It’s almost that time again — the Underground Music Showcase arrives in Denver July 23-26, 2015. And, just in time once more, here are my photos from last year!
I posted my photos from the UMS 2013 only a few days in advance of the 2014 festival, so I’m going to beat that record by more than a month this year.
The full lineup for 2015 hasn’t been announced yet, I think, but a third installment of bands was released May 29. My favorite local garage band, Safe Boating is No Accident, was not listed as performing until then and I had been starting to worry.
I didn’t have as much time to attend and enjoy the festival in 2014 as I had the year before, but I still made it out for some great performances. I didn’t catch any of the bigger acts at the main stage, but I’m fine with that.
I continued my tradition of using the festival as an excuse to practice my flash photography, this time only taking two camera bodies and a couple extra lenses, and my big Vivitar 252 Auto-Thyristor flash.
I tried to work more on getting the flash power and camera settings to match up sensibly, which is something I think I’m still a long way from fully understanding. I tried bouncing the flash at a couple different angles, too, hoping to fill in more background in some of the small venues. I avoided pointing the strobe straight up, though, as I felt that cost me some potentially decent shots in 2013.
Thursday night, July 24, was the key night for me, with Safe Boating playing. Also Thursday was Homebody, a friend-of-a-friend’s band with a strong rhythm section and an experimental vibe I dig.
I started the night at The Irish Rover on South Broadway (the festival takes over much of the so-called SoBo area, and all the venues are on or just-off Broadway) with a band I’d neither heard nor heard of called Pageantry. I admit my recollection of them now is vague but positive.
While at the Rover I ran into a lot of other Posties — interns and much of the younger newsroom staff tend to turn out for the festival, whether to help with coverage or just enjoy a cold brew and some indie rock.
I stuck around for about half the next band’s set — I don’t remember Somerset Catalog much at all, but I haven’t heard a dud at the UMS yet — before crossing the street to get a good vantage point for Homebody’s set at The Hi-Dive.
I was only vaguely familiar with Homebody before the show, but they put on a strong set. Very energetic and fun to be deafened by! I had forgotten my earplugs that night and wound up right in front of a speaker stack for half of Homebody’s time on stage. Boy, did I regret it when my ears were still ringing slightly the next night.
I snuck out toward the end of Homebody’s show so I’d have time to make it down to Illegal Pete’s for Safe Boating is No Accident, whose memorable name was enough to pique my interest when I first heard of them. As expected, they played pretty much all the songs I’ve enjoyed off their 2014 release “Bonus Features.”
I can’t put my finger on what I love about these guys, but they’re clearly drawing on a great selection of influences which I suspect must include Elvis Costello, The Church, the Velvet Underground and more. I sometimes think I feel a little bit of the early Cars’ energy in there, too.
Midway through the set, guitarist and singer Leighton Peterson had some issues with his guitar — a Fender Mustang Special, I think — but kept his cool and the show went on. There were a few seconds where I feared it would be a Dead Kennedys-esque “Ray’s guitar broke!” moment, but I think Peterson borrowed a guitar from another band and carried on until it, too, displeased him.
At that point he grabbed the mic and belted for all he was worth before cutting the set a tad short. I was saddened by the premature end but sympathetic to the band’s troubles, and I took advantage of the extra time to head back to The Hi-Dive in time for some of In the Whale‘s set before heading home.
Friday night I got stuck at work later than usual and then headed home to have dinner with Kate. She had to work early Saturday morning, and since I’m generally more of a night owl, I headed back down to the festival around 10 p.m. after she went to bed.
I found parking off Broadway near 3 Kings Tavern, so I stopped there first to catch a little of Colfax Speed Queen‘s set before heading south to the Skylark Lounge. I like the space at the Skylark quite a lot visually, so I wanted to see something — pretty much anything — there.
I discovered Roadkill Ghost Choir, another band I’d never heard or heard of before. I was pleasantly surprised, though, by their marriage of a pedal steel guitar and some near-shoegaze moments. Overall their sound is energetic without being pop music; bluegrass-influenced without being another cookie-cutter indie ‘grass band.
Lead guitarist Stephen Garza was impressive and fascinating to watch as he pulled haunting tones and effortless-sounding riffs from his Gibson Les Paul. The band’s members all appear to be very talented multi-instrumentalists, swapping with ease. At times almost symphonic and cleverly emotional, they left a very good impression.
Sadly, I didn’t get many good frames from Roadkill Ghost Choir’s set because the room was ridiculously packed — its size and shape are a strike against it, since any appreciable crowd quickly becomes difficult to work or move around. Between the other photographers jockeying for position, and dancing fans knocking me about and sloshing beer on my bag, I wasn’t terribly inspired photographically after all.
I ducked back up to the Eslinger Gallery — a venue I’d never visited before — after surviving the sweat-drenched crush of well-lubricated concert-goers attempting to exit the steamy Skylark. I figured on catching Accordion Crimes, whom I remembered from their energetic 2013 set at the Skylark.
I’m not a music critic, but I can tell you I dig these guys. Their sound is a touch heavy for me, really, but they come across as talented and genuine. Their garage-rock sound has a raw energy that I think is more methodically assembled than it is the result of inexperience; it’s carefully calculated and executed with impressive precision.
Not that they don’t have fun — they’ve got their act down pat and they don’t miss a step. They smile and strut and enjoy riding the wave of energy they’re feeding into the crowd just as much as the fans whose heads bob and weave with the beat.
The setting was great at Eslinger; not too packed, but with an energetic crowd throbbing with the band. The art-gallery vibe was strong (because it’s an art gallery) and it was a nice fit for the energy of the night.
I twisted on my 24mm and got down in front of the majority of the fans and took some pictures; the Kit-Cat Clocks on the wall were a nice touch when my photo of drummer Dave Sprague would otherwise have been quite spare, especially against the titanium-white walls.
The venue was pretty tiny, though, and an inconvenient post in the center of the room — right in front of the “stage” area of the floor — made it next-to-impossible to squeeze the whole band into a single frame, even at 24mm.
Shortly after Accordion Crimes wrapped up, Glass Hits took the floor and pounded the now-packed room with their high-speed punk rock. A few people tried to slam dance a bit and I was knocked around some, and wound up with more beer spilled on me — but fortunately not on my gear.
Shuffling to avoid being too much in the way of the now much more tightly packed crowd, I found an angle from the door side of the stage area that worked alright for full-band shots.
Glass Hits’ singer, Keith Curts, is gaunt and tall, and his physical expressiveness reminded me of Iggy Pop when performing (a bit more family-friendly, though). Growling and howling and gripping the microphone like a last meal, Curts seemed more music than man during the performance as he lost himself in the sound. The energy was infectious.
The packed room quickly became oppressively hot and humid, so I backed up and spend the last few tracks’ worth outside the door just listening. After the last notes faded away I ran into some of the Reverb crew and just hung out chatting for a bit before heading home. It was well past bar closing time by then, though the streets still were full of festival attendees.
I didn’t make it out to the UMS at all on Saturday, but I wasn’t completely done with the UMS 2015.
During Glass Hits’ set at the Eslinger Friday night I had realized my flash wasn’t firing every time — the batteries were crapping out. The thing about the Vivitar 252 is that it uses two 9V batteries — those big square things — and I was out of spares. I’d been just praying the one fresh set in there would get me through the fest. Sadly, it was not to be.
Sunday morning (yeah, right — it was almost noon, I think) on my way back to the festival I stopped for batteries. I didn’t want to pay exorbitant gas-station prices so I ducked into Big Lots, where I knew they had a big rack of Duracell batteries for cheap. It was the only other place I could think of that would be convenient on the way to SoBo.
I didn’t know, though, that those Duracells are remanufactured. Or maybe just counterfeit.
I bought two packages of two batteries, tossed them in my bag and headed on to Illegal Pete’s for the CU Denver School of Music Day Party. Pete’s has plenty of windows but it’s still not bright enough to shoot Tri-X at box speed without a ludicrously fast lens or a disappointingly slow shutter.
I caught part of Fancy Sauce‘s set at Pete’s but don’t remember any of the other CU School of Music bands. The debacle that was fast-becoming source material for a folk song called something like The Exploding Ongoing Adventures of Battery Bill drew my attention away.
So yeah, back to those batteries.
I copped a squat outside and popped open a package of the fresh “Duracells,” noting as I did that the printing quality on the labels wasn’t really up to snuff with what I expect from major manufacturers these days. As in major manufacturers of anything.
I became more concerned that something was off when I pressed them into the battery compartment. They didn’t slide in as easily as the old ones had come out — as if they were just slightly thicker.
The real trouble began when I tried to close the battery door — they must’ve been taller than spec, too. I managed to wrestle the battery door shut and tried the power switch, expecting to hear that fast, near-silent whine as the capacitors charged.
I waited 10 or 15 seconds and still the ready light didn’t come on. I began to worry that these probably-counterfeit batteries were just duds. I reached up to try cycling the power off and back on again and nearly burned myself.
There was definitely something wrong — the almost-certainly counterfeit batteries were nearly on fire!
I managed to snap the battery cover back open and smacked the flash on the edge of a table to knock the oversized batteries out fast, but it was too late.
Magic smoke was escaping from scorch marks on the inside of the battery compartment, and the batteries themselves were black around the terminals.
I almost threw the batteries away once they had cooled down, but thought better of it. I tossed them back in my bag in order to return them.
When I did get them back to the store, I was informed that Big Lots didn’t take things back. I had to argue to get them to do anything. I was steamed and asked about the sourcing of the batteries, explaining what had happened and saying I believed the product to be counterfeit (that’s when I was informed by the rude clerk that they were remanufactured, which I believe not at all).
They grudgingly issued a store credit after I pressed them, but the card is still rotting my glove compartment almost a year later. That was the first and last time I bought batteries at Big Lots, and probably the last time I will ever shop there.
I still think the batteries were counterfeit.
I spent the money for fresh, genuine Duracell 9V batteries a couple weeks later and tried the Vivitar 252 again. No soap. I only paid $20 for the 252, so it wasn’t a huge loss, but it was disappointing to lose it just when I was starting to get to know it.
I have since replaced it with two Vivitar 283 Auto-Thyristor flash units, which I haven’t really used yet. I took one with me to Denver Comic Con this year, but didn’t wind up using it at all. I’ll almost certainly take one or both with me to the UMS again this year, though.
Back to my Sunday at the UMS.
2014 marked the first year of the Mile High Parley, a single-stage music and art festival that took over a block of Ellsworth Avenue just east of Broadway on three of the same days the UMS was in full swing. The location being pretty much right in the center of the strip of UMS venues, I’m not sure if the newcomer stole traffic from the UMS or if the two shared attendees more symbiotically.
I took moments to check out the new arrival myself a couple of times while moving past, but found that the bands seemed less polished. I suspect it provided great exposure for some newcomers to the Denver scene, though, and the gritty garage punk I heard from a few bands certainly expanded the range for those in the area for the UMS, which seems to cater to mostly more-experienced acts.
The two festivals will share three overlapping days again in 2015 and we’ll see how much the Parley’s sophomore set can add to the four-day weekend of South Broadway music madness.
As for shooting with a flash, I can say I feel like I learned a lot in the year since the last UMS. Now to learn how to get a more evenly-exposed negative with a flash. A lot of these, to me, appear too bright in the centers and still leave the drummers’ faces dark or lack any background detail a lot of the time.
I still find focusing in very low light difficult, but I don’t know if that will ever get better. That weekend also marked one of the first times I started training myself to shoot with my right eye. I’m left-eye dominant, but my left eye just plain doesn’t see as clearly as my right eye.
Another year, another learning experience. I’ll keep at it. Bring on 2015!