Widespread Panic Review December 30 and 31, 2010

Widespread Panic plays a two to three night stand every New Year’s Eve.  For fans, these are some of the most anticipated shows of the year, filled with enthusiastic playing, rare covers and dynamic guests.  For years, the band hosted these annual get togethers at the Phillips Arena in their home state of Georgia.  Conflicting arrangements with the Atlanta Thrashers led to the first Denver New Year’s run in 2008, a two night stand that devastated alcohol sales records for the venue and led to a big push for Panic to make Colorado a regular stop for the holiday shows.  Rumor now has it that the Pepsi Center and the Phillips Arena will alternate hosting duties.

Widespread Panic helps Denver Colorado ring in the New Year in style

Of course, rumors at jam band concerts are prevalent and frequently without merit.  In addition to the above mentioned rumor, I overhead, just as I had in 2008, numerous discussions about the impending end of Panic tour, as well as the various drug habits of various band members, attested to by people who claim to know people who claim to have been in a room with somebody somewhere.  Ultimately, these stories serve only to pass the time until the lights go down.


My wife and I elected to make the two night concert on occasion for a Denver vacation, dropping our kids off with my parents and checking ourselves into a downtown hotel, thus eliminating the need to deal with cabs, drunk drivers and what turned out to be some of the slickest roads yet of the Colorado winter.  We find that we rarely enjoy our hometown the way that we emerge ourselves into a town that we are visiting for a few days.  We enjoyed having an excuse to walk around downtown, even through the single digit temperatures and managed to eat our way through the city as well.

After enjoying a late lunch at Park and Company, the redesign of the Denver landmark Bump and Grind orchestrated by the burger geniuses of Park Burger and an early dinner at Troy Guard’s uber-hip TAG in Larimer Square, we hailed a rickshaw to take us the 1 mile to the Pepsi Center.  Had Denver’s 55 degree winter managed to wait another two days, we probably would have walked but, instead, we were happy to have a wool blanket over our knees and a plastic sheet over our faces to keep the wind out.  Until we realized that we were behind a bicyclist who was dragging us across ice covered roads and that if a car could not stop for us, we would be on the wrong side of momentum.

“This is either a brilliant idea or a horrible one.”

More brilliant than horrible so it turned out.  We met up with friends of friends at a bar in the lot of the Pepsi Center, conveniently turned into Panic central with a blaring soundtrack of Panic albums and a bar overflowing with long hair, beards and copious amounts of booze.  We sold our extra tickets and headed across the street just in time to catch the second half of G. Love and Special Sauce, the opening act.

"Y'all want the unrated or the clean version?" Hmmm. Unrated, please.

I am no huge fan of G. Love and was ambivalent about their selection as an opener for Widespread Panic.  We caught the second half of their 90 minute opening set and I was impressed.  Their stripped down four person sound is reminiscent of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as is their list of influencing styles – blues, punk, rock and hip hop.  Highlights included “Cold Beverages” and “Booty Call” which bled seamlessly with the Beatles’ “Why don’t we do it in the road?”


During intermission, Erin and I talked about the random serendipity of Panic shows, how, frequently, at outdoor venues where general admission is the norm, we run into random friends circulating through the venue.  We wondered, with reserved seats, how we might make those same connections.  We wondered, specifically, about Hope, a close friend of ours and one of Erin’s sister’s best friends.  As the lights came down, three young women took the seats next to our.  One of these, was, of course, Hope.

Like me, she bought her tickets through the Panic pre-sale.  Randomly, we got adjacent seats.  Many phone calls and texts to Erin’s sister followed with the general theme of “wish you were here.”

Panic announced their presence with authority, opening with a cover of Tom Waits’ “Going Out West.”  As they had in 2008, they owned the first set of the two nights, playing with an obvious enthusiasm but also sounding tight, much tighter than they had sounded at Red Rocks earlier in the year, an indication that either they had been practicing or that they are able to somehow summon cohesion through the emotion of their playing.  Song after song in the first set added to the momentum, building into a dance party of epic proportions:  Big Wooly Mammoth>Henry Parsons Died>Surprise Valley and then, a monster surprise with a first set “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” that basically swept the collective leg of the Pepsi Center.

I was finally able to rip myself away from my seat during Dirty Side Down to go take care of business (restroom, beer, etc.) but found myself singing along with “I’m Not Alone” as I ran back down to reconnect with Erin.  I think “I’m Not Alone” might be the best ballad in the Panic repertoire and I had not heard it at a show in over ten years.  Returning to our seats with two 24 ounce Stellas (I drank four of these over the course of the evening– yes that is 96 ounces of Danish beer), I witnessed the resumed dance party with “Good People”, “Greta” and “Fishwater.”  The first set clocked in at over 95 minutes of music and is easily among the top five sets I’ve ever seen.

Set break found us hanging out, calling Keri again and wondering at our seats.  We were three rows off the floor, at eye level with Jon Bell, clearly able to see every move.  In addition, the sound at the Pepsi Center is focused.  I could hear every note of every instrument clearly, pristinely.

The second set opened with monstrous “Chilly Water” sandwiched between “Saint Ex.”  I’ve witnessed a lot of water being thrown around in my day but have never been drenched like this before.  The girl in front of me literally threw her bottle of water behind her head, essentially dumping the entire contents on my head.  She turned around, looked at me and said “You’re welcome.”

“Thanks,” I said, ahem, dryly.

One of the things that I most appreciate about the community of live music is the introduction of new, or new to me, artists that comes about through participation therein.  Widespread Panic is immersed in live music, as they should be.  It is their passion and their business.  Dave Schools reportedly has over 18,000 hours of music on his i-pod.  They know more than I ever will.  But they bring me into that knowledge and expand my horizons through osmosis.

Five days ago, I knew little about David Bromberg.  As he took the stage with Panic, I could tell only that he looked like a very tall cross between Elliott Gould and Jerry Garcia.  He joined Panic for one of the more unusual “Old Neighborhood”s I have ever heard, Bromberg rapping over School’s funky baseline and really only the guitar lick to point out that the song is in tact at all.  After a brief pause, during which DJ Logic’s turntable kit was set up next to School’s, the now eight player combo launched into “Use Me” with JB and Bromberg trading lines and the entire stage launching like a funk train over the audience.

Bromberg left the stage but Logic remained for “Party at Your Mama’s House,” “You Should Be Glad” and the funkiest drums ever.  Schools rejoined the rhythm section for the end of drums.  The lights turned green and blue as he laid down the opener to “Rock” and my old, tired frame sat and watched, feeling like a “rock on its belly lying on the bottom of a pool.”

But as JB, JoJo and Jimmy returned, I stood and they drove me forward, staying on point through “Rock”, “Red Hot Mama” and “Pigeons.”  Somehow, I found the energy to keep up as Panic, just as they had in 2008, ignited the 12/30 show.

After the encore, we said goodbye to Hope and her friends and walked the 15 minutes through staggering cold back to the Westin, huddled like emperor penguins against the wind and the arctic chill.  We stayed up another 45 minutes, too wired to sleep, adults talking about minor things, happy to be alive and free.

The morning, however, found us stupid and hungover.  We slept until 10 and then struggled out of bed, calling my mom and dad to check on the kids before shuttling the two frozen blocks to the Four Seasons for breakfast, which proved to have been one of the smartest moves of the entire weekend.

“If you wait just a moment, I can get you a spot in front of the fireplace,” the hostess said.

“Um…yes, please”

The Four Seasons dining room provided a brief respite from the action.

Service is the calling card of the Four Seasons for a reason.  I had to take a phone call shortly after ordering a cappuccino and excused myself to the hotel lobby for several minutes.  Returning to the table, I found that my cappuccino had been dropped and then removed and discarded when the waiter noticed I was not around to enjoy it.  He diligently waited for me to return and then made me a fresh one.

Breakfast arrived – two over easy eggs with house made chicken sausage served over two perfect circles of the softest, moistest hash browns ever.  The world started to coalesce.

Afterward, we drove to the Museum of Contemporary Art and saw an exhibit on unverified Russian modern art before taking lunch to our children and my parents.  We spent the afternoon lounging on my parents’ floor, playing with my four year old daughter and one year old son until my daughter asked when we would be leaving.  I think she didn’t like us horning in on her private Nadi time.

Back at the hotel, I researched David Bromberg.  Despite considering myself musically educated, I find reminders consistently of how big the world is and how little I truly know.  Here is a man who is a folk music legend, having played with George Harrison, Jorma Kaukonen, Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan among many others.  It took Widespread Panic to introduce me to him.

He also wrote the song “Sharon” which has become one of the rarities of Panic tour, a song that is played perhaps once or twice a year out of 60 odd tour dates, a long rambling story about a visit to a dancing girl tent at a carnival, punctuated by the shouted chorus:

“Sharon!  What do you do to these men?

The same rowdy crowd that was here last night is back again.”

Which, for people who don’t mind seeing a band on back-to-back nights, is something of a rallying cry.

According to Bromberg’s own website, he hadn’t played a date since early December.  It suddenly seemed to be very likely that he would sit in again on New Year’s Eve and that we would be treated to one of the biggest “Sharon”s ever.  The thought made us giddy.  We hadn’t seen the song since the Fillmore run in 2005 and my wife had been chasing it ever since.  Every Panic run we go to, she insists that they will play it.  This time, it appeared, she would be right.

David Bromberg lays it down.

A quick nap and a shower later and we met our crew at Oceanaire for dinner.  We failed, however, to tell our waiter that we needed to be out the door at a certain time.  By 9:30, I was antsy and we informed our waiter that we needed to go.  We shortly packed up, were out the door and down the street and the Pepsi Center seemed so far away.  We hailed a cab (unheard of in Denver on New Year’s Eve) who incredulously took us the five blocks, complaining the whole time about how illegal it was for him to have six passengers.  Finally dropping us off, I asked him what we owed him.

“Whatever, dude…I don’t know.”

We threw some bills at him and ran into the Pepsi Center to hear Widespread Panic playing within.  For the first time in 70 shows, I missed the beginning.  Bummer.  Oh well.  Dinner with friends is a good excuse.

We tried to accompany our friends to their seats but the staff at the Pepsi Center was not yet tired enough to give up their vigilance so we trucked off to our seats, stage left and 18 rows above the band.  We caught the tail end of the very short first set, watching  “When You Coming Home”, “Driving Song” and “Who Do you Belong To?”

While our seats were great, this was New Year’s Eve and we really wanted to be near our friends so we worked our way through the bowl of the Pepsi Center, scooping up Paul on the way and apologizing to countless people before we landed up standing next to Pete, Dana, Keith and Kelly

The venue was considerably more crowded on New Year’s Eve than it had been the night before.  We stashed our coats hopefully behind dancing strangers and piled into vacant seats.  By the time we found our friends, the brief set break had ended and Panic was striking up the opening licks to “Holden Oversoul.”  The remainder of the show was something of an exercise in human Tetris as we rearranged our standing complement to adjust to the comings and goings of others in our section.  We borrowed ticket stubs to run up for bathroom and beer breaks and wondered, generally, why this wasn’t just a GA show. (Of course, showing up as late as we had, the reserved seats had saved our ass, but that was forgotten by now)

The world's largest disco ball flies high over Todd Nance at the Pepsi Center.

The first and second sets of New Years’ Eve were really more like one set with a very brief stretching break between.  Combined they added up to 85 minutes of music, ten minutes shorter than the first set of December 30.  In general, it seemed as if the band was structuring the show in a very contrived manor.  On December 31, 2008, Panic had played a solid New Year’s Eve show but many, myself included, had been disappointed by the lack of three sets, a New Year’s tradition it seemed at shows at the Phillips Arena.   Many had vocalized their disappointment on the ubiquitous message boards of the interwebs.

Panic had posted on its Facebook page a few days earlier that the December 31 show would be three sets.  In addition, the band had to be on stage at midnight.  In fact, they had to start their third set precisely at midnight.  These time constraints are inherently antithetical to what an improvisational band does.  The result:  a 35 minute first set and a 50 minute second set.

But that did little to temper the quality of the music.  The second set proved to be a real rock show with “North” leading into “Blackout Blues” accompanied by G. Love on harmonica.  Dave Schools then took over with a blistering “Blight.”  “Bust it Big,” “Pleas” and “Mr. Soul” closed out the second set, just half an hour before midnight.

The night flew by.  The set break between the second and third just a blur before Gary Vereen took the stage and threw down an emotional recap of Panic’ “twenty one year love affair with the Mile High State” before Panic blew into “Disco and Tall Boy” to open 2011.

As “Tall Boy” still lingered in our ears, JB announced David Bromberg once again.  The very tall legend took his place between JB and Jimmy as Todd rolled out the drum line to Sharon.  Bromberg took the lead vocals and JB played supporting rolls as the band took us inside the carnival, into the tent where Sharon did things that according to Bromberg, “were like making love to that part of that stage.  It was disgusting.  I loved it.”

This fifteen-minute monster of a Sharon was the focal point of the show and may be the seminal version of the tune, much like Panic’s 2000 performance of “Genesis” with Jorma is the version against which all other “Genesis” will be compared.

Bromberg hung out for a final song with the band, “Tongue Shuffle in A,” a first time play for Panic before he retired to the buffet behind the stage.  Panic carried on with a greatest hits compilation to round out the third set:  “Imitation Leather Shows,” “Love Tractor,” “Postcard,” “Pilgrims”, “Tie Your Shoes”, “End of the Show” and “Ain’t Life Grand.”

Several of our friends ninja rolled out the door in the middle of the third set to catch cabs before the post show madness.  They missed the amazing encore:  “Blue Indian,” followed by Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, a song I have personally been chasing for over 15 years and finally “Action Man” to close out the run.

In general, there is no other place I would have liked to have been this New Year’s Eve.  As our children grow older, I know that I will prefer to be with them, to celebrate the progression of time, to cherish the year past and look forward to the year before but for now, I think I will enjoy the opportunity to be a child myself.


Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Phish Review One Month Late: 10/12/10

Generally, when I review music, I like to do so in a timely manner.  The fact that I am reviewing this show almost one month after I saw it suggests that this is less a show review than a reflection, careful and considered, and after a repeat listening of the show, of why I felt this show was so bad.

Awful, even.

I mean, the worst Phish show I’ve ever seen.  A travesty so bad that I had no choice but to get heavily polluted, resorting to drinking scotch in the middle of the second set and ending up sleeping on my friend’s couch after he made the, perhaps, mistaken decision to invite me to the show and drive me to the venue.  Nothing makes you feel more like a winner than waking up, 37 years old, at five in the morning, still marginally drunk, your friend and his pregnant wife sleeping upstairs, and driving yourself home knowing you have a full day of work ahead of you, opening the door to your house at 5:20 and seeing your wife awake with your infant son.  Awesome.

But I get ahead of myself.  What brought me to this low?

I was pumped up to see the show, having spent the days before reviewing set lists and reading reviews from the late summer tour and the two shows prior from authorities like Coventry Music and Mr. Minor.  Having tried to get tickets myself through the pre-sale and then through Tickethorse and being shut out, I was elated when my friend Pete called a few days before and invited me to go to the third night of the run.

Phish plays to a sold out Broomfield Events Center October 12. Some of those in attendance had a good time.

I’d last seen phish on the first night of the four night Red Rocks run in 2009, having decided at the last minute to pay three times face value to take my then pregnant wife.  The show had been good, if not spectacular.  Filled with moments of brilliance and more than a couple of hiccups, it had reminded me of why Phish had been such an important part of my college and early adult life.  They built and released tension in a rhythmic way, working the crowd up to greater and greater levels of excitement.  If the playing wasn’t perfect, the show at least conveyed the essence of why I’d revisited the Phish space repeatedly, choosing to exchange hard earned money (which I did not have a lot of) to expose myself to the strange mythologies,  frequently over-the-top musical exploration and freaked out culture associated with Phish in the mid nineties.

In fact, my experience at that chilly Thursday night show in 2009 left me wanting more.  I longed to jump back into that pond and on the Saturday night of that run, waited until my daughter was in bed and my wife was reading comfortably in bed to jump into my car, drive the ten minutes to Red Rocks and climb up the hill behind the venue, sitting with newly met friends around a pony keg and shouting “Hood!” to the cloudless Colorado sky as Phish played unseen below us.

So Pete and I discussed the possibilities as we drove to Broomfield for the October 12, 2010 show.  The first night of the run had been a “greatest hits” show featuring AC/DC Bag, NICU and Stash in the first set and a monster Mike’s>Simple>Ghost>Weekapaug in the second.  The second night (Pete went to all three) was more toned down but still included moments of inspiration like Reba, Tweezer and Fluffhead.  After the relatively low key second night, we were convinced that they would end the run with an up tempo, rocking out, leave it all on the floor show that would put the exclamation point on their only western show of the tour.

We jabbered on about the possibilities:  would we hear personal favorite covers of Drowned and Crosseyed and Painless? Favorites from the Phish canon like Cavern, My Friend, My Friend or Julius?  Bust outs and rarities like After Midnight or Letter to Jimmy Page?  The possibilities seemed endless.  Like all concerts I have ever been to, the anticipation built within me, creating a metabolic energy within my body that pushed me forward toward only one goal:  getting inside and letting the show start.

After a brief walk through shakedown (which seemed overly organized:  were they renting spaces along that one row of cars or had the vendors just chosen to set up right next to each other, eschewing any other part of the parking lot?), we waited in the crush of people to get into the venue.

We grabbed beers and walked through darkened curtains into the bowl of the arena, a small, intimate place built originally to house minor league basketball and now operated entirely as a concert arena.  Seating only about 7,000, I was happy to see that there would be plenty of spots to check the show out from.  Most of  these were currently reserved, marked by piles of clothing and guarded by the 2-3 members of each 20 person group who had taken it upon themselves to hold down their respective forts.

We were not in the mood for fighting and being only a duo, decided that we could start out on the floor until we could no longer bear the hippie masses and then swipe a couple of seats for our aging bones a little later.

We set up shop on Page side, about fifteen feet from the front of the stage.  I hadn’t been this close for a Phish show since the Balch fieldhouse in 1993.  The excitement jumped another notch.

After two or three beers and a very long conversation with the security guard holding down the front of the stage, the lights dimmed and Trey, Mike, Page and Fishman took the stage.  There they were, not twenty feet from me and smiling.  They took their spots and started off with Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan, off Joy, their newest album.  While this wasn’t the earth shattering Boogie on Reggae Woman opener that I had been hoping for, it was an upbeat, driving song that features well conceived lyrics that are fun for casually drunk people to bang their heads to.  “Got a blank space where my mind should be..” Who can’t relate to that?  Especially when you are on your fourth beer and are surrounded by people who are collectively responsible for keeping the nation’s acid economy afloat.

Regrettably, the second song set the tone for the rest of the show.  Time Turns Elastic is the king of the momentum killers among the current Phish repertoire, a song that I think only Trey enjoys, as its seventeen minute length allows him to move through many different styles of playing and feeds his ego as a composer of grand rock symphonies.

You guys ready for seventeen minutes of musical masturbation? Well, alright! Page, get the lube.

And to be fair, he can be.  Some of my favorite Phish moments involve the intricate compositions and movements that Trey and his band mates have orchestrated, frequently around obscure and or silly themes:  Esther, The Curtain, You Enjoy Myself, etc.

So how is Time Turns Elastic different?  Is it only that it is newer and therefore does not have the revered history that older songs have?  Or is it actually a weaker composition?  I don’t know but I know that the air went out of the very young set as soon as the opening notes were played.  Exits clogged as the venue’s bars and restrooms flooded with people.  My own beer was full and bladder was empty.  They could not have even waited until I had errands to run before busting out this monstrosity.

So I watched.  And watched.  And watched.  Seventeen minutes is an extraordinarily long time and the song just went on and on and on.  Many of the folks on the floor with us seemed to be enjoying it.  Of course, they were ten feet from Trey and many were on drugs.   But many others, like me, continually looked around, waiting for the next thing to come along.   I checked my phone.  Coventry Music made a prescient tweet:  “Amateurs take a piss break at the beginning of TTE.  Vets wait for the twelve minute mark.”

Eventually, it did end.  And I waited for them to right the ship.  Meat didn’t do it.  Divided Sky/ Timber started to put us on the right track.  Especially Timber.  I had asked for this song as part of our pre show discussion and loved the way that they drew it out, slowly, true to their 3.0 form.  But then, they moved in to the third movement of the set with a series of marginal songs that did nothing to build on the momentum of the second movement.  Pete digs Sugar Shack and I was glad he got to hear it but the general consensus as the lights came on after 46 Days was disappointment.  Hopefully, they would bust out in the second set and redeem themselves.

The second set started with promise:  Carini is a crowd favorite that had the hippie masses grooving and David Bowie is Phish, in my opinion, the combination of straight ahead rocking rhythms and signature improvisational divergences that made me, and many others, fall in love with the band early on.

And then:  Light, Theme from the Bottom, Free, Joy, Halfway to the Moon, Bug, Summer of ’89, seven songs in a row, each one mellow and deflating, as if they had intentionally created a set list designed to slow momentum continually until any interest I had in what was coming next was lost.  By the time Split Open and Melt closed the set and the Meatstick encore inspired its crowd sing along, I no longer gave a shit what they did.

I think the real problem lay in song selection.  Having listened to the show again (thank you Phish for giving away a free download of the show along with the cost of the ticket.  Every touring band should follow your lead), I cannot identify any real sloppy musicianship.  It’s not like Phish didn’t care about what they were playing or that they did not infuse their songs with power and intention.  They certainly did.  But couldn’t they have chosen songs that would have energized the crowd more than what they selected?

And this to me is where the reflection on the show gets interesting.  I have no real interest in writing a bad review.  I continue to love Phish and will see them again.  It gives me no joy to say that I hated this show.  So why write about it all?  Why waste the energy?

I think the interesting question is:  why did I hate this show?  If the answer is song selection, does that mean that I am completely out of sync with this band?  Does it mean that I shouldn’t waste my time with them anymore?  I doubt that the band sat backstage and collaborated on a show that they intentionally felt would bore anybody to the point where they felt they had no choice but to get intentionally wasted to get through the remainder of the second set.  And certainly lots of other people seemed to have an OK time.

Does the fact that Phish chose to play these sets and that I disliked them so much mean that the band and I are operating on different planes?  Does it signal a disconnect between us?

With Phish, and with many other bands who have made a living by creating dynamic setlists every night, there is a contract between the band and its fans.  The band agrees to play a different show every night, to keep things interesting for both parties.  The fans, in turn, agree to take whatever the band gives them.  You know you are not going to get the greatest hits every night.  Hell, you don’t really want that.  It would be boring and you would stop attending shows.

But does that mean that we have no expectation for what the band will deliver?  We buy our $65 ticket and accept what they lay down and if that happens to be the slow, tender side of Phish with no spicy guacamole on the side, then so be it?  I’m not sure.  I think we are still entitled to expectations.  I think that the band still needs to provide an experience that is consistent with their brand and I think they need to do that every night.

So what is that brand?  I think, for Phish, it has something to do with momentum and with energy.  I think that I associate the live shows of Phish with an upbeat and driving sensation, with hooks that pull you in, with tension that leads you into darker corners and that builds and builds until you are jumping out of your skin and that finally explodes into a kaleidoscope of light that makes you realize the journey was always about getting to that place where you could sit and smile, reflecting on the twists and turns that led you to the finish line, tattered, torn and exhausted but satisfied.

When they fail to live up that, they diminish the anticipation that leads to the next show.

Either that, or I really am too old for this shit and I should hang up the artifice and spend my money more wisely.  If I experience another Phish show like this one, I may just do that.

Afterward:  Thanks to Pete for the ticket.  Just because I thought the show was sub-par doesn’t mean that I am not grateful.  And thank you to Pete, Dana and Brody for not thinking less of me because I chose to sleep on your sofa for a few hours.  It was a smart decision if not reflective of the best moral character.


Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Selling the Family Business

On September 30, my family and I closed a very important chapter in our lives.  We sold Quality Fire Protection, the business that my Dad started with his ex-partner in 1995.

After fifteen successful years, my family sold Quality Fire Protection in September 2010.

For the first 8 years of its life, Quality Fire Protection had grown reliably thanks to the marketing efforts of my Dad.  Its backend, however, was a mess.  The ex-partner, responsible for the administrative side of the business, had allowed the weeds to grow over his duties:  taxes were unfiled, accounting numbers were difficult to track down and any kind of real time reporting was dubious at best.

In 2002, my mom joined the business full time.  In short order, my parents bought out their partner and my mom started the hard work of cleaning up the business’ books and processes.

I re-joined the company in 2004.  I had previously worked for my Dad in a sales/ service capacity for the two years following my college graduation.  I left convinced that I would not return.  I had no real affinity for the business of fire protection and knew that my future lay in communication, sales and management. I wanted to build my career in an industry that was more in line with my passions.

But after ten years working in television, public corporate communication and sales management, I found myself looking to bring my talents home.  Simultaneously my dad felt he had taken the business to a point where he needed a dedicated sales person to increase revenues.  I accepted the position of sales manager and set about creating a marketing and sales strategy.

After breaking down the opportunities and strategically pursuing them for 18 months, I realized that we were spinning our wheels.  We were very good at telling our story and persuading our target market, the multi-family business community, to use our service but we weren’t structured to accommodate the growth that my shiny new marketing strategy was bringing to the table.  My parents had cleaned up the mess of our former partner and had reformed many of our administrative processes but no one had adjusted our operational platform to accommodate a new influx of customers.  As a result, our attrition rate grew almost in direct proportion to our new sales.  Our then service manager expressed it like this:  “we sell one in the front door and another leaves out the back door.”

While he was good at summarizing the problem, our service manager had no real interest in reforming the business.  As we began to make changes to address the underlying roots of our customer retention issue, he left the business, leaving us to address the overall concern of how to manage the operational side of our business.

Because my mom had a firm understanding of the administrative business and my dad’s real strength is in sales and marketing, I agreed to take on the operations role.  While it was my first foray into operations management, I approached the restructuring of the company with a firm understanding of the strategic priorities at hand:  maximize revenue, allow for scalability and never lose a customer.

Over the next four years, I overhauled the business, deconstructing every process and rebuilding it.  We changed the compensation for service employees, modernized and integrated both the operational and administrative processes through the implementation of a new ASP software platform, invested more thoroughly in technical and customer service training, relocated to a bigger, friendlier facility, created two dedicated customer service positions inside the office and generally turned everything upside down to see how it worked before rebuilding it.  This was my MBA.  Without this process and Quality Fire Protection, I would not be the well-rounded entrepreneur that I am today.

And it paid off.  Revenue in 2009 approached $2.6 million, a 100% increase from when I joined the company.  We enjoyed our most successful year ever as the rest of our industry plunged into the depths of recession.

Our success, however, shielded us from the changing climate surrounding our business.  While we were busy courting and servicing our growing customer base, our competitors were being backed into a corner by the economy and, faced with imminent destruction, took drastic measures to stay alive.  They cut their prices massively and aggressively began to pursue new business.  The threats to our business changed rapidly and we were too busy making money to notice until the effects of our competitors’ hunger became apparent in our bottom line.

By the second quarter of 2010, the forecast for the business had deteriorated.  Customers who had been with us for years were defecting to competitors who, in some cases, were cutting our prices in half.  We benefitted from many loyal customers who agreed to stick with us, but only if we would match the new aggressive pricing.  Margins plummeted and top line revenue dropped 30% off of 2009 levels.

In addition, the regulatory climate surrounding our industry became increasingly restrictive.  Working in life safety, we benefitted from offering a service that was mandated by law.  In return, however, we agreed to abide by the various licensing authorities that allowed us to offer our services to the business community.  In Colorado, that meant working with over 20 separate licensing jurisdictions to ensure that our technicians and our work product were up to code.

Each of these jurisdictions maintained separate requirements for the performance of work within their county, city or fire district.  With increased access to information, thanks to the growing proliferation of information technology, these jurisdictions were becoming increasingly demanding in their requirements for conducting business under their authority.  In addition, their bureaucratic nature did not lend itself to collaboration either between jurisdictions or with the business community.  Their requirements were firm and increasingly expensive.  As our revenues plummeted, our costs continued to rise.

The stress of the increasingly difficult business climate took its toll on our familial relationships.  Daily arguments between my mom, my dad and I became commonplace.  While we had always strived to keep business discussions to a minimum at family dinners and celebrations, we found it increasingly difficult to distance ourselves from the gut wrenching problems that awaited us at the office.  I wished that I could have a relationship with my parents that had nothing to do with the performance of the company.

In March, we received a phone call from the Colorado General Manager of a nationwide, publicly traded competitor.  We’d established a relationship with him two years prior when my dad approached him to become more active in our local trade association.  The public company has long employed a growth through acquisition strategy.  After a year of being out of the acquisition business, they were going to buy another Colorado company this year.  We were their first choice.

We decided to see what their offer would be.  We filled out a questionnaire that was exhausting in its comprehensiveness and left us feeling over exposed.  In fifty pages we gave one of our most aggressive competitors all the information that they would need to drive us out of business.  More than once, we wondered if this was a good idea.

After sending over this excessively large compilation of financials, customer lists, employee lists, flow charts and operational processes, we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After hustling to compile this information in a timely fashion, we were rewarded with 60 days of silence.  We put our heads down and ran our business, uncertain why we had gone through the effort until their business development team contacted us in June.

Preliminary negotiations lasted 45 days and resulted in an offer that was…fair.  We had held out hope that the offer would be enough for my parents to retire.  The final number was well short of that.  We wondered if it was worth it to sell a business that had provided a strong living to us for a period of years if my mom and dad, approaching their sixties, would still need to find a way to make money before they could permanently leave the work force.

Meanwhile, the company limped along.  Our team put their best efforts in, fighting for sales, bending over backward to keep our customers satisfied, finding ways to reduce costs, but each month, we found ourselves facing grim results.  The overall climate was stacked against us and growing more difficult.

We met multiple times over a course of weeks to mull the offer over.  Ultimately, it became a decision based on the desire for a closer family.  We grew tired of fighting with each other.  It also became a matter of taking what you could get and hedging against the worst-case scenario.  We believed that if the economy improved and we continued focusing on the core of our business, that we might be able to weather the current storm and return to the profitable levels of 2010 sometime.  We knew that we could cash out now and buy ourselves time to find something that might be in a less precarious condition.  The offer wasn’t a golden parachute but it was a parachute.  We took it.

In addition, I decided long ago that my vocation and my avocation needed to coincide.  I came to this epiphany after a long, successful three years at a manufactured goods company where I learned a lot about corporate communication, advanced my career, developed a host of skills and hated every second of it.  I left to pursue a career in the wine industry, which I adored but abandoned after a hard stretch to return to Quality Fire Protection.  While Quality Fire Protection had likewise provided me with an immense opportunity to learn in the unparalleled arena of complete independence, I longed to do something that woke me every morning with the compelling argument of passion.  I needed to care so much about what I did that the long hours required for success were footnotes to the task itself.

Shortly after rejoining Quality Fire Protection, I took this photo in a hotel in Italy, hopeful I could reconcile my love of travel, European culture and wine with my new career selling fire protection services in Denver.

When we began to contemplate selling the family business, I put feelers out among my friends still in the wine business, expecting a job search to take months.  Within three weeks, I was talking to my new boss, learning about his plans to develop a national distribution network for his growing portfolio of wines.  By the time we sold Quality Fire Protection, I had already started working my new job on a part time basis, balancing my new post with the hard work required to sell a business.  Mentally, I had moved on.

Emotionally, both my parents and I were riding the roller coaster.  Selling a business belongs with moving, divorce and death as one of the most stressful experiences a person can undertake.  Uncertainty lay beneath every decision and remains even after the close of the sale.  Did we do the right thing?  We don’t know.  We may never know.  We removed ourselves from a difficult situation and gave ourselves time to contemplate our next move.  We divested a depreciating asset while there was still value in it.  But we also walked away from a business that, while floundering, was still profitable and had provided a very healthy living.  We did so in the middle of the worst economy in my lifetime.  Only time will tell, maybe, if that was the best decision.


Posted in Business, Family | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Who, or what, is Widespread Panic? (with Red Rocks 2010 review)

A couple of times a year, my friends and I, all upstanding citizens, mostly well employed, many of us parents, disappear for two to three days at a time, leaving babysitters, co-workers, clients, parents, significant others and sometimes, spouses with only the nascent explanation, “Widespread Panic,” as we jump out the door, throw a cooler in the back of the car and squeal the tires, headed in the direction of the nearest concert. 

Those left behind can only look at the skid marks on the road and wonder, “Who, or what, is Widespread Panic?”

Todd Nance sings Clinic Cynic for me, my friends and 9,000 of our friends

I’m tempted to say that they are a bunch of shady people, frequently in hats, who congregate around a band by the same name to cavort, dance, throw things and generally have a good time. That might be a little broad.  And a little unfair.

I think it is fair, though, to say that Widespread Panic, or at least the Widespread Panic experience, is not defined solely by the musicians who have travelled together under that name for the last twenty five years.  A large part of the experience is defined by the community that has grown around this band, one crew at a time over the last two decades.

For my group of friends, Widespread Panic was an early magnetic force, a regular event that gave us a reason to cut loose (like we needed one) during our twenties.  A few of us had found the band in college, long before we knew each other.  My friend, Brad, first saw them at a fraternity house in Georgia.  I saw them open for (and blow off stage) Blues Traveler my first semester in school and then subsequently caught every show within driving distance of the University of Colorado.

Two things immediately appealed to me about Widespread Panic:  their rhythm section and their songwriting.  Dave Schools (bass), Todd Nance (drums) and Sonny Ortiz (percussion) form a flexible backbone to the band that allows them versatility without sacrificing structure.  This framework enables Widespread Panic to move from head banging rock and roll to quick picking bluegrass and late 70s funk without sacrificing their own identity.  In each genre that Panic visits, they still sound very much like Panic.

Widespread Panic and Eric McFadden play Bill Withers' Use Me

Panic’s songwriting (they attribute all tunes to the band without individual credits) combined heartfelt, smart and satisfying lyrics with strong lead guitar hooks from Michael Houser and rhythm guitar chops from John Bell built over that drums and bass foundation.  The lyrics, mostly penned by Bell and Houser who are two of the most unique voices in rock and roll, used folk roots and modern imagery to evoke core emotional states.  When experienced live, as a component of the instrumental ebb and flow that Panic created, they moved you to feel those emotions and to creatively express them yourself.  Put shortly, you had to move.

During their most recent three day run, June 25, 26 and 27 at Colorado’s Red Rocks amphitheater, these two traits, the rhythm and the songwriting showed themselves throughout as Widespread Panic moved from one musical realm to another.   

Schools, Nance and Ortiz held the foundation down all weekend, showing particularly powerful surges during Sunday’s sets.  The first set ending Who Do you Belong To? a cover from Panic’s good friends Bloodkin, showed how a big thumping bassline can  blend with an alt country sensibility to deliver a sound that I can only describe as Panic.  Saturday night’s Chilly Water, Sunday’s Machine , Use Me and Last Dance and Friday’s Tie Your Shoes further demonstrates that the engine of the Panic truck is firmly planted between the two drum kits and Schools’ imposing figure.

The songwriting, also, continues to impress.  Listening live to old favorites and songs off the new album alike, I moved from emotion to emotion.  I felt the impatient, hopeful expectation of Airplane, an inspired choice to open the first set, followed quickly by the confident faith in friendship of Vacation.  Makes Sense to Me filled me with righteous indignation.  Pleas strengthened my resolve and I shouldered my burdens like the Big Wooly Mammoth who has to “wear that coat.”

The fundamental strength of the rhythm and the songs are still the things that keep me coming back.  They are why, after three straight days of music, when my body is tired and my mind is wiped, I still want more.

As my friends and I graduated and started our lives in Denver, we began to meet at house parties and barbeques, hosted frequently by the core of our group who lived within a few blocks of each other.  Like most other post college graduates, we talked a lot about music.  Those of us who knew Widespread Panic formed a quick bond and introduced the uninitiated among us.  In the mid 1990s, we made our first trek to see them together, at Red Rocks, our local outdoor amphitheater.

Sunday's crowd ad Red Rocks enjoys the show

Together we have seen almost every Red Rocks run from the mid nineties until today.  Many of us have travelled together to see them out of state.  We have celebrated Halloween and New Years together.  We have grown older, gotten married, had kids, taken jobs, been promoted, grown personally, emotionally and professionally.  And still, we take the time each year to celebrate these concerts together.

And as we grew together, the band grew with us.  Most of my crew cannot remember Widespread Panic without JoJo Hermann, the keyboardist who joined the band in 1992.  None of us can imagine it without him.  His playing added another dimension to Panic’s already broad sound.  JoJo can back up the rhythm section or can take the lead and compete the guitar riffs.  His vocals also create a nice contrast to Bell’s, steely where Bell is raspy.  Over the Red Rocks run, Hermann tore up Good People, Ain’t Life Grand, You Should be Glad and Big Wooly Mammoth.  He also introduced Jaded Tourist, a song from the Panic’s new album, Dirty Side Down that saw its first live performance.

In 2002, when Panic founder Houser passed away from pancreatic cancer, we all felt as if we had lost a friend even though none of us knew the man.  He is a presence today, his songwriting and spirit infused in the music even as the lead guitar torch has passed to Jimmy Herring, a virtuoso whose technical prowess has brought new life to Panic’s playing.  Herring challenges the band, forcing them to keep up or get drowned out.  Panic, for the most part, has risen to the occasion.

Over the course of the Red Rocks run, there were times where the band did not sync up.  The Jerry Joseph original Climb to Safety felt rushed and Saturday night’s Love Tractor started poorly and only began to coalesce during the final movement.  Those moments are inevitable when you play a songbook of over 200 songs and are willing to experiment and they are outshined by the many transcendent musical experiences of the weekend.

 Most notably, Sunday night delivered a consistent musical high, from the opening notes of Vic Chesnutt’s Let’s Get Down to Business to the mind blowing Last Dance (Neil Young) conclusion.  Throughout the evening, the band seemed to play as one entity, building on their collective groove to create the vast sound that we have come to know and love. 

And my friends and I took it all in.  These days, Widespread Panic concerts might be the only time we see each other for months at a time.  We have spread across the state, pursuing our own goals.  But when we meet back up, it is as if time has not passed.  We are twenty five again, letting loose on a weekend, filling the hours with smiles, conversations (both important and frivolous) and dancing. 

And you know what is cool?  We are not the only ones.  As we sat on the Red Rocks terraces and waited for the shows to start, we talked to the groups around us.  For the most part, they were just like us, crews who had built a friendship around this band and who, despite the years, created time to keep the tradition going.  Professionals now, and parents, who, despite having seen the band countless times, still want more.

So who is Widespread Panic?

Well, it is a group of people.  And quite a few of us wear hats.  Some of us are shady.  There is a counter culture element to the experience after all and the draws of that outlaw adventure will always be a part of rock and roll and of the band.

In the end, it is as much about friendship as anything

But mostly it is us, the myriad crews who found this band and built a life with them, who will, as long as the band continues to tour, be there, expectant and waiting, willing to take whatever ride the band offers so long as we can do it together.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Rose Season

So this post is about three months too late.  Rosé season actually starts in late March (for Northern hemisphere wines) as the first efforts from the previous vintage make their way through the distribution chain and find their way onto wine lists and retail shelves.

All the same, I felt that it was important to voice my opinion. 

In short, if you don’t drink pink wine, I feel very sorry for you.

The many shades of rose - all tasty

In my experience, people’s perception of rosé falls into one of three categories:

The “in the know”

Once you have tried a really good rosé wine, chilled down on a hot summer day, you will be an immediate convert.  In fact, your one taste will lead to a glass, to two and then you will have polished the bottle and will be looking for another.  You will never again doubt the pink.  The good ones are that good.

A good characterization of the “in the know” mentality is a recent get together I had with some wine industry friends in New York City.  They were talking about how easy it is to sell rosé.  My favorite quotes of the conversation were “If you can’t sell rosé, you are in the wrong business,” and “it’s pink.  People like pink.  Just fucking sell it.”

I laughed because, on the one hand, I agreed wholeheartedly.  Nothing completes  a summer day like a glass of rosé consumed while sitting on the porch and snacking on olives and salumi.  But on the other hand, I remembered, on more than one occasion, having to force a friend or a customer to take the rose home and drink it, a disbelieving look on their face like I had just convinced them to burn $12 and eat the ashes.  Only when they came back, after having drank the stuff, did they understand. 

The uninitiated

These folks have begun their wine education, have tried some whites and reds, know a thing or two about what they like and what they don’t and agree on one general principle:  pink wine is awful.

They are confusing overly sweet, cloying and not worth the effort mast produced blush wines with artisanal dry rosé wines that are the spring and summer drink of choice for many.  White Zinfandel, White Merlot and even white Cabernet grace the shelves of many large liquor stores from behemoth producers like Beringer, Turning Leaf, Gallo and others. 

And the uninitiated are right:  these wines are awful.  My first experiences with wine came from pilfering glasses of white zinfandel from the family wine boxes (where my embezzlement would go unnoticed.)  Even for my adolescent palate, these wines were too sweet and often too acidic.  They convinced me for years that I did not like wine.  In truth, I did not like crappy pink wine.

But if you can introduce the uninitiated to a solid rosé, crafted either in the skin contact or the saignee method (more on those below), they will embrace it.  They will recognize within it all of the things that they have come to love about wine:  full, often fruity aromas, refreshing flavors, balanced acidity and a satisfying, if short, finish.  It only takes one wine to convert.

The blissfully ignorant

The blissfully ignorant read the last section and said, “But I like White Zinfandel.”  I can’t help these people.

Rosé wines are generally crafted in one of two ways.  Using red grapes, the wines are crushed and the juice is allowed to sit on the skins for a very brief period of time, usually one to two days.  The wine maker then separates the juice, disposes of the skins and proceeds with the wine making process. 

In the saignée process, rose wine is made as a by product of red wine production.  Shortly after crushing the grapes, juice is removed from the vats so that the ratio of juice to skins is decreased.  The result, for the red wine, is a deeper, more intense color and more structured tannins.  The removed juice is then fermented separately to produce rosé wines.

In either case, you get wines that have a unique appeal.  They exhibit many of the flavors of red wines (berries, cherries and  spices)  though in a less intense fashion than with a full bodied red.  They also take on unique flavors that are less common in red or white wines (watermelon, honeydew, banana and citrus flavors). Their color may range from a pale orangish yellow to a dark jolly rancher red.

Rosé wines are incredibly versatile and pair well with a variety of foods from light fishes, poultry and pad thai to barbeque and lighter meats.  They also make for good aperitifs and do not require food (Did I mention that they are great on summer days?)

Rosé mines are made all over the world and, if they are well made, reflect the time and place that they come from.  I prefer those from the Mediterranean basin (Southern Spain, France and Italy) but you will find good alternatives from Argentina, Chile, North America, South Africa and Australia. 

In general, look for the most recent vintage.  Rose wines can age well and a few can age for five years or more but I get the most enjoyment out of consuming the recent vintages, knowing that the wine I am drinking was on the vine not eight months ago and believing that I am getting a sneak peak on the vintage to come. You should be able to find quality rosé for less than $20 a bottle.  In some cases, you can find great bargains with enjoyable wines in the $10 – $12 range

Rosés that I have enjoyed recently include Chateau Petite Cassagne, Crios Malbec Rosé, Chateau Mourgues du Gres Les Galets Rosés and Pico Maccario Monferrato Chiaretto Berro Rosato.


Crios Malbec Rose
Posted in Wine | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Respect, Compassion, Tolerance, Patience

Respect, Compassion, Tolerance, Patience

I have a post it note hanging on the bulletin board in my office.  It has been there for five years and has long since lost its adhesive abilities.  A thumb tack holds it in place.  In my handwriting, in block script, there are four words:





I wrote these words after reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler. The central theme of The Art of Happiness is that happiness is not determined by the events that happen to you.  Happiness is the pursuit of life and is achievable through a disciplined attitude that allows you to maintain a content state of mind even when confronted by challenging and frustrating circumstance.

These four words represent techniques that the book’s authors suggest you employ when faced with difficult people or situations.  I have found them to be extremely useful in attempting to maintain balance in my life.  More than that, respect, compassion, tolerance and patience have become the cornerstone of my work persona.  I rely on these principles to guide my work decisions, to frame my perspective when confronting challenges and to align my professional behavior with my ethical and spiritual standards.

Dalai Lama, business guru


The Dalai Lama refers to respect as the recognition that every living thing has a right to live and to exist within the universe.  By practicing respect, you allow that living thing to occupy its space without attempting to assert yourself over its dominion.

I apply that to the business world by acknowledging that everyone has job responsibilities and that they must do their best every day to fulfill those responsibilities.  Their responsibilities may be at cross purposes to mine.  They may place them in direct competition with me.  They may even make them a threat to my business. This does not make them the enemy. 

I practice respect by attempting to understand the roles and responsibilities of others (my peers, my employees, my competitors, my vendors.)  I hope that by understanding where others are coming from, I can understand their role.  I may be in a position to do business with them or offer them a referral.  Or, if nothing else, I can at least coexist without losing my perspective.  Respect is understanding and allowing for the existence of others, regardless of its impact on you or your business.


Compassion is empathy.  It is taking your understanding of the other’s position, extending your humanity and attempting to feel what the other feels. 

In the competitive world of capitalism, many would challenge the assertion that compassion is necessary.  Some might even argue that it is a detriment.  I disagree.  I believe that making the effort to empathasize with co-workers, employees, vendors, competitors and especially customers is extremely valuable. 

Compassion will make you more relatable.  It will help you to establish rapport and to build upon your personal relationships.  It will generate loyalty.  And when approaching customers, compassion is a very valuable tool at uncovering pain. 

Pain, according to many sales philosophies, is the driver of the sales process.  If you can uncover the root pain that your prospect is experiencing and offer solutions to alleviate that pain, you will improve your chances of closing business dramatically.  Being a compassionate person naturally leads you to finding and alleviating pain.

Compassion also leads to philanthropy, which brings its own rewards.  Philanthropic organizations benefit from their community activism through name recognition, brand loyalty, employee motivation, reduced tax obligations and higher regard in the community.


Tolerance comes from respect.  If you recognize that each person has a right to earn a living and you understand that people will behave differently based upon their backgrounds, you then apply tolerance to accept those differences and to integrate them into your professional life.

Tolerance requires that you set aside the notion that there is one correct way to achieve results.  It demands that you set aside some traditional and long held beliefs about performance.  It may challenge your conceptions of politeness, rudeness, etiquette and intelligence.  Tolerance is demanding.

Tolerance is also rewarding.  The tolerant business person always has the upper hand in negotiation because he is harder to rattle.  Tolerance, and its associate, acceptance allow for greater focus because they prevent distraction by events or people who are outside the norm.  Tolerance, like respect and compassion, make a person more comfortable in her own skin because they do not allow you to inflate your own self worth at the expense of others.

Beyond that, tolerance also can strengthen your organization by leading to diversity.  Diversity of view point creates smarter, quicker, more sustainable organizations than those led by hegemony.  Most executives expect that their sales people will behave differently than their accountants.  Tolerance allows you to accept those differences, to interpret their nuance and to utilize the varying view points to your advantage.

Tolerance, it is important to note, is not acceptance of poor performance.  Understanding and accepting difference is not the same as lazily excusing poor behavior and settling for less than optimum effort among your associates.  You can tolerate difference and expand your acceptance and still hold people accountable for their actions.


Patience is perhaps the most challenging of these four tenets.

Patience comes into play daily.  One must exercise patience when communicating with any stake holder in your business.  Large deals that require involvement by many parties requires patience.  Market conditions may demand that you practice patience, pushing your business into new directions while you wait for more favorable waters to return. 

The benefits of patience are many.  Patience brings perspective.  It allows you to see events unfold before action.  It prevents you from pursuing short course solutions that may throw you off track.  It forces you to wait until your head is calm before acting, preventing an emotionally charged action from endangering a relationship.

I’ve discussed patience with many entrepreneur friends.  Our consensus is that the difficult nature of patience arises from its conflict with another prevalent business dynamic, the sense of urgency.  Most entrepreneurs practice at the altar of the sense of urgency.  It is the constant drive that pushes them to accelerate the pace of growth 24 hours a day.  The sense of urgency is almost business DNA in its primacy.  Ignoring it is to allow your competitor to grasp it, leaving you in the outside lane.  Exercising patience seems counterintuitive.  How can you be urgent and also patient?

To achieve the balance between urgency and patience, you must examine your definition of urgency.  You must have clear, long term goals that deny distraction.  You must be able to recognize the opportunity that requires that you act immediately and the smoke screen that will waste your week, forcing you to run in circles.  I find that if I am unsure, I act on the side of patience.  I may lose a few opportunities but I also make fewer mistakes.

Over the last five years, I have returned repeatedly to the post it on my wall and find that the presence of those four words helps me to be mindful about my actions during the work day.  I believe that they have made me a smarter, more deliberate business person and that they have improved my interpersonal relationships dramatically while also lowering my stress level.  The Dalai Lama is not Harvey Mackay but I think there is a place for his insight at the board room table.

Posted in Business | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drive By Truckers at the Boulder Theater May 13, 2010

The house lights went down and an eerie blue light came up on the stage.  Behind the stage, a giant backdrop and two smaller backdrops displayed Wes Freed’s macabre circus imagery associated with both The Big To Do album and the tour.  The lighting techs backlit the backdrops creating a cathedral effect;  Freed’s artwork became a southern gothic stained glass tableau, setting the mood for some dark and powerful guitar rock and roll.

Concert Poster for the Colorado run

The PA music stopped and was replaced by strangely funky intro music, a James Brown meets hillbilly groove with spoken word over it, an unknown voice going on and on about fucking a chicken, that couldn’t help but remind us of Ernie Anastos (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-september-17-2009/intro—ernie-anastos–catch-phrase?xrs=mrss)

As we were laughing in our balcony seats, the Truckers took the stage and launched into The Fourth Night of My Drinking, one of my favorite songs from the new album.  The sound exploded through the Boulder Theater, vibrating the small fold out seats in the balcony.  From our perch, we had an excellent view of the stage and could see Patterson Hood attack his guitar line as he belted out the lyrics.  He cuts an imposing figure, a tall maniacal force with madman hair who reaches for his guitar as he plays, a full extension of his arm that seems to deliver more power into the chords.

After Drinking, Mike Cooley launched into Three Dimes Down, an energetic crowd favorite that revved the energy up another notch.  Throughout the night, Cooley shined.  My friend Nolan, a bigger Trucker fan than me, called him the “coolest man in rock and roll” and my wife compared his vocals to Mike Ness from Social Distortion.  He showed tremendous range, particularly when singing the low end.  His songs are among my favorites from the Trucker catalog. 

The first two songs paved the way for an explosive night of music as the band surged from one song into another.  Cooley and Patterson offer unique voices, their songs strong with story and seeped in Southern lore.  Their vocals, likewise, present two strong but distinct visions, each reminiscent of the heritage of their music.

This is country music the way it is supposed to be:  thoughtful, irreverent, full of narrative and fueled by three hardcore electric guitars that rev like diesel engines burning down a highway.  Hood, Cooley and John Neff each know how to throw down a power chord and scream a solo but their playing has developed in a way that allows for interaction.  Each player has space in the arrangement and the structure they create is not a wall of sound so much as interlocking pieces that build and complement each other.  But you feel the arrangement rather than notice it as the power of the Truckers’ sound grabs you by the gut and forces you to pump your fist and nod your head.

Holding down the line is Shonna Tucker, whose base provides the groundwork for the three guitar assault.  Wisely, the sound mix promotes Tucker so that her rhythm is not drowned out by the strong guitar work but is a present force throughout the show, pushing each song forward and laying the tableau for her band mates.  While her vocal mic seemed to have some issues early in the show, these were ironed out by the time she unleashed It’s Gonna be (I Told You So), adding her distinct female vocal to the impressive lineup of voices that make up the Truckers.

Shortly after Daddy Needs a Drink, which found Nolan and I at the bar taking Makers shots, we worked our way onto the floor, giving up our comfy television view of the event for a ground level shot of the band and standing spots among the crowd, mostly twenty and thirty somethings drunk on bourbon and heady from the music’s fortitude.  We danced and watched the interaction on stage as the band members built their aggressive onslaught together.  Other standouts of the night included the live premier of Ray’s Automatic Weapon, Drag the Lake Charlie, Birthday Boy and This Fucking Job from Hood, Cooley’s Hell No, I Ain’t Happy and Self Destructive Zones

This is a band that flat out plays one of the best live shows around.  At the end of the night, we left the Boulder Theater inspired and wired, infused with the spirit of great song writing, incredible vocals and emotional, spirited musicianship.  The Big To Do is a powerhouse show that showcases the unapologetic alt country voices of a very talented and ambitious band.  The Drive By Truckers play Fort Collins tonight and Aspen on Saturday.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments