I take every opportunity I can to check out music festivals because although it is a lot to take in, it gives me a chance to discover new music. Friday night was no exception; the Denver After Dark music festival hosted 22 local bands (plus one Whomp Truck) over the span of about six hours during a party that took over the 2700 block of Larimer Street. For me, local music festivals are the best, giving me the chance to take the pulse of the Denver music scene, and I can definitely say after Friday night that the scene is alive and well.

I arrived at Denver After Dark shortly before eight o'clock, and although no bands had yet started playing on any stage, the Whomp Truck already had the block shaking with dirty bass booming out of the back. There was already a good crowd showing up for the festival, many hanging out curbside enjoying some food cart fare while taking in the sounds. I didn't linger outside for long, because I knew the first band I wanted to see play would begin shortly.

Molly and Ethan of Sauna

That band was Sauna, a young band of high schoolers who are uncannily resurrecting '60s garage surf rock. Before they started to play, I was intrigued. What made these kids decide to play surf rock? Colorado isn't exactly known for its beaches. But once they started playing, I didn't care why they started playing the type of music they do, I'm just glad they did. CJ Macleod and Ethan Hill hold it down on the guitar and bass respectively, and do a great job reproducing that fun-in-the-sun sound. Sammi Davis is a force on the drums - I wasn't sure if her drumsticks or pigtails were flailing harder throughout the set. Molly Bartlett's vocals really round out the band's sound, always delivering silly yet catchy lyrics with a smile.

Sammi of Sauna

I was impressed with how well Sauna has stamped out an identity, but it is still apparent the band has a ways to go to step further. The vocals could use a little refinement and sometimes it seems the band feels a little bit lost up on stage - I noticed wandering eyes and a somewhat absent attitude at times that made it seem as if the band didn't know what to do up there. (Keep your eyes off the set list.) They could use a little more seriousness, not that their song material is anything super serious, but a more professional approach would do wonders for their live shows. I enjoyed the light-hearted subject matter and retro sound of songs like "Beachball", "Glitter Party", and especially the call-and-response in "Croctopus", but unless they really nail their stage presence and own their roles, they won't get much more than "cutesy, bordering on kitsch" moving forward. The great thing is, they are young and have limitless potential. They're onto something good and I'm rooting for them to take it as far as they can.

School Knights

After Sauna, I decided to stay at the Larimer Lounge for the rest of the festival. I did peek into the other venues during the first couple set changes, but figured I'd still get a good mix of new music and music I know I like if I just stayed put. School Knights was the next band up at the Larimer Lounge and I was eager to see them play having never heard of them before this night. They are a four piece band from Denver/Boulder that play indie pop-punk.

School Knights

School Knights played a pretty decent set, in which they played songs that sounded like blending the attitude of blink-182 with Vampire Weekend unctuosity - and yet don't really resemble either band. I'll have to catch them again to get a better idea of what they are about, but I almost got the feeling they were satirizing the pop-punk genre - which is completely fine with me. If that's not the case, then they need to translate a little more seriousness into their live set to shake that feeling. They were a good followup to Sauna, keeping with the rock theme.

Mark Shusterman of Nyota

Up next was Nyota, and it was an interesting transition going from rock to intelligent dance music (IDM). The band is made up of Corey Brown (of Hollagramz) on control surfaces, Mark Shusterman on vocals and keyboard, and Mark Weaver on bass. Together they play a brand of psychedelic electro IDM that takes the listener on a very far out audio journey. They have a good mix of ambient sounds that layer over clever beat structures. All vocals are done Stephen Hawking style through a vocoder.

Mark Weaver and Corey Brown of Nyota

Nyota isn't exactly the most accessible type of listening, and is more suited to ambient techno and IDM fans. Still, they managed to capture an audience for their set probably due to the stage presence of Mark Weaver on the bass, who was rocking that thing all over stage. IDM isn't really my thing, but I did like the song "Paved In Bronze", as it reminds me of a spaced out version of "Curling Pond Woods" by Greg Davis. If this type of music is your thing, Nyota is worth checking out.

Alex Anderson of ManCub

The last four bands of the night were all bands I'm familiar with, and two of them I'd seen live before. The next band up was ManCub, one of my favorite bands in Denver. I've already covered their shows twice on this blog, once opening for Walter Meego and earlier this month when they opened for Bag Raiders. In fact, they were the first local band I gave an extensive preview for. Needless to say, I like this band and I always love seeing their live performances.

James Wayne of ManCub

Their set for Denver After Dark was business as usual; ManCub took another opportunity to melt faces and blow minds with their analog synth spectacular. Alex Anderson and James Wayne started this set off a little differently with two unreleased tracks. The first was a ManCub take on krautrock, one they've had floating around in their repertoire for a while but have kept it unreleased and unnamed. The other was a new song first dropped a two weeks ago at the Bag Raiders show. They've done more to it to polish it up since then, but this song is also as of yet nameless. After that they went to battle with "Post-Modern War". They played the always crowd pleasing songs "Sound" and "Summer Rain". The crowd loved "8-Bit Crush" and it's great "Reptilia"-esque (by The Strokes) drum beat. It was great exposure for ManCub, as they got to reach a lot of new listeners. If you haven't checked out ManCub yet, you're missing out.

Lizzy Allen of Vitamins

The next band, Vitamins, is a band I've been waiting a while to see. I missed their show before they went on tour, so I was glad that they were playing Denver After Dark as a tour capper. Even better, it was the last show they woukd play in a while considering they just got back from the road. Fans of experimental, psychedelic and krautrock will love Vitamins. To me, they are a female led version of the '70s krautrock band Neu! but with way more experimentalism and variety. The band's instrumentation - Crawford Philleo on drums, Matt Daniels on guitar, and Ryan Ellison on bass -  consists of driving but mellow beats with an impressive amount of layered and filtered sounds enveloping the beat. Lizzy Allen's airy vocals complete the sound, her voice enchanting, seductive, yet dangerous like that of a mythological siren.

Ryan Ellison of Vitamins

Vitamins' set was everything I'd hoped for and more. They have so much stage presence, especially Lizzy. She draws you in when she sings, and captures you completely when she sways to the music, hypnotically moving a white ball of light with her hands that is an awesome sight to see. I enjoyed hearing "Vimanas" live, having seen the video many times since it was released not too long ago. They completely captured a mood with the song "The Disappearance of David Lee Powell", a song written about an inmate executed after over three decades on death row. I hope they don't break too long from doing shows, because their performance was amazing and I need to see them again.

Andy R. of Gauntlet Hair

Next up was the band Gauntlet Hair, a band I've been really excited about lately and itching to see live because of the unique sound they've got going. Yes, they are an indie rock band, but they do it up a little different than anyone else. This band is the product of Andy R. & Craig Nice, and they employed Matt Daniels of Vitamins to help them out on bass to perform their set. I love the sounds Andy gets out of his guitar - twangy and vintage but still modern rock. Craig's creative use of an electronic drum set keeps the songs very interesting by changing drum sounds on the fly, and his personality is so colorful, Gauntlet Hair was wise to place him front and center.

Craig Nice of Gauntlet Hair

Their set wasn't without its problems, however. Gauntlet Hair had issues with the kick drum pedal, causing a song restart and a couple long pauses as the issue tried to get sorted out. Eventually, the pedal was replaced completely. Before the problem was fixed, the kick drum would disappear out of a couple of their songs, taking away from the experience. Still, these guys have some incredible music. I really like "Top Bunk", "Out, Don't" and "I Was Thinking..." The combination of the instrumental work and processed vocals is quite refreshing. Watch out Denver, these guys are going to blow up.

Cassie McNeil of Force Publique

The final set of the entire festival featured another one of my favorite bands, Force Publique. I've been addicted to Force Publique since I first heard their self-titled album. The combination of Cassie McNeil on vocals/bass, James Wayne on MPC/keyboard, and Alex Anderson on drums is perfect, and they create an incredible energy with their dark and moody dance songs. They are like a much more danceable version of The Knife - Cassie's voice much more powerful, sultry and less ghoulish while James' production is less spacey and more driving. Alex's contributions on drums fills out the sound well - they need to get him in the studio with them as opposed to just being there for live shows

James Wayne of Force Publique

Being the closers for the festival, Force Publique played to a packed Larimer Lounge. The crowd received the band extremely well, as most everyone was dancing wildly throughout Force Publique's set. I couldn't help but sing along when they performed "Ache" and "Still Falls Apart". They unleashed a new, untitled and unreleased track for the first time, and it made me very excited for the future of Force Publique - I can't wait to get my hands on more. Other standouts were "Kinetic", "Fickle" and the delightfully strange "Fortified". I'm so glad I got a chance to see them again after missing their last couple shows. I like the band Battles, but I went to the Bluebird last month hoping to catch Force Publique and just narrowly missed them. After seeing them perform the way it was meant to be (as a late headliner, not performing at Opal in the middle of the afternoon), I'm going to make sure I see them every chance I can get. Awesome band, great songs, and they are unlike much anything else out there.

As great as festivals can be to discover new music, when there are bands spread across four stages in three different venues, you've got to make a few tough decisions on who to see and who to miss, unless you only catch a fraction of each band's set. Because of that, I ended up staying at the main stage in the Larimer Lounge for pretty much the entire night. It caused me to miss a few groups I've heard of but haven't really checked out yet; CacheFlowe, Peter Black, Mombi, Iuengliss, R E A L M A G I C, and Safe Boating Is No Accident - not to forget the rest who are new to me. That just means I've got more work to do and more shows to see in the future.

Otherwise, Denver After Dark was awesome and I'm glad I was able to see the bands that I did. Denver has a wonderful music community, and the bands are a close knit group. They attend each other's shows and lend each other support. Even though Flashlights and E.V.S. weren't in the festival, I saw members of each band hanging out all night taking in everyone else's music, and I'm sure there were many more local band members I didn't see doing the same thing. If you haven't checked out the burgeoning Denver music scene yet, you should. There are incredibly exciting things happening with music in this city, and the only thing it will take for it to really explode, is for more people to realize that and take part in the action.

See more pictures from the festival in the Facebook photo album. Like the Concerted Effort page to keep updated!

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