The Samples, with singer Sean Kelly, play Carbondale’s PAC3
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE – Sean Kelly, leader of the enduring Colorado rock band the Samples, might have been too strange to fit in with the troubled high school misfits from the recent film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
Growing up in Vermont, Kelly found it much easier to dream about birds than read math or history textbooks. In eighth grade, he wrote a poem about a duck he had hatched in an incubator. The teacher marked the poem with an ‘H’ – “For ‘hold,’ but I thought it was an ‘A’ with the top cut off,” Kelly said – and brought in Mr. and Mrs. Kelly to have a chat about their son. It was recommended that Sean be sent to a school for the mentally retarded.
“My interests were just shoved over to the corner. I ended up losing a lot of faith in the educational system right then,” Kelly, who as a kid was into music and the environment, and took a serious interest in ornithology as early as fifth grade, said.
As it happens, Kelly has a prominent place in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” “Could It Be Another Change,” from the 1993 album “The Samples,” plays over the opening scene. The song is an ideal fit for the film’s theme of teenagers finding their place in the world: “You can’t love nothing/ You can’t love anything/ Till you can love yourself,” Kelly sings.
Kelly, who turned 48 last week, hopes kids who see “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” take something away from his contribution to the film. And Kelly has a particular set of young folks in mind: the musically inclined. He’d like them to feel the innocence of the lyric, “Why can’t she just feel the way I do?” would like them to hear the directness of the acoustic guitar-picking and how the strain of his voice hasn’t been scrubbed away in favor of computer-assisted perfection.
“Kids these days think there’s no way music can not feel destroyed, over-produced, over-manufactured, compressed, over-polished,” Kelly said from his home in Highlands Ranch, south of Denver.
And beneath that, Kelly would like some teenage musicians to know that the inclusion of “Could It Be Another Change” in the film wasn’t the result of a business deal or a marketing plan. It was about a film producer who was a fan of the Samples, believing the song conveyed the perfect emotion for a story about kids trying to find their way without losing their idealistic essence.
Kelly, of course, dropped out of high school. He dropped out to become a musician, well before his guitar skills would have warranted such a decision. By 1987, Kelly had made it to Boulder and hooked up with a group of players to form the Samples, taking their name that their diet consisted largely of free tidbits handed out at grocery stores. The band had a short dalliance with a major record label before moving over to Boulder-based W.A.R.? Records.
The music – a brand of reggae-infused rock that owed a lot to the Police; Kelly’s voice just naturally had much in common with Sting’s – gained a solid following. The sweet-hearted “Did You Ever Look So Nice?” was all over the Colorado airwaves in 1994, and the Samples were part of the first wave of the jam-band scene, playing on the H.O.R.D.E. tours alongside the Allman Brothers and the Dave Matthews Band. Their following never approached the size of Phish’s or Widespread Panic’s, but the albums “Autopilot” and “Here and Somewhere Else” earned them a reputation as quality music-makers who had forged a distinctive sound.
The original quartet of drummer Jeep McNichol, bassist Andy Sheldon, keyboardist Al Laughlin and Kelly began crumbling in the late ’80s. But Kelly, the principal singer and songwriter, has carried on with a frequently shifting cast of musicians. The Samples, now a quintet, plays Friday at PAC3 in Carbondale.
Kelly says he has lost none of his enthusiasm for music. When I asked how old he was, his first response was 25. He still related perfectly to the dream-headed outsider he wrote about decades ago in the autobiographical “Seany Boy.”
“I’m a lifer when it comes to music,” Kelly, who has also performed solo shows under his own name, said. “Other than a few years back, when it got really disturbing, what I had to do to play music, I’ve been dedicated to what I told myself I would do when I left high school.”
What got really disturbing, and is a subject that it is hard to get Kelly away from, is the business that surrounds the music. Kelly was never focused on financial success – he says the Samples turned down offers to use their songs for car and fast-food commercials – but the collision of commerce and music has been rough on him.
“The business always seems to be a focus, which I hate,” he said. Several years ago, he said, he went through three successive managers, all of whom stole money from him. The experience was nearly enough for him to question carrying on under the Samples name. “Without enough good things happening to offset the negatives, it was too much.”
Kelly is hardly at peace with the music business, but he seems to have put sufficient distance between what he does and the greed, manipulations and commercialization that he sees as the core of the business. “That’s its issue, not mine,” he said. “I’ve tried not to enable it. I’ve tried to set the bar higher for other bands.”
One of Kelly’s recent projects is something not intended to earn money at all. Kelly, who has always focused on writing his own music, has been recording tunes from other artists – Jackson Browne, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” – then sending them off to an email list of approximately a thousand listeners. “It’s not on iTunes. It’s right from the source,” he said.
Kelly said recording these songs is meant to take him back to his beginnings. “I was a little guy in a room, learning other people’s music,” he said. Those songs inspired him to write his own songs, and give them a from-the-heart quality. “I was writing songs that were so honest and fresh and real. It was idealistic. A lot of that stuff still feels fresh, because it was so honest. Rarely do you get back to that place in your career.”
The subject reminds Kelly of his early affection for the Doors. He notes that Jim Morrison, the Doors singer, was already dead several years by the time Kelly began listening to his music.
“How did I get into that? Why was I into that? Why wasn’t I into what was Top 40 in 1978?” Kelly wondered. “I got into some other journey.”
Kelly believes that the Samples are a journey just waiting for some wide-eyed kids to climb aboard. He thinks about the teenagers who are seeing “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and maybe becoming curious about the band behind “Could It Be Another Change.”
“These kids have no idea what kind of Pandora’s box they are opening when they get into the Samples,” he said. “If we make it to that generation, that would be kick-ass. You’re getting a deal with the Samples.
“We were a wallflower. We never got up to dance. We tried. We tried to help other bands: How do you create a home for someone who likes to write songs that can be really pleasing, and how do you keep on a path like that? It’s a pasture filled with ripe fruit.”
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