Colorado was in the midst of a deep freeze, not completely unexpected for January but still unusual for Denver as it prepared for plunging temperatures usually associated with the National Western Stock Show.
On the Mile High City's coldest day of the year - even the decade, for that matter (OK, 2010 was only seven days old) - venturesome music lovers needed somebody to bring some heat to combat the sub-zero conditions. The Band of Heathens were just what the meteorologist ordered.
The Austin, Texas-based roots rock group made Colorado a priority for the New Year, making eight stops throughout the state in the first 17 days. Their blend of churning guitar interplay, good-time rock 'n' roll numbers (they were once associated with "The Good Time Supper Club," after all) and funky chunks of rhythm and blues raised the temperature - if not the roof - at Denver's cozy Bluebird Theater on January 7. By the time BOH finished its run through the state at the Abbey Theatre in Durango, the warmth of the sun was felt in Denver and along the Front Range as highs reached the mid-50s. Blame these guys for global warming.
Colin Brooks, left, and Ed Jurdi were dueling guitarists throughout the night.
Or just give credit to the singer-songwriter triple threat team of Colin Brooks, Gordy Quist and Ed Jurdi. After an hour's warm-up (?) performance by local bluegrass-citybilly outfit Oakhurst, the harmonic trio that co-front the five Heathens took turns thawing out the brave and receptive but still-chilled crowd.
By 9:53, the temperature was back on the plus side of zero as the Band of Heathens focused heavily on material from their second studio album, One Foot in the Ether (BOH Records). It all started with the rousing "You're Gonna Miss Me," highlighted by Jurdi's harmonica riffs and the trade-off vocals that came together in one glorious chorus.
They kept up the pace, which was as brisk as the weather. Other than Quist's occasional plug for the album, out since last September but currently ranks No. 4 on the Americana Music Association's Top 40 airplay chart, there was little chatter heard throughout the 22-song set. Unless you count the crowd's teeth clicking on a day when minus-5 was the low point. Even the band came prepared to battle the elements, with long underwear and hoodies a necessary part of the uniform.
With bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman setting a steady pace, the three-pronged attack of Brooks/Jurdi/Quist was relentless. This band, formed in 2006, has drawn comparisons to The Band, the Black Crowes and Little Feat, but feel free to add the Grateful Dead and Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton's '70s side project, into the mix. In fact, Dead Dominos could serve as the group's moniker if this Heathens thing doesn't work out.
The guitar duels were reminiscent of Clapton/Duane Allman on Layla and Jurdi and Brooks had several opportunities to satisfy their jam-band tendencies with extended solos. Brooks' lightning-quick lap steel licks gave way to Jurdi's slashing Gibson on "Jenny was a Keeper." Other well-received scorchers were "L.A. County Blues," Ether's "Mr. Raoul Duke" tribute to the late Hunter S. Thompson of Woody Creek, and "Somebody Tell the Truth." (An ode to the Dominos' "Tell the Truth," perhaps?) And there were enough bits of psychedelia on "Golden Calf" and the Dead's own "Brown-Eyed Women" to keep those freak flags waving high.
The group strayed from their own collection of alt-country compositions on a couple of other occasions. A raucous conclusion took Gillian Welch's "Look at Miss Ohio" into heavier, grittier ground. "Ain't No More Cane," a prison work song made famous by Bob Dylan and The Band on The Basement Tapes, even gave Whitney a chance to join in on the fun, when he shared a verse or two with Quist at center stage. (Gordy Quist, left, sings with Seth Whitney.)
Each of the Three Wise Heathens also dipped into their earlier personal songbooks. Even if he really doesn't want to be "King of Colorado," Jurdi obviously made an impression with the geographical reference. With harmonica in hand, Quist spoke of "a wayward soul like me" who needs "a little bit of lovin' " and "could use a little bit of healing / to keep me from these heathens that I know" on "Rehab Facility."
Brooks' "Cornbread," a slice of sexual innuendo ("Hey mama don't you make a poor man beg / Hey mama don't you hear what I say / I need your cornbread every day") included on the group's first studio album, started out like a Rolling Stones guitar-driven anthem and turned into a gospel celebration during a three-song encore that nearly pushed the scheduled two-hour set into the next day.
While the leaders of this Band of Heathens certainly know solo (each previously releasing their own albums), it'll be interesting to see how long this Three Musketeers mentality lasts. The gleesome threesome share songwriting credits on all their One Foot in the Ether material, but possess qualities that could result in breakout status.
All three are multi-instrumentalists. Brooks is the band's string king with lap steel, mandolin, dobro and electric slide and acoustic guitars in his arsenal. Bespectacled, he certainly looks right for the part of a serious folk singer and has the proper credentials, having won a Kerrville New Folk Award in 2003.
Jurdi has the Creole-soul tenor of an Aaron Neville, the flowing locks and heavy beard of Jesus and more than enough charisma to hold on to his disciples. Whether he's playing a church-hymnal organ or honky-tonk piano, he shifts effortlessly between genres behind his American flag-draped keyboard.
Quist appears to be go-to guy when a decision - like which songs to play during the encore - must be made. A Texan since the age of 7, he might sound a little more country than the rest of the group. But he's versatile, too, having earned a degree in economics after playing linebacker at Dartmouth College. Wearing a retro Who T-shirt and with his bangs handing over his forehead, Quist's boyish charm and easy-going stage manner undoubtedly contributed to the high concentration of women dancing freely in the pit at the front of the stage.
After hearing this triumphant triumvirate play together, though, it's almost impossible to imagine them apart. Equal parts collaboration and improvisation (they must have a virtual set list floating somewhere onstage), the spirit of cooperation led to approximately 250 road dates in 2009 and a coveted appearance on Austin City Limits.
With two live albums already under their belt, it's no wonder they're such a hot commodity. Midwesterners can prepare to feel the burn next.
They'll need it. Hearing the Band of Heathens is a cool way to start 2010, even when their visible breath of fresh air proves the dead of winter is upon us.
Bluebird set list
1. You're Gonna Miss Me*
2. Rehab Facility
3. Shine a Light*
5. Look At Miss Ohio*
6. Somebody Tell the Truth*
7. King of Colorado
8. What's This World*
9. One More Step
10. Brown-Eyed Women
11. Golden Calf*
13. Walking and Talking
14. Jackson Station
15. Water in the Sky
16. This I Know
17. Ain't No More Cane
18. Jenny was a Keeper
19. L.A. County Blues*
1. Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled*
3. Don't Call On Me
*Songs on One Foot in the Ether
• To know them is to see them - live. But the fan-friendly Band of Heathens want you to hear their records, too. At bandofheathens.com, they have made more than 20 songs available to download free through a "send a friend" e-mail campaign.
• For more concert photos of The Band of Heathens, go to flickr.com.
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas