(August 8, 2011 in Denver, Colorado) Remember when you were in that band that other musicians really liked but no one else seemed to get? That was a worthy enterprise, but Motopony is not that band. Motopony is a band that everyone likes; musicians like them because they're talented songwriters who play tight sets, and non-musicians like them because they rock like there's no tomorrow.
If you've heard their recent self-titled album, you may be skeptical of this last statement. “Aren't they sort of laid-back and...well...folky?” you're saying to yourself. This is why you need to see them live. They take those glitchy, folky ballads and explode them into some kind of ferocious gospel exhibition.
Of the smaller Denver venues, the Hi-Dive is probably best known for booking exciting national acts while simultaneously giving Denver bands a place to hone their craft. If you walk into the bar on any given night, you may catch local heroes like Bad Weather California, or you may see indie legends like The Mountain Goats. Most likely, you'll see both.
The night started well, with Denver natives Lil' Thunder delivering some heavy, ominous atmosphere behind Marie Litton's expressive voice, singing songs about desire and desperation. Then, after a brief tuneup, Motopony swung into their set with a momentum that seemed the natural extension of something else. If you followed the backswing of that pendulum, it might take you all the way to their hometown of Seattle, where you'd find them laughing about something in a bar or buzzing with energy as they loaded up their van to head out on this tour that will take them all the way to New York, Canada, and back.
Frontman Daniel Blue says, “I was born here,” and then the band lays down a pounding rhythm, with the traditional drum kit augmented by a handheld doube-bass drum (possibly a dhol). From the first note he sings, Blue's eyes take on a religious gleam. He goes into a glamorous trance, warbling sounds that may or may not be words.
When the first song is done, Blue says, “We're from Seattle. We like it when you say mo-TOP-ony.” People must have been asking him how to pronounce the name (it's really MO-to-pony). Then Blue's songwriting partner, Buddy Ross, starts playing some wicked creepy electric piano, transporting the crowd into the next song, “June.” On the album, it's a wistful little story about an ill-conceived marriage; live, it's an expansive current of noise, with Blue chanting, “Hold on / Just hold on” over and over.
Before the band plays their single, “King of Diamonds,” Blue shares more details of his early life. “I was a child model in Denver when I was nine,” he says. “I was posing in some J.C. Penny catalogues. So you probably remember me from that.”
“King of Diamonds” is a dreamy pop song about a hard-luck gambler accepting the hand he's dealt. The video is wonderfully shot and edited, almost making Las Vegas look beautiful. Here it's a pulsing rush of fuzz and sugar. Drummer Forrest Mauvais is wearing headphones, which means he's probably playing to a click track, but you'd never know it listening to the organic way the band swoons and swirls through their melodies. These are some seriously dedicated and skilled musicians. People in the crowd are singing along. They've obviously heard this song more than once.
“We've got records for sale,” announces Blue. “We gotta drive to Austin tomorrow, and we could use the gas money.” This matter-of-fact statement is almost comical in contrast to the soaring enchantment of the music.
“Wait For Me” is filled with gushing synth-strings. Blue's twangy vocals alternately waver and croak like a lovelorn frog in a limpid pool. He has dropped his guitar and is jerking and swaggering around the stage like a spastic lounge singer. He grabs the mic and howls soulfully. Then he lurches over and hugs the bassist. It's theatrical and fantastic.
Pounding kick drum and windmill organ usher in the best song of the evening, “Seer.” It climbs and climbs into sustained gospel euphoria, then crashes back down into a dirty groove. “I am a sinner / so selfish and so proud.” By this time, the band has the crowd mesmerized.
Perhaps expertly placed, perhaps serendipitously, the final song is called “Euphoria.” It's a driving lament about the fleeting nature of happiness. Ross' meditative piano and Blue's strident falsetto bring to mind Joshua Tree-era U2. Blue stretches out his arms like he's trying to hold back a tide of sorrows, then suddenly collapses as if struck by something fast and blunt. It's a perfect illustration of the lyrics, and a perfect end to an intense, dramatic performance.
It's been a wild, sleazy, rapturous ride, and the audience looks as worn out as the band. It's hard to imagine what it takes to give this level of energy to every show. Hopefully they'll get a chance to sleep in the van on the way to Texas. Like wandering preachers healing the sick and the weary, Motopony has given us our money's worth and more. How they'll spend that money is anyone's guess. They may save it responsibly for a rainy day, but it seems equally likely they may bet it all on a long-shot just for the thrill of the game.
Standout Tracks: “Seer,” “Euphoria,” “Wait For Me”
For Fans Of: Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Rufus Wainwright