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Positive changes in the local music scene

As the final grains of sand trickle down the glass to fill what will be (for me) the vast Sonoran Desert, my thoughts turn to what I’ll be missing, for the most part, as I transition in my role as a second-home owner.

Since the start of this year, it’s occurred to me that this place is on the verge of finding itself — finally. I’m (unfortunately, for me) leaving at a most inopportune moment, when so many local residents have stepped up and declared their faith in a bright future for our area.

It hasn’t always been like that. Almost since my very first story for The SUN, my impression has largely been that our town is a place with very low self-esteem.

Upon my first visit here, I was enthralled by the awesome natural beauty and the special small-town charm. I immediately knew that this is where I wanted to raise my children, where I wanted to establish roots with a proximity to nature. Even though my first winter here was a brutal experience (I recall so many locals saying, “I don’t have anywhere else to put the snow!”), it did nothing to change my mind about making this home for my children and me.

My very first story for The SUN was covering a public forum sponsored by the town. It was March 2008 and the nation was just entering into The Great Recession, with the worst economic and unemployment situation since the 1930s.

If there was any common theme that resulted from that forum, it was fear — fear of losing businesses, fear of losing jobs and livelihoods, fear that our community would dry up to leave a shell of abandoned buildings littered with broken promises. Fear that things would continue to get much, much worse.

Things did get worse; unemployment rose and some businesses closed. Yet, as our town struggled to survive over the next few years, the low self-esteem issue troubled me more and more.

More than that, I heard from many quarters a credo that was all-too troubling: “That’s not how we do things in Pagosa.”

I understood the roots of the low self-esteem (prior to writing for The SUN I worked in the mental health field) that seemed to permeate the area, it made sense. One of the poorest counties in the state, it suffered a huge blow when the local timber industry went belly up, mills closed and jobs dried up. A lot of longtime residents were left with little else than the clothes on their backs as local unemployment topped 30 percent. As a result, the population plummeted.

It took well over a decade for the area to recover and, then, it was an infusion of outside money that fueled the boom. The area began selling off parts of itself to out-of-state investors and speculators. While a few folks did very well and construction jobs were plenty, it was no secret that local fortunes were, by and large, dependent on interests who had never heard of Pagosa until the area became a hot commodity, a bright spot on a balance sheet.

When those investors fled as the economy took a precipitous fall in late 2007, it was Pagosa residents who were left wondering how the area would rebound. The fear at the March 2008 public forum was not just palpable, it was stentorian.

To me, however, “That’s not how we do things in Pagosa,” was not a reasonable response. There was no hope in it, no optimism, no vision. It was, to me, a reactionary expression of false pride, of one-dimensional thinking and, worst of all, of resignation.

“That’s not how we do things in Pagosa,” sounds dangerously close to the words of an abuser who, comfortable in their role of control and power, tells the victim, “This is the best there is, you’ll never do better than this. This is as good as it gets so shut your mouth, quit your crying and appreciate what I give you.”

Fortunately, some of us aren’t convinced that it has ever been the best there is or this is as good as it gets, that shutting our mouths is something we refuse to do.

I touched on this late last year (in the Dec. 22 edition of PREVIEW) and, since writing that column, I’ve been given a little more reason for optimism, especially as our summer has brought a little rain and an end to the wildfire that greeted me with a smoky haze in the mornings.

With the exception of the festivals that bookended our summers, I found little to recommend as far as music in this area. For the most part, clubs in Pagosa featured local cover bands that did little to entertain or inspire.

I get it — cover bands pack the house. When I was playing Punk Rock, I was doing overtime in a Classic Rock cover band to pay the bills and I’ll never regret the jouneyman’s experience and training I gained from playing for the Joe Dirt crowd. Yet, the band that got me the well-paid gig was not one I’d choose to go out and see.

In the Punk/Indie scene, a band that played covers was invariably booed off the stage. No one wanted to hear music that was overplayed and well-known; they wanted to hear originals — and music on the edge.

For whatever reason, this year has suddenly seen an explosion in local clubs booking bands that, A) mostly play originals and, B) are exciting, fresh and new.

For instance, I happened to catch the Little Sister Band a couple weekends back. When I told lead singer Andi Duncan that I felt their sound was “Alternative Blues,” she was extremely satisfied with the description.

Indeed, the band does not play a traditional Blues/R&B mix (ala The Blues Brothers) but stretches those boundaries well beyond the conventions that usually pinion those genres.

That stands to reason. When I talked to Duncan, she cited influences as diverse as opera, classic R&B, new blues and hip-hop. On top of that, her backing band of extremely talented musicians also bring an eclectic mix of tastes, styles and influences that adds to the band’s unique, full sound.

In fact, drummer Clay Lowder told me that the band does very few gigs in their hometown of Albuquerque due to the fact that they refuse to fit any single genre or meet the expectations of stylistic purists.

A month or so previous, Stephanie Hatfield and Hot Mess was in Pagosa, playing their own brand of anthemic rock that hearkens back to the stadium rock of the ’70s as well as the dark corners of CBGB, while throwing in a little honkytonk country and gut-bucket soul.

I’ve seen SH&HM compared to the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and any number of ’70s/’80s arena acts.

I think the comparisons give the band far too little credit, adding that my own feeble attempt to pigeonhole them with more recent touchstones (like Black Mountain, Hotrats or any of the other ’70s rock revivalists) are tepid descriptions at best.

Just down the road from the Little Sister Band (SH&HM hails from Santa Fe), I’ve finally learned to appreciate seeing a New Mexico license plate.

The trend continued last weekend when Hawaii’s Black Square played in town, blending blend ska, punk, rocksteady, reggae, and hip-hop influences into a unique brew of high-energy rock. I’ve never seen these guys before so I couldn’t say what kind of a show we’d see but, considering they were on the Van’s Warped Tour bill last year, I was almost 100 percent positive that it would be yet another band playing in Pagosa that supports my contention that the local music scene is starting to define itself as something worth getting out for.

While 2012 has distinguished itself as the year a few people decided to take a chance and decide, “That’s not how we do things in Pagosa,” just wrong, I’d be remiss by failing to mention two local bands. While having played around town the last couple of years, they have also refused to embrace that tired and stale credo, choosing to go their own way, with the result being tremendous growth this year.

Elder Grown has really taken off this year, dropping a lot of the covers that they messed around with a couple of years back and coming into their own with originals — and an original sound. When I first heard them, I wondered if their blend of rock, reggae, hip-hop and dub was a little too alien for Pagosa, but we’re fortunate that they continue to stick it out with the local music scene while expanding their fan base around the region.

While Bixby is too often lumped in with Elder Grown, the comparison is far off the mark. Other than the fact that they’re both young and play original music that seems slightly out of place in a town that too often relies on bands playing their umpteenth Lynrd Skynrd cover, they are distinct.

Bixby takes a much spacier, psychedelic approach to their music, one that often reminds me of Bon Iver, Beach House or Grizzly Bear.

Finally, this year saw the addition of two new music festivals: Outlaw Snowdown and Red, White and Brews offered new sounds to local music aficionados while the San Juan River Music festival expanded in ways that may have failed financially but certainly succeeded in showing us what is possible.

While it appeared that all three festivals were in need of retooling to survive the one- to five-year ladder of growing pains, it’s my sincere hope that all three festivals can regroup and continue on, bringing more music — and more people — to Pagosa.

Then, there are the two titans of local festivals, June’s Folk n’ Bluegrass Festival and the end-of-summer Four Corners Folk Festival..

As I wrote in December, last year’s Labor Day lineup was exceptional. Jackie Greene blew me away with a style of blues rock that harkened back to the Boogie Bands of the early ’70s. Cousin Harley ripped the joint with his gritty and greasy brand of rockabilly while Caravan of Thieves had everyone in the meadow on their feet — I don’t think anyone was sitting during their blazing version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Headliners Los Lobos (certainly the highlight of the weekend) and Keb Mo’ showed the engineer cap and granny dress crowd that quality American can be amplified while Natalie McMaster proved that folk music, when not confined to rigid convention or protocol, could be an evolving, intelligent form. While that crowd has deemed “Americana” as something that is only played acoustically, with roots deep in Appalachia but not Chicago, Memphis or St. Louis, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin or Carl Perkins are no less “Americana” than a bunch of jug band wannabes.

This year and the next will be seminal in seeing how things change, both politically and musically, in the fortunes of this area. It will be pivotal in determining if, “That’s not how we do things in Pagosa,” dies its well-deserved and overdue death.

jim@pagosasun.com

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