The ride from Rose Hill Drive
The world seems to be spinning around Daniel Sproul. One night he’s in South Carolina, the next morning he’s waking up in Memphis. Much of last fall, Sproul and his bandmates in the Boulder-based Rose Hill Drive – his brother Jake and their childhood friend Nate Barnes – played several weeks of arena concerts as the opening act for Van Halen. But last week found the trio trying to win over a crowd of 20 in a Charleston, S.C., bar. The raves for Rose Hill Drive’s thunderously loud live shows are piling up, with everyone from Westword, the Denver alternative weekly newspaper, to Jambase, a website devoted to the jam-band world, breathless in their descriptions. (Comparisons to Led Zeppelin are standard.) Meanwhile, the band still doesn’t know how it will release the new CD it hopes to have out this summer.Compounding the dizzy feeling, Sproul has a nasty cold. And he’s only 20 years old to boot.
Welcome to the world of infinite potential. From the outside, the future seems boundless for Rose Hill Drive. Record labels have been chasing them for months with deals and dollar signs, and the fan base builds with every show. From inside that swirl, things aren’t so clear. Many days, Sproul can’t even see that beautiful horizon.”I struggle with it a lot,” said Sproul from Memphis, where he was spending a day off trying to shake the crud. “Especially right now, because things are still in the building process. Some days I’ll feel really positive about it, and some days I’ll question why I’m even doing this.”Things were much simpler way back when – even five years ago in Sproul’s case – when reality was defined by a love of hard rock. At the age of 5, Sproul was instructed in the basics by his father, a tennis pro by trade, who played some guitar and loved his rock ‘n’ roll. Jake, older than Daniel by two years, played keyboards back then. (Jake switched to his current instrument, bass, when Rose Hill Drive’s original bassist quit three years ago.) On Rose Hill Drive, the Boulder street where the two grew up right down the street from drummer Nate Barnes, the music was all that mattered.”[My dad] would sit down with me and we’d try to pick out an Eagles song. I just remember trying to work out songs with my ear,” said Sproul, who hardly recalls the specifics of those sessions, the songs and songwriters lost to time and the mental haze.
Daniel Sproul’s dazed and confused state is enhanced by an artistic quandary. The Sprouls’ and Barnes’ hometown of Boulder is known as a hippie haven, especially where music is concerned. The bands that have emerged in recent years from the Boulder area – String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band – have existed in the jam-band domain, where a mellow vibe rules. All of the aforementioned acts are influenced by acoustic sounds, not metal. It’s never been like that for Sproul. He remembers well when the harder sounds became the only sounds that mattered. At 7, Sproul heard Stevie Ray Vaughn’s shredding, high-volume attack on the blues, and his head was forever turned. “That was the first thing to kick me off,” he said. Their father took Daniel and Jake to Boulder’s Fox Theatre to see bands that played pounding, aggressive rock – Gov’t Mule, the Strokes – rather than the mellower jam-band style that predominated in their hometown. There were also occasional trips to the arenas to see rockers like Aerosmith and the Black Crowes. Asked if the jam bands that surrounded him had any impact, Sproul replies emphatically that they did not. “The closest I’ll go to that is the Derek Trucks Band, because he’s such an amazing musician,” said Sproul of Trucks, a guitarist whose influences range from hard rock to Pakistani qawwali. “And the Allman Brothers,” whose current incarnation includes the 24-year-old Trucks.Boulder, however, isn’t the only place where hard rock has fallen into disfavor. Since Rose Hill Drive began performing for audiences – around Boulder when Daniel was 16, and steadily outward ever since – the group has confronted pockets of resistance among the many accolades. In their first appearance in Aspen – an après-ski gig at Iguana’s at the base of Aspen Highlands in December 2003 – Rose Hill Drive, none of whose members could legally drink at the time, were met with shouts of “Turn it down!” Even now, after getting the stamp of approval from hard-rock gods Van Halen, and having moved from après-ski gigs in Mexican restaurants to more appropriate music venues, Rose Hill Drive contends with issues of volume and style.”We get that all the time. A lot of old guys were plugging their ears, telling us to turn it down, like they owned the place,” said Sproul, who returns to Aspen this week, with an opening slot at the Wheeler Opera House for North Mississippi Allstars, with whom they are playing six dates. “But in general that gig was good, because there were people getting into it. It was comical.”People aren’t used to rock ‘n’ roll these days.”
Rose Hill Drive may be poised to alter that reality. A review of a San Francisco show last April on Jambase gushed, “Five seconds. That’s about how long it takes you to realize these guys have something.” Last June, Westword abandoned its guiding policy of putting controversial stories on its cover in favor of a Rose Hill Drive rave, written by the band’s original bassist, Graham Webster. The band is even getting their recorded music out; their take on the rock classic “Shakin’ All Over” is included, along with tracks by the Raveonettes and the Flaming Lips, on the soundtrack for the video game Stubbs the Zombie.Rose Hill Drive is finding similar favor from fellow musicians. The band just finished a tour with gospel-rock group Robert Randolph & the Family Band. And there were the 20 dates opening for Van Halen at places like the American Airlines Center in Dallas and the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore.Brian Schwartz, the group’s manager, credits the opening gigs for Van Halen to pure persistence. Getting Van Halen and its management to listen to Rose Hill Drive – their catalog consists of a four-song demo and numerous live recordings – was an effort. But once it was heard, the music sang for itself.”Once their management gave them the music, we were in,” said Schwartz. The initial deal was for five concerts, but the Van Halen team was impressed enough to propose an extension. “They freaked out and offered us the whole tour. We couldn’t make it happen. We took nine more dates.”Schwartz is confident Rose Hill Drive eventually will see the inside of arenas again. And when they do, the experience of playing to small crowds in small bars will be to their benefit.
“I think they’re going to be selling out stadiums,” said Schwartz, adding that the band has a European tour in the works for the summer, and that a record deal will happen soon enough. “They have a long career ahead of them. Daniel’s just 20. It takes time. It’s good for them to examine the good and the bad.”For the most part, Sproul can look past the occasional bad and see the pile of good just under his nose, and enjoy the ride on Rose Hill Drive.”Except when you’re sick,” he noted. “But it’s cool. Such a crazy trip. I definitely feel insane sometimes. But we’re all willing to take the challenge, take it as far as we can.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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