drummer Nate Etter of Chando, and keyboardist Stephen Thurston of the Thurston Group. Although I’ve focused on individual players in this scene, it’s the combination of experimentation and musical coordination, rehearsed and unrehearsed, that characterizes Boulder’s rock/jam/funk scene.
My next adventure into Boulder’s music scene came after a rowdy Pamlico Sound show at The Lazy Dog, a local Boulder venue. The lead female vocalist at the time, Rachel Scott, one of the good people I was talking about earlier, knew I was becoming more interested in singer/songwriters than rock, jam or funk music. So, she talked her friend Ramaya Soskin into letting us swing by his place after the show to pass songs back and forth. Damn! I didn’t know Boulder had people like Ramaya. His songwriting showcases his incredible voice, and he lets his lyrics and singing drive rather than his guitar. I was instantly a fan.
Soon after, I looked Ramaya up online and caught one of his shows at the Laughing Goat, arguably the best venue in town for emerging singer/songwriters. Fortunately for me, Ramaya was playing with Dechen Hawk. I grew up listening to my dad’s jazz albums in our living room outside of NYC, so I appreciate when musicians add jazz qualities to their music. These jazz qualities are exactly the features that distinguish Dechen’s music from the other singer/songwriters of Boulder.
A few months later I caught another one of Ramaya’s shows at the Laughing Goat where he played with the rising star Gregory Alan Isakov. Gregory Alan Isakov’s music is tastefully bucolic. His music’s character is hard not to love and his lyrics are full of really powerful pastoral imagery. Since then, Gregory Alan Isakov has made a name for himself, and last summer packed Boulder’s Chautauqua Theater. How lucky was I to catch him at such an intimate venue as the Laughing Goat just a few months before?
The last piece of Boulder’s singer/songwriter scene I want to talk about is the Troubadours Collective. This group is without a doubt the most novel aspect of any of Boulder’s music scenes. My familiarity with their inner workings is limited, but it seems at face value to be a name by which several of Boulder’s best singer/songwriters book shows when at least three of them are all playing. Booking under this name allows them to book larger venues and share in each other’s skill.
It was my discovery of the singers and songwriters of Boulder that motivated me to leave the rock/jam/funk scene and start a new project focused on songwriting. This is when Holiday Blue began, and from the looks of it, I’m not the only one finding inspiration here. The Denver/Boulder area recently received national recognition from The New York Times for the strength of its singers and songwriters.
Lastly I want to talk about Boulder’s bluegrass scene. I stumbled upon Boulder’s bluegrass folks, most likely, due to my affinity for day drinking and my carelessness about butting in where I don’t belong.
I’m sure you have all heard of kids going to summer camp, but in Boulder’s bluegrass scene, anybody who is anybody goes to the RockyGrass Academy in Lyons, Colorado every summer. This event advertises on their website, “The Bluegrass Academy experience isn’t just for parents.”
By deduction, I think it’s pretty safe to say, it is, however, mostly for parents. Whatever your musical inclinations, Boulder’s bluegrass folks are definitely the warmest and friendliest musicians around, probably anywhere.
I think my first official bluegrass experience occurred about a year ago. My friend invited me to his in-law’s barn (recently added to Facebook as “Blue Barn House Concerts”) about 25 minutes east of Boulder to check out a band called Cahalen & Eli. I planned on going simply to be social with some new friends, and when I arrived they had just finished cleaning the chicken shit out of the barn so that the band could start setting up.
In what other genre of music does a chicken barn make for the most idyllic live music setting? Anyway, I don’t fancy myself a bluegrass man, but after 20 seconds of Cahalen & Eli playing, my opinion changed. These guys could sing, play and write songs as good as anyone. They are not a local band, although I do believe they’ve taught at the RockyGrass Academy for adults, but their superb musicianship deserves recognition in this article.
If chicken barns aren’t your thing, and the Blue Barn is currently chicken-free in case you were wondering, another great way to see bluegrass in Boulder is at a summer barbecue.
If you like barbecues and live in Boulder, I’d be surprised if you haven’t walked in to a backyard where half the party is standing around in a circle playing banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles, guitars and stand-up basses. The craziest part of the whole thing is everyone knows all the words, chords and melodies to the same songs by heart, and I’ve never even heard of the band that made the song “famous”. I’m not sure if these players hold some sort of animosity against other aspects of American culture, or they just forgot that there are any, but they sure do make my summers!
The only named bluegrass band I’ve heard in Boulder that needs to be called out is The Railsplitters. The Railsplitters are made up of stand-up bass, banjo, guitar, and mandolin, and they all sing! They play what I consider very traditional bluegrass, and definitely throw some country in there, which differentiates them from other bluegrass bands in Colorado. My understanding is that Colorado bluegrass is known to go at one speed and one speed only, as fast as fingers can move. It’s fun to stomp and holler along, but the occasional song intended for listening isn’t bad either. The Railsplitters play fast and traditional bluegrass very well.
And then if you’ve exhausted all these options trying to satisfy your bluegrass itch, there is the famous Tuesday pick at Oskar Blues. This pick is certainly not for the faint of heart…
During my three and a half years in Boulder, I’ve been so lucky to see these three music scenes. I’ve seen Boulder’s great bands, full of musicians who can push boundaries and work together, songwriters pushing along the national tide back to natural music and bluegrass pickers, who take the cake on building a sense of community. Maybe one day my band, Holiday Blue, will inspire a future transplant’s musical wanderings.
Who do you follow in Boulder? I look forward to learning something new through your comments below!
Pace Goodman focuses his time on two passions; writing and sharing music, and saving energy on a societal scale. Pace has played in six gigging bands over his ten year music career, spanning the genres of alternative rock, folk, pop, funk and blues. He started his music career playing electric bass in New Jersey for a band called Winkiss, and currently spends most of his time sitting behind either an electric or acoustic guitar right here in Boulder for the band Holiday Blue. While his formal music training has been limited, he has played innumerable venues, including the Fox in Boulder and the Bluebird Theater in Denver. As for saving energy, Pace has spent the past three years working with a group of engineers, who specialize in evaluating the cost effectiveness of various energy efficiency, demand response and renewable energy initiatives on a societal scale. His clients have been as local as municipal electricity providers and as large as the federal organizations that oversee the U.S. interconnects. Although these two passions are somewhat disconnected, it is exactly that separation that keeps Pace engaged and inspired in each.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta
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