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Drag the River – The Reign of the Underdog

photo: carrie wait

The Gipper. Rudy. Charlie Brown. Ben Stiller’s character in all of his movies. Ashlee Simpson. Tommy Lee as a solo artist. The other white meat.

We all love a good underdog (unless it involves the live action, voice-animated motion picture version of everyone’s favorite superhero canine … then it’s just plain blasphemy, and I suspect Simon Bar Sinister is behind it).

And whether you consider Jon Snodgrass of Armchair Martian/Drag The River fame an underdog, you can’t help but cheer for the guy. And cheer you must, as Drag The River takes the stage this weekend for what could be the band’s final series of local shows … ever!

I know what you’re thinking — everybody retires, only to un-retire. Michael Jordan. Jay-Z. Robert Downey Jr.’s drug abuse. We’ve heard it all before, right? Hell, even the DTR boys themselves said it was over a few months ago, so what gives?

Needless to say, these things are complicated. And even if the members felt it was time to shelve the band, you had to believe they’d come back with one final homestand. So when Drag The River plays what are possibly its final shows in town, we’ll hope it’s not really the end.

At the same time, we’ll wonder why great music that wears its blood and guts on its sleeve is such an underdog. While he hasn’t done it alone, just consider for a moment what Jon has contributed to local music scene over the past 15 years.

I first met Jon in 1993, when Armchair Martian was just a twinkle in the pants of two skinny dudes with a penchant for sidewalk chalk drawings, in all their guerilla marketing glory. I had often been the recipient of collaborator Steven Garcia’s impromptu acoustic sessions in Ft Collins’ Old Town Square, which were compelling in their own right. But nothing could have prepared me for the first time these guys showed up at KCSU’s studios and let loose with a flurry of anti-Beatles hooks and the type of vocal harmonizing not yet fully en vogue with the punk mainstream (oxymoronic phrase duly noted).

It was much more than that of course. It was folksy and bluesy and genuine in its unashamed standard pop mold. And it was a sign of good things to come where Jon’s projects were concerned. Lineups morphed, tours conducted, venues played, new bands created, old bands resurrected, collaborations undertaken, solo joints realized — a simple way of summing up the last decade and half, but the constant of making music endured.

photo: carrie wait

And therein lies the rub – making music (as opposed to making American Idols) is a trait of the underdog.

He or she isn’t necessarily drawn to the model that spits out tomorrow’s flavor. Blah, blah, blah, starving artist, blah, blah, true to the game, blah, blah, no sellout here. You’ve heard this one about how we should revere the musical martyr, and bemoan how the mainstream’s ignorance relegates our favorite artists to the ‘critically acclaimed, terminally broke’ status.

But that’s not what this is about.

It’s not an ‘us vs. them’ thing or another local music scene dirge. We already have great music here, so what do we care if the rest of the world knows it? Sure, we’d love to see our local favorites make a little scrilla for their efforts, but we’re focusing on the wrong things if all we care about is Denver being the next big scene.

You see, KISS made records for cash and sex; Radiohead did it because everything else sucked, and issuing its latest release without the help of a record label sent a clear signal that priorities in the industry have shifted. Never has the schism between music and entertainment been greater.

While Radiohead might well be a key catalyst in the future of the industry’s landscape, artists have taken this approach to their music for years, and Jon is no different.

Asked in a recent interview what motivates him, he discussed tramping about the States and recording in different spots, from New Jersey to Tulsa to San Francisco. No real ‘action plan’ … just recording with some good friends because he can.

“I have about a half a record done,” Jon said. “I’m in no hurry to get it done. I’ll get it done when it’s done, when there are enough songs that I think sound good.”

This lack of capitalistic pressures and dedication to doing what feels right at the time isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s amazing that more artists don’t push out significantly more ‘works in progress,’ given how low barriers are these days. Technology might be the tool of Babylon, but one thing you can say is it allows the artist to go back to making music for all the right reasons, and share it without worrying about the various business considerations.

“Whoever the first person was who made a record, they didn’t do it because they thought they had a deadline and they had to do it so they had something to go on tour with. They made a record because they asked, ‘How can we make a record so other people can hear this? This is worth hearing. It’s good.’ I’ve (recorded) both ways. You book studio time for a week or two and you record. But I’ve said for a long time, ‘Sometimes I don’t really feel like playing that song, on that Tuesday next week.’ I have an analog tape machine in my garage, and I record stuff whenever I want to.”

While local fans don’t want this weekend’s shows to be the last they see of Drag The River, it’s easy to appreciate the flexibility that Jon, Chad and any serious musician craves. To build and maintain something for 10-plus years is a significant accomplishment, yet even the most ardent and dedicated need to refresh and retool from time to time.

“Sometimes, things start to feel like a job. I always said to Chad, ‘If we ever start to get really popular, I’m going to quit.’ I didn’t really mean it, but I kind of did. It might sound selfish, but I don’t ever want to do anything I don’t want to do it. That’s all there is to it. It’s a pretty short life we have.”

It remains to be seen just how short Drag The River’s life will be, but for now fans can take heart in knowing they have at least three opportunities to see them in the immediate future. Even out-of-state fans will get another chance, as DTR will take it on the road for shows in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California. What, no stops at the House of Blues or the Roxy? No, intrepid reader, the underdog would rather swallow his own neck than put on those kneepads.

You can catch the boys along with longtime buddy Scott Reynolds, 40 Engine and Slorder at the following three venues, starting this Thursday:

Thursday Jan. 24th
J.J.’s Triple Nickel Tavern
Colorado Springs

Friday Jan. 25th
3 Kings Tavern

Saturday Jan. 26th
Aggie Theater
Ft. Collins

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