If you have seen live music in Denver, chances are you were at one of the many venues once owned by the Bianchis. The brothers Jay and Phil started with the original Quixotes True Blue on East Colfax over 12 years ago, and since have opened now renowned venues/bars Sanchos Broken Arrow, Dulcineas 100th Monkey, Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, The Oriental Theater, and most recently Owsleys Golden Road.
These venues have hosted a variety of genres over the years, mainly of the jamband fare. They are credited with helping make Denver one of the premier live music stops in the Western half of the United States. However, the recent recession caught up with the live music scene, and declining profits led the Bianchis to sell off all but Sanchos and Owsleys (the others are still functioning under new ownerships).
Fortunately they were able to keep the Quixotes name, that with which it was all started, and have renamed Owsleys to that moniker. It was here that the brothers brought back PRAANG last weekend; an improvisational super-group of sorts that was born at one of their clubs in the winter of 2006.
The group consisting of EOTO members Michael Travis and Jason Hann, guitar virtuoso Steve Kimock, and dulcimer pro Jamie Janover came together over a blizzard-ridden weekend at Cervantes Ballroom to power out a sublime weekend of psychedelic improv and beat-heavy jams, and have since made an annual winter pilgrimage to the venue to perform.
However this year they brought their project to Quixotes, and that place had no idea what was in store. Last year's performance, albeit exciting, had only a couple hundred folks in attendance. This show had a sprawling line outside the door, with shoulder-to-shoulder attendance inside. By show time, fans were turned away at the door as the concert had officially sold out and it was surely felt inside. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that it was a 17-and-older show, evident by the scores of young kids shuffling about the venue.
A largely intoxicated crowd was restless with anticipation, until PRAANG took to the stage around 10:45 and started off the party properly. Unless you were in the first five or so rows of people, there was no real line of sight to the band. The stage is only raised about a foot off the ground, so most people really only saw Travis raging while the other three played sitting down. Yet it did not detract from the show, as this group is built on sound and not sight.
Jazzy guitar riffs paired with slow, percussive rhythms filled the first fifteen minutes of the performance. From there the music kept gaining momentum, with an energized Travis shifting between his bass and synthesizer, dropping some seriously dirty glitch while the rest of the band pushed ahead.
The third structure of this first set advanced into extreme dance rhythms, and propelled the packed house to groove with them. You could feel the steam building as the beats were intensifying until, like a powder keg, the place erupted into a full-on dance explosion as the four musicians hit their apex of jams. Hann was blasting his snare and bass drums, Travis was pounding keys, while Kimock and Janover were stroking their respective strings with mad ferociousness. Even Jay Bianchi got into the spirit, as he was seen sending an array of yellow balloons into the crowd from behind the lighting board during this scorching number.
The set ended on a high note around 12:30am, and gave the sweat-drenched crowd a much need break to head outside into the open-air courtyard for some cool air and a smoke. A good number of people left after set break as well, whether due to curfew or comfort. This made for a slightly more agreeable surrounding; the "hot sardine effect" did not seem to be sitting well with many attendees.
Set two began just before 1:00am, and began similarly to the first with jazzy guitar solos by Kimock, along with trancey percussive rhythms laid down by the rest of the group. The beats and riffs got faster and heavier as the set progressed, setting up a fiery finale highlighted by a smoking conga jam by Jason Hann.
The show concluded and the band returned for a quick encore at 2:00, and belted out a soulful soca-style jam. The piece was a little outside their comfort zone, which made it a very welcome section with which to end the performance.
PRAANG delivered another relatively solid show to the sold-out Denver crowd, though it did not seem to have the same flair that past performances here have had. Outside of a few ripping solos, Kimock was largely invisible much of the show, and the overall chemistry didn't seem to be working as well as it had before. A few sections contained some magic but it felt more like a standard EOTO show, versus the unique quartet previously heard.
The crowd may have been partly to blame, as the focus was more on getting blitzed than immersing themselves in the music. The obvious signs of heavy drug use made for a rather sloppy exchange between the audience and the band.
Nevertheless, this collective continues to impress the live music scene with their ability to create some improvisational wizardry, and they will no doubt return to Denver next winter to display their very extraordinary craft.