Kansas. Chicago. America. The history of rock bands named after geographic locations isn't a good one.
But Denver--a six-piece from Portland, Ore., that plays Neurolux Friday, April 26--gets by with an earnest approach to country music that draws more from the genre's folk roots than it does its Nashville mutations.
Guitar player and vocalist Tom Bevitori said there wasn't a deliberate decision to start a country band, it just happened on its own.
"We were all writing kind of folky country songs and playing them by ourselves," said Bevitori. "I was playing in a folk band with my wife and these guys. It was good, but it wasn't much fun."
So Bevitori and some friends started getting together to put the fun back into folk, which meant getting hammered and jamming.
"It was a blast," Bevitori said. "It was like taking folk to a drunken party."
Bevitori discovered that once alcohol was added to the mix, the folk songs turned into country.
Those songs, released on the band's 2012 self-titled debut, are backed by simple, shuffling beats, dressed up, plinking banjos and slide guitar with a sound as lonesome as the highways and nights that Bevitori sings about. There are hints of Charley Pride, Gram Parsons and Kris Kristofferson, the sorts of singers who pushed country past its 12-bar blues-based song structures and toward the more progressive compositions of rock, keeping the raw honesty of its lyrical and sonic tone.
The album is all the more impressive for being mostly recorded in Bevitori's living room on a four-track. While many musicians would gasp in horror at the thought of recording to cassette in the digital age, Bevitori felt that it brought an honest feel to the music that could have been lost by recording on a computer.
"We didn't have the nicest gear, so if we'd gone for the nicest sound, we wouldn't have gotten it anyway," he said.
The instruments were tracked in Bevitori's living room over the course of a weekend.
"It came out pretty quick because we'd been playing the songs for so long that it came right out," Bevitori said. "There was a lot of dicking around going on, but we were pretty motivated."
Of course, it didn't hurt the outcome of the songwriting process or the album that Eric Earley and Michael Van Pelt, two of the friends Bevitori recruited for Denver, are also in the alt-country band Blitzen Trapper.
Blitzen Trapper's touring schedule occasionally means Denver has to find fill-in players, but Bevitori says that the two musicians are anything but bit players.
"We're just happy to have them on board," he said. "Those guys are great."
Though the band is just now completing its first real tour, it has already recorded a follow-up album that it is currently shopping to labels
"We're hoping to get it out by summer," said Bevitori.
But there is a unique challenge for an independent band trying to shop an album. Country music has, by and large, taken over the Billboard charts as little more than twangy pop. Though Denver's sound would doubtless win over country fans, the Nashville business model leaves as little room for the band's rugged, earnest Americana as there is for it in the record collections of indie-rock types who claim to like "everything but rap and country."
"I think they've probably just heard the wrong country," Bevitori said of such folks. "The amount of shit country music that's going on right now is unbelievable. So, for a lot of people, that's the only access they have, if their folks didn't listen to country. All they have to start on is post-Garth Brooks. It's probably the same thing to do with rap."
So that raises the question of who Denver's audience is. Just like the band's formation, the answer seems to center on booze.
"It seems to be a good drinking crowd in their 30s that likes to have a good time," said Bevitori. "Then some young Midwestern girls. A lot of girls come out."
How many girls? Denver routinely packs large clubs in Portland, Ore., like the Doug Fir and Mississippi Studios, something Bevitori said is a little baffling. Not that he's knocking it. And on the rare occasions when the band has gotten in front of a real country audience--like an appearance at the Seattle Folk Festival--Bevitori said it has gone over well. So there may still be hope for Nashville yet.
But with all that going for the band, it does raise the question of why it chose to name the project Denver.
"We had a buddy that was moving to Denver because of a bummer family situation and we decided to pay him a little homage with the name," said Bevitori. "But then it turned out he didn't move to Denver and we got stuck with the name."