by Bill Forman
As foolish as driving to Denver on New Year’s Eve might sound, a trip to see Slim Cessna’s Auto Club at Denver’s Bluebird Theatre seemed long overdue. After all, the band’s annual celebration at its hometown venue, a tradition for the past nine years, has become so popular that it’s turned into a two-night run — so popular, in fact, that a more radio-friendly national act like Cracker was relegated to playing the more “intimate” Soiled Dove that evening.
Which is at it should be. Having only caught the band at the Black Sheep, where they were opening for the Reverend Horton Heat, the full-blown New Year’s show was a revelation.
The four-hour extravaganza kicked off at 9:30 with a startlingly original and vaguely disturbing set from Cessna’s sidekick Jay Munly and his as-yet-unrecorded band the Lupercalians. Words cannot begin to describe it: Gothic Americana with electro-tribal rhythms and New Wave/Nick Cave vocals accompanied by shadowy hooded figures, two of them playing keyboards, the others two attacking African drums, percussion and crash cymbals. It was a brilliant and often beautiful set that ended up taking the “Denver Sound” (as critics dubbed 16 Horsepower, Woven Hand, Denver Gentlemen, Cessna, etc.) to its illogical conclusion.
Fortunately, where words fail, a blogger can always resort YouTube. (Song actually begins at 0:54.)
Afterwards, Munly returned to the stage with Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, who were inexplicably dressed as Popeye characters. The 6-foot-plus Cessna made a particularly striking Olive Oyl, his trademark cowboy hat replaced by a fetching black wig, his gold front tooth and crazed smile all the more unsettling in Olive Oyl drag. Still, the cartoon character costumes were no impediment to the incendiary music, which manages to wed the Pentacostal fury of the Louvin Brothers, the drunken remorse of Hank Williams, and a post-modern, post-punk, post-rock sound that tramples genre boundaries in its wake.
This clip, sadly, doesn’t capture the energy, but at least you can see the costumes.
Of course, no review of this show would be complete without mentioning Erica Brown, the Denver diva who led the midnight countdown and intermittently accompanied the band with her stunning gospel/soul shouting as well as a wailing version of "Auld Lang Syne."
All in all, it was a distinctly Colorado celebration, one that would surely have surprised outsiders who think the Rocky Mountain music scene begins with John Denver and ends with the Fray. Praise Jesus, Cessna and Munly for coming up with one helluva way to haul in the new year.