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Bands prove there’s power in acoustic music

Stewart Oksenhorn
Boulder band Newcomers Home, with singer-guitarist Katie Herzig, performs as part of the Winterskl celebration in Snowmass Village. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.
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Katie Herzig – like Tim Thornton and Andrew Jed, her classmates at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and bandmates in the acoustic-leaning rock band Newcomers Home – received a college degree. But Herzig hardly passed college in a blaze of academic glory.”Our last semester of college, I took lower grades in a couple of courses because we were recording a CD,” said the 26-year-old singer-guitarist, who graduated in 2000. “None of us majored in music. But it felt like we were majoring in making a CD.”That CD was “Miles From St. Louise,” the debut CD from Newcomers Home. And just getting to the point where the band could play music, much less record a reasonably polished, promising CD, was an effort akin to completing college.When Herzig met Thornton and Jed, in 1998 when all were sophomores at CU, none had the least bit of experience performing music. Rather, they were all aspiring musicians, part of a large community of amateur pickers and singers thinking about taking their music to the next level. Out of that knot of players, Herzig, mandolinist and harmonica player Thornton and guitarist Jed decided to put their heads together to figure out what it took to become a professional outfit.

“It took a long time to get to the point of being a band, putting out an album, starting to tour,” said Herzig. “We weren’t established musicians putting together a band. And there was a lot of personal musical development we had to go through.”In those early days, Herzig kept well out of the spotlight. She barely played guitar, and mostly sang backup to Jed. “Looking back, I can’t believe we thought we were good,” said Herzig. “But we always had great encouragement to think we’re good and should keep doing it.”Newcomers Home took the cue from their fans. After graduation, they began touring. In 2002, the band – rounded out to a quartet with fiddler Laurie Momary – recorded a fine-sounding second album, “In the Hour,” that featured acoustic hotshot Tim O’Brien on several tunes, as well as the subdudes’ John Magnie on accordion. The album, with most of the material written by Herzig, sported a more expansive sound, with hints of Celtic music and rock to go with the band’s acoustic foundation.Acoustic instruments were there at the beginning of Newcomers Home, and still are the most readily identifiable part of the band’s makeup. But over time, they have built on that core. Many of their shows – including their gig on Sunday, Jan. 16, at 3 p.m. on the Snowmass Village mall, as part of the Wintersköl celebration – are fortified with a rhythm section of bassist Scott Bugher and a drummer. (The band is in the process of replacing drummer Kenny James, who is moving to Seattle.) When they do have the rhythm players, Jed often picks up his electric guitar.”People underestimate you when you say you’re an acoustic band,” said Herzig. “They think there’s not much force behind it. The instrumentation of fiddle, mandolin and acoustic guitar, that’s been the platform for what we started. But rock was also an influence.”Thornton, says Herzig, is the big acoustic music nut in the group. But Jed favors bigger sounds, in particular Sting. Herzig leans toward contemporary female folk-rock singer-songwriters like Shawn Colvin, an influence that is clear on recordings, as well as Dar Williams and Patty Griffin. And as a band, Newcomers Home has collectively taken to rock bands Guster and Coldplay, and a more obscure favorite, Nashville’s Blue Merle.Newcomers Home has spent considerable time lately in Nashville. There they recorded their most recent project, the extended play (EP) “The Nashville Sessions.” A full-length album isn’t due out for a while; it is still in the “budget phase,” Herzig says. But the EP format represented a chance to collaborate with producer Gary Paczosa, whose engineering work with both Alison Krauss + Union Station and Nickel Creek the band admired, and to rush out songs that represented Newcomers Home’s freshest efforts. “We feel like those songs speak to where we’re headed,” said Herzig.

Now that “The Nashville Sessions” has been released, Newcomers Home is headed in another direction: home. After a few whirlwind years, the group is ready to concentrate on Colorado.”Last year was sacrificial,” said Herzig. “We spent a lot of time in Nashville, a lot of time touring. This year we want to focus on Colorado, build our name here.”Herzig is also intent on building her own name. Early last year, she released her debut solo album, “Watch It Fall.” The album included only Herzig and producer Chris Coleman, who had been Newcomers Home’s first bassist. With the solo album, Herzig took the opportunity to go on a real tangent from what she had been doing in Newcomers Home.”I really wanted to take advantage of it being a solo project,” she said. “So it was just Chris and me. The Newcomers Home stuff is full-band, with lots of layers. My album is more acoustic, without all the instrumentation.”***For 20 years, Tim Sawyer has watched fellow musicians abandon their artistic dreams in favor of pursuits more likely to cover the rent. But Sawyer has refused to join their ranks. At 45, and with no major success to build on, the singer, guitarist and songwriter continues to believe.Sawyer has good reason to think that his latest project, the acoustic-oriented group Free Peoples, is his ticket to full-time picking. The band has experienced promising progress since forming three years ago in northern California. Its schedule has expanded from 40 gigs the first year to a hoped-for 125 this year, including a planned East Coast spring tour. On the recording side, Free Peoples’ recent second CD, “It Is What It Is,” was recently named one of the five best of 2004 by the president of Jambase.com, an Internet site dedicated to the jam-band world.

Just as important is the dedication Sawyer sees in his fellow Peoples: singer-guitarist Johnny Downer, bassist Mike DiPirro and recently added drummer James Foster. “I’ve been a musician for 20 years, trying to do rock projects, pop projects,” said Sawyer, who brings Free Peoples to a gig at the Blue Door in Snowmass Village on Thursday, Jan. 20. “Free Peoples is the most motivated band.”One of the band’s biggest assets is its eclectic sound, a mix of bluegrass and swing played over mostly uplifting songs, mostly written by Sawyer. Sawyer says the band draws bluegrass fans, jazz lovers, Deadheads and even rockers. “People can come and dance to it, or listen to it,” said Sawyer. “It’s the first band I’ve been in that both my little nephew and my parents like.”While Free Peoples aspires to full-time playing, most members have side projects. Sawyer, though, devotes all his musical energy to Free People, and earns a living as a physical therapist. The goal, though, is to work less at his clinical practice and more with Free Peoples.***What is expected to be a rollicking musical year didn’t quite get off to the hoped-for roaring start. Hot Tuna’s performance on Friday, Jan. 7, at the Wheeler Opera House was a highly anticipated, sold-out show. But the performance lacked the expected zip.The show started on a good enough note, with an acoustic set by bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, the Hot Tuna co-frontmen for 35 years, and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff. Drawing from a well of old blues and songs from Kaukonen’s excellent 2002 acoustic CD “Blue Country Heart,” the material was solid. And the low volume covered for Kaukonen’s limited vocal power. Songs like “Just Because,” with Kaukonen finger-picking his acoustic guitar and Casady adding inventive bass leads, came off well. And set up expectations that the electric set to follow would blow the roof off the Wheeler.No such thing. The acoustic set was by far the highlight of the evening, leaving the electric half as a mild disappointment. Kaukonen’s voice couldn’t compete with the amplification, and sound problems didn’t help matters. Moreover, the range of material was terribly narrow, with one midtempo blues-rock following another and another. Kaukonen never seemed to let loose on his guitar.

Standing tall through all this was Casady, whose licks added much-needed punch to the show. At the beginning of the second set, Casady danced a little jig as he played, inciting the crowd and giving hope that things were about to take off. They never did.There are plenty more shows that might give the upper valley that boost it needs to kick off 2005 in appropriate fashion.Hit & Run Bluegrass, a fast-rising, young Front Range band, makes its indoor Aspen debut Jan. 27 at Main Street Bakery. The band’s previous valley gigs – at Steve’s Guitars, on Aspen Mountain and at Aspen Highlands – have shown them to be charismatic, skilled, and worthy of their first-place finishes at both Rockygrass and the Telluride Bluegrass band competitions. Soon after the Aspen gig, Hit & Run heads to Charlotte, N.C., to record the follow-up to their 2003 debut, “Beauty Fades.”Also likely to shake things up is the double bill of techno-jammers Sound Tribe Sector 9 and hip-hop outfit Blackalicious at the Snowmass Conference Center, Feb. 3.And if those don’t do it, these should: ESPN’s Apres X concerts at Wagner Park on Jan. 28-29, coinciding with the X Games, and with acts still to be announced. And the Belly Up is still aiming for an X Games weekend opening. The acts are also yet-to-be-announced, but one has to imagine the club, in the old Double Diamond space, is going to kick off on some very high notes.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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