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Live Review

Denver Comes Alive 2020


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Oteil & Friends / Poppa Funk and the Night Tripper / Ghost Live / Star Kitchen
Mission Ballroom
Denver Comes Alive
Denver, CO
January 31, 2020

The first European settlers arrived in the Denver area in 1858. Since then, it's been (nearly) non-stop growth flooding the plains with humanity and creeping into the foothills. Yet, it wasn't until Friday night that (apparently) Denver finally came alive (at least according to the concert hype). I, for one, am quite relived. 162 years of zombie-land was enough. Although I showed up on the scene a few years after 1858, I've (apparently) been existing in the dead zone quite long enough. Now, thanks to a single concert, I can rest easy in the knowledge that the entire town is, in fact, alive. But, what about the suburbs? Were they not alive before this concert? And, if so, did this show bring them back to life? Or were the suburbs already alive and it was only the core city that needed some kind of electro shock?

None of these questions was addressed Friday night. What was addressed was the funk. Repeatedly. The wake up call for the City and County of Denver required four bands presented over the course of seven hours at the relatively new Mission Ballroom. Actually, the funk didn't quite prevail wall-to-wall, but it was tempered by some Grateful Dead inflected grooves from Oteil & Friends. But first, let's get to the funk.

Although the funk didn't quite permeate the entire evening, the constant theme throughout was the mixing and matching of jam band personnel. The "Jam Cruise" was a co-presenter of the show. That's the annual trip on a cruise ship filled with jam band musicians that play throughout the sea journey and mix and match and rearrange themselves for jam sessions. Here, the rearrangement was pre-planned and announced in the marketing materials. It was, perhaps, a little formal for the jamming lifestyle which seems, at times, like a pick-up basketball game. But that was OK, because the audience knew who was playing in each band. A couple of the groups were actual bands, or at least somebody's side project, but sported new and different members to keep it fresh. A couple others were mashups of two bands, again with some extra curricular players joining the fun.

Star Kitchen & Friends

First up was a unit calling itself Star Kitchen & Friends led by bassist Marc Brownstein of the Disco Biscuits. The resume of each band member is important for understanding what to expect from that musician and to estimate how a given player might interact with the other members of the pick-up team. It's kind of like reading a recipe for a dish you've never tried and trying to predict what it might taste like. Also in Star Kitchen Friday night were guitarist Danny Mayer of the Eric Krasno Band, keyboardist Rob marscher of Matisyahu, drummer Marlon Lewis of Lauryn Hill and John Legend's bands, keyboardist Borham Lee of Breakscience and local horn section Gabe Mervine Quartet (trumpet) of the The Motet and Nicholas Gerlach (saxophone) of Michel Minert.

This is a band that has played together off and on for about two or three years, at least most of the members. The horns were an ad hoc addition and only played about half the set. Overall, this unit offered a brooding, understated, sometimes hypontic trance-funk. Some of their tunes would not have been out of place on a Soft Machine album. They did, however, crank it up at times to put a harder edge on their funk. After all, their mission was to make Denver come alive. Placing the town into a trance would not do the job. Early in the set they covered an hit from 1971 by the Stylistics, "People Make the World Go Round." Things got funky later with a cover of Prince's "Kiss." While that one had a vocal, most of Star Kitchen's set was instrumental.

Ghost Live

Ghost Live pumped up the funk considerably. While Star Kitchen was clearly well rehearsed and tight, Ghost Live slapped an extra edge on their funk. This group was mainly a conglomeration of the bands Soulive and Ghost Note. Guitarist Eric Krasno (Soulive, Lettuce, Eric Krasno Band) and keyboardist Neal Evans (Soulive) joined forces with bassist MonoNeon, drummer Robert Sput Searight and percussionist Nate Werth all of Ghost-Note. MonoNeon also lists Prince on his resume and Searight and Werth claim affiliation with Snarky Puppy. A guest artist with this band was local sax man Dominic Lalli, half of the band Big Gigantic.

The percussion duo of Searight and Werth was particularly powerful. Much of that extra funk edge came at the hands of these two. MonoNeon on bass was, of course, another major factor in that heavy-duty funk. Krasno was the star of this band, soloing often and intently. One particularly notable guitar solo sounded like it could have been written by a Russian Classical music composer after spending some time listening to Cream. It combined a majestic 11 time zone sweep with gritty blues inflected rock. All backed by a relentless funk underpinning. Whew!

The mono-monikered MonoNeon was a bit of an enigma. He neither spoke nor sang and no explanation was offered for the red hoodie pulled tight around his head for the whole set, nor for the sock on the end of the neck of his bass nor the stylish eyewear. As a left-handed bassist, he may, however, have been the inspiration for the two Beatles songs in the set. Ghost-Live's opener was an energetic take on "Get Back." A few songs later, the band broke into "Eleanor Rigby." This one was particularly effective in building multiple climaxes then coming back to earth with the main, poignant theme. Poppa Funk and the Night Tripper

This band was clearly the highlight of the evening and their concept played no small part in that success. The purpose of the band was to pay homage to the two great New Orleans musicians we lost last year: Art Neville and Dr. John. The core of the band was personnel from Dumpstaphunk which was augmented by several of the Cresent City's greatest living players. That list starts with George Porter Jr. (The Meters, Funky Meters, Meter Men, PBS) on bass and vocals along with John Cleary on keyboards and vocals, Big Sam Williams (Big Sam's Funky Nation) on trombone and Skerik (Les Claypool) on saxophones.

The Dumpstaphunk personnel on hand included Ivan Neville on keyboards and vocals who is Art Neville's son. Ian Neville on guitar is Art's nephew. Also on hand were Tony Hall on guitar, bass and vocals and Nikki Glaspie on drums and vocals. As would be expected, the set list was drawn from the careers of both honorees. Art Neville is perhaps best known for his work with both the Meters and the Neville Brothers. Indeed, Poppa Funk started with "Hey Pocky Way," a popular Meters number. But, the crew dug deep into the Art Neville catalog and came up with Art's first hit, "Mardi Gras Mambo."

Dr. John's work was well represented with hits like "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Such a Night." The expansive band had multiple vocalists and Tony Hall and John Cleary both were able to channel the late doctor sufficiently to sound quite close to the master's vocal quality. Cleary, on keyboards, also ably captured Dr. John's New Orleans style piano playing throughout the set. George Porter, Jr. on bass is always a delight. Friday night found him reclining somewhat on a stool rather than standing front and center as he has done with this other bands in recent years. At one point, he took a break for a couple tunes and turned his bass over to Hall so he could hold down the bottom. Was he simply worn out from travelling or was it a sign of the inevitable decline to which all flesh is susceptible? Time will tell, but his vocals on a couple of the tunes were strong. And as part of the rhythm section, Porter kept the funk dialed up to extreme levels. The Dumpstaphunk drummer, Nikki Glaspie was certainly a contributing factor in that endeavor. She played with cat-like speed and agility throughout the set for some of the sharpest drumming of the evening.

Overall, the tribute to the two departed troubadours was worthy of the legacy the two have left behind.

Set List: Hey Pocky Way; Right Place Wrong Time; Sang, Sang, Sang; Hey Now Baby; Sitting Here in Limbo; Peter Pan; Zing, Zing; Wild Honey; Fire and Brimstone; High Blood Pressure; Such a Night; Whatcha Doin' to Me; Mardi Gras Mambo; Quitters Never Win; Fiyo on the Bayou

Oteil & Friends

Oteil & Friends, led by bassist Oteil Burbridge, took that stage round about midnight and started with....a ballad. Maybe they were confused. Maybe they thought the theme for the evening was Denver Goes to Sleep. The effect was immediately to deflate the excitement of the final band of the evening finally hitting the stage. All the air went right out of the party balloon. The tune in question was "Water in the Desert." Perhaps it was a nod to Colorado's aridity and the importance of water in sustaining human life in such areas. Nah; it was really the title cut from Oteil & Friends' 2017 album.

The choice of the next tune was somewhat puzzling as well, but it, too, had a connection to the band and it also helped that it was much more upbeat than then opener. "Midnight Moonlight" is a song written by Peter Rowan who falls into the bluegrass/Americana camp. The tune appeared on the album Old and in the Way (Round, 1975) from the mid-'70s. Old and in the Way, the band, was a bluegrass side project of Jerry Garcia whose main band, as we all know, was the Grateful Dead. Oteil Burbridge is the bassist in the current iteration of the remnants of that band, Dead & Co. Also, one of Oteil's friends Friday night was Melvin Seals, organist for the Jerry Garcia Band, a unit that has soldiered on long after the passing of the band's namesake, apparently in the tradition of ghost bands like the Count Basie Orchestra and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

So the Grateful Dead vibe permeated much of Oteil & Friends' set. The Grateful Dead have long been popular in Colorado both before and after Garcia moved on. But coming on the heels of the relentless funk of the prior three bands, it felt like a bit of a let down. It certainly wasn't caused by a lack of talent in the band. Eric Krasno returned to the stage in one of the guitar slots in the band. The other was filled by Scott Metzger of Joe Russo's Almost Dead, a Grateful Dead cover band. Jeff Sipe on drums was from Aquarium Rescue Unit, Alfreda Gerald on vocals and Weedie Brimah on percussion filled out the band. Burbridge himself is a veteran of some significant bands including the Allman Brothers Band for over the last decade of its existence. He was also the first bassist in the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Krasno continued to lay down searing solos throughout the set and Metzger felt compelled to do the same although some of his solos seemed to devolve into Dead-style languid noodling on occasion.

Oteil and Friends' set wasn't a total snooze-fest. In fact, there were a number of highlights, the first being "Midnight Moonlight" which featured Krasno on a quasi-bluegrass guitar solo. That definitely broke some new ground for the evening. Another highlight was "Hot 'Lanta" where Burbridge paid homage to his Allman Brothers heritage. Alfreda Gerald was another highlight. She belted it out throughout the set and was easily the best singer of the evening.

Overall, however, the Dead vibe following all the high energy funk fell a little flat. But should it be that surprising that the Dead wouldn't fit too well with Denver Comes Alive?

Set List: Water in the Desert; Midnight Moonlight; Let it Rock; Mississippi Moon; Run for the Roses; That's What Love Will Make You Do; How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You); Many Rivers to Cross; Drums; Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion); Hot 'Lanta; Unconditional Love; The Maker; Piece of My Heart

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