Margaret Hair: Rallying around Relay

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Margaret Hair

Margaret Hair's column appears Fridays in the 4 Points arts and entertainment section in the Steamboat Today. Contact her at 871-4204 or e-mail mhair@steamboatpilot.com.
Past Event

American Relay

  • Thursday, January 17, 2008, 10 p.m.
  • Old Town Pub & Restaurant, 600 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs
  • Not available / Free

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— Naturally, American Relay drummer Alex Hebert had some reservations about quitting his job last year to play Delta-influenced blues rock full time.

"I totally doubt my choice all the time - there's plenty of other stuff I could do," Hebert said between bites of panini at Amante Coffee on Wednesday morning. Back home in Steamboat for a couple of weeks, the now Denver-based musician is recouping expenses before hitting the road for a short tour.

Those shows kick off at Old Town Pub on Thursday night and end with a set at The Tap House Sports Grill on Feb. 9.

A duo whose penchant for American roots music has forged a unique blend of punk attitude and folksy attention to songwriting, American Relay had some self-proclaimed growing pains in 2007.

Those pains - and the reservations that come with them for any band trying to make it on its own - got sharper late last fall, when a six-week, self-booked West Coast run of bars, rock clubs and venues that aren't at all built for live music left Hebert and bandmate Nick Sullivan close to broke.

"We took a pretty big financial hit," Hebert said about the cost of renting a minivan, finding places to stay and getting by on cuts from the doors of clubs where crowds varied and pre-show promotion was usually promised, but not always delivered. The band has since hired a publicist.

But if American Relay has taken a hit, Colorado music writers haven't seemed to notice.

The Denver Westword listed the band in its "Movers and Shakers of 2007," and writer Jon Solomon called the Relay's music a "two-man blues assault (that) is thick as Quaker State and has the muscle of a '68 Pontiac GTO." A Denver Post music writer named the Steamboat-bred rock band's "Corn & Oil" one of the top 10 local albums of the year.

And for all the second guessing and less-than-easy times, Hebert said he has reasons for making the sacrifice, and goals for roots music that reach beyond playing the drums for his two-man band.

"For as much drama and self-brutalization that we've gone through, all those doubts and feelings go away when we play a show," he said. "2007 was good. But 2008 is going to be big. : Things are going in a good direction."

With a solid base of friends in the slide-guitar-hard-living-hard-times world of edgy Americana, the band is looking to strengthen connections, put out a second record, book another round of shows in the West and maybe check out the South.

The upcoming western trip includes a July performance at the Deep Blues Festival in Lake Elmo, Minn., a three-day event that bills itself as the nation's only "punk rock blues festival." The band plans to stick around Colorado for most of the winter and build its fan base.

"For our scene, if there is a scene, it's just a bunch of musicians who dig it, at this point," Hebert said about gaining support and attention.

Judging by the past American Relay show in Steamboat - which, to Hebert's dismay, resulted in a mosh pit - local support won't be a problem. He attributes the enthusiasm, at least in part, to a more accessible music industry and an unstated appetite for something new, something raw.

"People are getting tired of the new hair bands," Hebert said. "It feels like there's a lot happening in the music industry, beyond - what do people listen to these days?"

Neither of us really know. (A lack of hip-hop stations and local NPR programming have turned me off the radio since moving here.) By "new hair bands," I assume Hebert means the recent wave of flip 'dos that are usually dyed black and usually fall just short of Robert Smith-bedhead, and not to supergroups such as Poison or Night Ranger or The Darkness.

But defining "hair bands" isn't important here - American Relay isn't interested in these glossy men, the people who listen to them or their jeans that might as well be leggings. Hebert and Sullivan's music is meant to be genuine and, slowly, it's finding an audience. Hebert has 2008 pegged as the year American music fans will realize they like American music.

"Our ultimate goal is to just do this," he said. The band is working on that, one gig, radio appearance and potential collaboration at a time.

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