While the crowd at Quixote’s True Blue wasn’t doing the tango on Friday night, they were certainly stomping their boots and spinning in circles, and no doubt throwing back whiskey. Mystical, dreadlock-clad fairies roamed between the two rooms sporting local jam bands, and when standing against the walls stocked with Grateful Dead memorabilia, could be confused with a page out of a “Where’s Waldo” book. I had heard of Whiskey Tango’s residency at the previous Quixote’s location, but since taking over the old Bender’s Tavern in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, I was curious to see the fan support; they didn’t miss a single beat of Luke Kennedy’s intricate drumming. In fact, they came out in droves, constantly filing in and out of the dimmed room while Whiskey Tango enlightened them with a show commemorating the release of their long awaited debut album, “Foggy Mountain Mornings.”
While collecting numerous accolades from local and national press, including Denver Westword’s Best Jam/Improv Band of the Year two years running, Whiskey Tango has carved out their own little corner of the Denver music scene. Their range both musically and vocally is inspiring to fans of all genres. While steeped in bluegrass and rock and roll, Tango can at any point channel elements of reggae, country, and particularly funk, which is fueled by the dazzling finger work of Nate Todd on keys. In addition to bringing the funk, Nate also sings and composes many of Whiskey Tango’s original tunes and is comparable to a more rockabilly Kyle Hollingsworth of the String Cheese Incident.
Joined by electric guitarist Chris Thompson for the majority of the show, the band rocked the house with Tango originals “Texas,” “Mother Nature,” and a burning down the house rendition of “Cold Creek Shakedown.” All of these selections are tracks from their debut CD that were being freely passed to the crowd along with customized trucker hats. “Mother Nature” found its way out of a furious jam, settling things down to the rhythm of a boat slowly sailing across the tides. The opening lyric, “Flying across the ocean,” transcended the audience into just that, and they had us clinging to the sails as we felt ourselves lingering into Caribbean rhythms. Bassist Bill Wells handled the vocal duties, creating a nice balance in harmonies, as Luke and Nate assisted and continued to pass around lead vocals for the rest of the night.
“Cold Creek Shakedown” reignited the crowd and had the band working their way up and down their fret boards. Acoustic guitarist Zach Steinman found room to grow on this track, unleashing an arsenal of riffs and melodies while Matt Gallagher danced around him with his electric banjo. This tune particularly spoke volumes about Whiskey Tango. It built around a fast paced bluegrass number with lots of strumming and picking, but the addition of the drums, electric bass and keys mutated it into a fiery number that had all of the music lovers in the club dancing around in hootenanny fashion.
The balance of both original and cover songs showed the evolution Tango has undergone as a young band gaining recognition. Covering Townes Van Zandt, The Stones’ “Country Honk,” and even a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Time” and “Breathe (Reprise)” that led into a crowd favorite called “Treehugger Blues,” and back into “Breathe.” The original that they snuck in between the Pink Floyd tunes was introduced as “A song for treehuggers in a bar for treehuggers.” While covering Pink Floyd certainly welcomed the fans into the jam packed second set, nothing quite got them going like the medley of the Knack’s “My Sharona” and the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right.” The crowd became a sixth member and vocalist during those numbers, and there were endless fist pumps as we made our way past the midnight hour.
The keen sense of awareness by all members to feel their way through songs and jams really separates Whiskey Tango from some of the other so-called jam bands from along the Front Range. Being able to swing through different beats and rhythms without visual cues showed how well their live shows have served them throughout their residency at Quixote’s, where they have garnered some of the best support found in the local live music community.
A seemingly endless rapport between the band and the audience made this gig feel intimate, like an early Grateful Dead show where the band is rapping back and forth with audience members. Tango, influenced by all types of music but particularly attached to the folk and Americana origins that the Dead clung to in the early days, has a very similar feeling to them. Both bands started by developing a fan base that can easily stay in touch through mediums not restricted by the conventional drive of the music industry. This is key to building a following, and Whiskey Tango seems to be on the right path, with word of mouth spreading the good word of their sets all across Colorado.
Whiskey Tango sticks with you at the end of the night, and leaves a memory that resurrects in the morning as you wash the stench of stale smoke and rye sweat out of your hair. Their snowballing success will continue as long as they keep the bottle uncorked, pouring us another drink to savor at every show.