Something as seemingly minor as point-of-entry to the stage can predetermine the way a show goes down. Especially when the band is huge, the club is small, and the stage is tiny. An anomaly in every sense, Sparta's visit was something you had to plan for -- it was sold out long before the band crossed the state line. For those who missed their last outing due to cancellations, this anomaly was major payback.
Kansas City's the Life and Times made their way through the audience at 8 P.M. sharp. Being the only opening band on this leg, TL&T is going to garner quite a few accolades, and they deserve it. Laying down heavy digital reverb in multiple, crisscrossing strata, TL&T delivered a curious blend of post-rock/space-indie. The drums, executed by a technically proficient (but seriously fashion-challenged) stickman, at times took precedent above all other components, forcing the auditory illusion that the singer was shouting from the back of the stage. The wash of overlapping echoes at times shifted toward drone, but at times the band really soared, steadily increasing tempo until toward a unified stretch of all-out rock.
Because Denver is in a transitory stage, having recently gone smoke-free, the energy is a bit off at times. Some are miffed, some are happy, but you know what they say -- where there's smoke, there's beer. Although the crowd seemed a bit subdued, it felt like they were also really paying attention to the music for once. Because the crowd was barely buzzed by the time TL&T was sweating it out on the low-lit stage, the band might not have gotten the response they'd get elsewhere. And when they slowed it down significantly, the energy dropped. When they sped it up and opened the vocal chords, the crowd was really into it. My suggestion? When you're opening for Sparta, keep the energy high.
But only two bands? People were asking each other if this was for real. A sickeningly fast and smooth transition had Sparta's gear ready in fifteen minutes -- another anomaly -- and then the crowd parted for the four band members to pass though. The crowd was ecstatic and Jim Ward was clearly a bit nervous, his hands shaking as he adjusted his microphone and strap. Although the club was packed, there wasn't the standard swell and crush forward. Sparta could easily have filled a club two or three times as large, but that obviously wasn't the purpose of this tour.
A likely part of Sparta's mission was to indoctrinate new guitarist Keeley Davis, former frontman of much-missed Engine Down. Davis, having helmed a band not dissimilar in temperament and structure, seems like a perfect replacement for departed guitarist Paul Hinojos. Davis had no problem tearing trough Sparta's catalog, both old and new. The El Paso-based group started with "Hiss the Villain" and "Breaking the Broken," then cycled through a few from both Porcelain and Wiretap Scars before bringing in a couple of new ones.
As expected, the crowd went nuts on "Cut Your Ribbon" though, again, there was no passionate swell toward the front, either out of respect for the band or lack of buzz; the audience simply belted out the lyrics from where they stood. Part of the restraint seemed to emanate from Jim Ward's presence. He's a curious figure, at times appearing like a reluctant rock star, and at times displaying a vein-flexing ferocity. He never got close to the audience and the audience respected his space, but it wouldn't hurt him to get a bit closer, scream in some faces, fling some sweat, etc.
The band kept the intensity going for over an hour, churning out 13 songs, and easily could have gone on another 60 minutes without anyone caring about the heat or inability to smoke. The band exited with the reverb still pulsating, as if they might return, but there was no encore. It was a somewhat abrupt end, but that was probably the intention. They'll be back in a couple months, and while the venue will be three times as big and the show twice as long, it's still going to be a hell of a show.