Every Tuesday night about eight o’clock they pull back the chairs in the upstairs bar at Oskar Blues and line them up in a circle. Various guitars, banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles and a big acoustic bass are pulled from cases, and players begin to sit down and tune up. Soon enough someone calls a song, and the Lyons Bluegrass Jam is underway.
More players arrive as the night goes on, and as diners start to leave over in the next section, some pickers standing around the edges break off and start their own circle. Sometimes upwards of fifty musicians are huddled in different circles, passing around songs. The jams generally wind down around 11, but occasionally, like one night in March when Vince Herman and his son, Silas, stopped by, the picking went on after midnight.
Seeing someone like Herman, a founder of Leftover Salmon, isn’t that unusual in this little town, now home to a growing number of world-class musicians. Lyons and the mountain communities from here up to Nederland have quietly become a roots-music artist colony. The gypsy jazz group Taarka, Grammy-award-winning slide guitarist Sally Van Meter, the bluegrass quartet Spring Creek, bassist Sally Truitt, Elephant Revival, bassist Eric Thorin, Dave Watts from the Motet, songwriter Nancy Thorwardson, guitarist Jason Hicks of the Blue Canyon Boys, Caleb Roberts of Open Road, drummer Brian McRae, luthier and guitarist Romano Paoletti, bluesman Lionel Young, classical violinist Mintze Wu and multi-instrumentalist K.C. Groves are just a few of the many accomplished musicians living in the Lyons area.
What is curious about the jams is that despite the plethora of talent, players of all levels are encouraged to pull up a chair. “Bluegrass, by nature, is a pretty competitive music,” explains resident Eric Zilling, a jam regular. “At festivals there are contests for best fiddler, best guitarist etc. Here, everybody knows where they stand. You go around the circle, you get your opportunity to play, and then somebody from Spring Creek, who’s sitting next to you, plays. It’s a welcoming atmosphere.”
Longtime resident Dave McIntyre books music and runs the soundboard at Oskar Blues. Fresh from New Jersey, he fell in love with Lyons, at that time, he says, “a sleepy bedroom community, good-old-boy oriented place.” McIntyre, who bought a house near downtown in 1976 and has watched the music and arts scene blossom over the last dozen years, says, “Planet Bluegrass was the catalyst for people to move here.”
Craig Ferguson, who heads Planet Bluegrass, which books the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and brings high-profile national events RockyGrass and the Folks Festival and other concerts to its local stages, first moved to Lyons in 1994. “I would guess we had something to do with it, probably more to do with bringing people to experience Lyons and having them fall in love with it — like we did. Now I’d say there really are a lot of musicians in town.”
Ferguson says that the scene is “more self-generating” today. “There is so much music in town, pickin’ parties, jams, that we really have nothing to do with.”
Singer and bassist Jessica Smith relocated to Lyons with the other members of Spring Creek three years ago. “We had been in Crested Butte and knew Colorado was a good market for bluegrass,” she says. “We wanted to be closer to the Front Range so we can get to places more easily, but we didn’t want to live in the city. We had been to RockyGrass, knew of other musicians living here and decided it would be a good place for us.”
Annie Sirotniak moved here in 2007 from Boulder. “There are folks to pick with, friendships form and there’s a great vibe,” she says. Sirotniak books 4-7 shows a year through High Street Concerts, an all-volunteer consortium started in 2003 by Sam Tallent, Mike Whip and K.C. Groves. This year High Street has presented guitarist Beppe Gambetta, fiddle wizard Casey Driessen and Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, among others. “Profit isn’t the motive,” she says. “We have a committed volunteer crew. We’d rather put on a show and give as much as we can to the artists. I’ve been a performer as well, and know firsthand that it’s tough to make it as a musician. I guess that’s part of the reason I volunteer all my time.”
Profit isn’t the motive at the blues jams Patrick Cullie hosts each month at Oskar, or at the popular Tribute Nights that Jami Lunde manages once a month, either. Up to 20 bands each perform two or three songs from the catalogues of, so far, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Neil Young, Hank Williams (I, II or III) and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris.
The idea, Lunde says, grew out of endless nights in living rooms and festival backstages when guitars are passed around the circle. “Oftentimes the circle will come around to cover songs,” she says, “and it ends up that we are having so much fun playing, singing, dancing.” The format has caught fire with musicians and audiences alike, making it one of Oskar’s biggest nights.
Last year several people, including Zilling and Groves, who co-hosts the bluegrass jams with Eric Thorin, started Redstone Radio, a station that streams the music of Lyons over the Internet. Zilling says the idea started at a Spring Creek show last May. “I had bought a handheld digital recorder, and I was walking around Oskar and I showed my new toy to K.C., and she started walking around interviewing people like a television reporter. It was pretty funny, and afterwards she came over and said we should start a radio station.”
The idea stuck, and working incrementally, they created Redstone Radio, an internet-only station. Without doing a lot of promotion, the station logs about 800 listener hours per month playing 80 percent local musicians and 20 percent musicians with local ties, like Herman or Tim O’Brien. Everybody gets paid for their music, and Zilling says that after a year of operation, “It’s pretty darned self-sustaining.”
Redstone recently took a further step, renovating an abandoned cinderblock building at 4th Street and Broadway. Volunteers, many of them musicians or local music fans with trade skills, are bringing the building up to code, adding drywall and converting it into the Groove Shack, which gives Redstone Radio a physical space, but more importantly, adds a rehearsal and teaching space for musicians.
The gap that usually exists between artists and fans is absent here, and the synergy between residents, fans and musicians is as organic as it is self-sustaining. “Mostly, I think that musicians attract musicians at this point,” says Ferguson. “They also seem to attract other artists, as I’ve felt that there are so many more ‘artistic’ people around now, painters, potters, you name it.”
“It’s a great little town with a great mix of people,” Smith says. “There are people whose families have been here for generations, and people like us who come for artistic reasons. Planet Bluegrass brought people who wouldn’t have come here for any other reason and settled here. And it’s still happening.”
This article appears in the Summer issue of Boulder magazine.
June 22, 2009 No Comments
The Is It Rolling Bob Band made its debut last night at Oskar Blues in the small but musically mighty village of Lyons, about fifteen miles north of Boulder.
It was Bob Dylan celebration night at Oskar, and there were 20 or 21 various combinations of solos to bands, each getting the chance to do two songs written by Uncle Bob. In a little over four hours.
Sharon and Kris and I had gone up in January for Beatles night, and Sharon and Steve were there in December for Neil Young night.
So we put in a bid for Mallworthy (Gil Asakawa, Sharon Meyer, Steve Meyer and me) to play Bob Dylan Night and were selected by intrepid promoter and musician Jami Lunde to perform a (relatively) recent song, “Things Have Changed,” and “I Shall Be Released,” an old favorite that Gil and I have closed our sets on the Boulder Mall with for twenty-five years,
After the selection Gil and Steve both found they would be out of town that night. A flurry of emails later, and Sharon, who plays mandolin, and I were joined by Kris Ditson, a drummer who most recently has worked with Pete Wernick’s Flexigrass, Rob Ober, who lives two doors up the street from me and plays about anything you put in front of him, on bass, and Patrick Cullie, our local connection (he lives about two blocks from Oskar), who has picked with Gil and I in the past and plays a mean slide guitar. I was humbled to be working, if only for two songs, with such talented people on short notice.
We practiced without Patrick once and then Tuesday night we all got together and ran through the two songs a few times each. We figured driving up that since Oskar Blues is the home of Dales Pale Ale, king of craft beers, it wouldn’t matter if we sucked.
It was already crowded when we got there, and with fifty musicians as part of the crowd in the basement, it stayed that way all the way to the end. And it was really noisy.
Watching the talent on this night, all I could think of was that Lyons, a town of less than two thousand, is a little mini version of Austin, Texas, with talented musicians in many genres. The song selection was eclectic and unpredictable. I didn’t take notes, but I’d guess the most popular Dylan album of the night was Blood on the Tracks. Among the highlights I remember was a bluegrass quartet, Steamboat Zephyr, that absolutely smoked its way through “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Odds and Ends,” both from the Basement tapes and perfect candidates for their picking frenzy.
Several solo performers did courageous performances of intricate Dylan songs in a room that was filled with too many people to properly appreciate the subtleties. Everybody cheered loudly as Dave McIntyre, who books the entertainment, sat on the other side of the mike for the first time ever with a mandolin player named Greg Schocket and played spirited versions of “Spanish Harlem Incident” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Schocket later accompanied Lunde for two numbers, included a nice “She Belongs to Me.” Reed Foehl kept the crowd’s attention with great versions of “Visions of Johanna” and “Every Grain of Sand.”
We were 18th on the bill, so I missed a few in front of us getting ready, but the biggest surprise was the debut performance of the Blue Maddies, five or six ladies in various western outfits that included stage manager KC Groves. I can’t remember the first song, but I will never forget the closer, “Boots of Spanish Leather.” As they reached for the high harmonies I had never heard on that song before, I felt like I could have been in Ryman Auditorium fifty years ago hearing the Carter Family. Just one of those moments where it all comes together.
With that to buoy us, the Is It Rolling Bob Band moved onstage and made its way through “Things Have Changed” and “I Shall Be Released.” I seldom work with amplification, but everything seemed to work pretty well, and thanks to a cheat sheet scotch-taped to my guitar, I made it through “Things Have Changed” for the first time without blowing the words. Everybody danced and sang along to the final chorus of “I Shall Be Released” as we sang it a capella.
And you know, for those of us who perform even just occasionally, that’s what it’s all about, folks. Thanks to Jami and Dave and KC and Michael and Sean and everybody else who helps put on these lunatic affairs. Hope we get to do it again sometime.
p.s. There was video shot of our performance. i’ll keep you posted on when that will become available.
February 19, 2009 2 Comments
It was standing room only by the time we got to the Beatles tribute in the basement of Oskar Blues brewpub in Lyons, Colorado, last night. The concept was simple enough: From 7-11 p.m., musicians who signed up beforehand each got to play three songs by the Fabs.
We got there about 8:30, just in time to catch a duo turning “Got to Get You Into My Life” into a sweet acoustic number. The music ran the gamut from classics like “Nowhere Man” to late-period John Lennon blues, and it was fascinating to hear pick-up bands composed of people, most of them small children or not born when the Beatles ruled, imitating their idols just as the Beatles emulated their musical heroes on tiny stages in Liverpool half a century ago. The torch continues to be passed.
Everybody knew the words to the songs, and many sang along with each and every one. Easily the best moment for me was when a rock quartet wound itself around George Harrison’s crunching, droning “It’s All Too Much.” Between the bar noise, the aroma of beer brewing and the low ceilings, I squinted, and for a quick moment, I thought I might be in the Cavern Club.
Or maybe it was just the Christmas lights and those pints of Dales’ Pale Ale.
And whom should I find making his way from the stage to the sound booth? It’s my old friend Dave McIntyre, a tireless supporter of music in this area, columnist for Blues Access back in the day and in charge of live music at Oskar Blues, which features a smorgasbord of blues, bluegrass, western swing, jazz and Americana, depending on the night, in this intimate room. Last month Oskar’s saluted the music of Neil Young, and next up is Bob Dylan on February 18, with more to be added.
January 22, 2009 2 Comments