ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIATUS: COLORADO’S MAGIC MUSIC RETURNS WITH FOUR-DECADES-IN-THE-MAKING SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
PHOTOS: HENRY DILTZ
In 1969, a group of merry musicians descended from the mountains of Colorado and quickly ascended into one of the state’s groundbreaking bands. Dubbed Colorado’s first jam band, Magic Music laid the foundation for what would become an avalanche of beloved bands to come out of The Centennial State.
Initially buried under a mountain of bad record deals, the band’s attempts to record a proper album seemed to slip out of its collective hands like an uncontrollable landslide. But the lack of studio time never interfered with the band’s plethora of stage time: Magic Music always felt most at home in front of an audience thirsty for their special brand of sonic cocktail. That said, the desire to record and release an album always burned as hot as a campfire.
Fast-forward four decades or so and Magic Music has finally released its debut, self-titled album. Produced by lifelong friend and now band member Tim Goodman (Doobie Brothers, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris), Magic Music is a 17-song collection of sounds as diverse as the Colorado landscape – and well worth the wait. I recently spoke with multi-instrumentalist Chris “Spoons” Daniels about the new album, the old days living in the Rocky Mountains and the rich history of Colorado’s music scene, past, present and future.
I’m doing well. I’m in Colorado enjoying that Colorado world. Thing are good.
I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t say I’m a little bit jealous. Well thanks for your time today and we’ve got lots to catch up on, so are you ready to rock?
Alright, yes sir!
I think probably the most appropriate way to begin the conversation is to say: welcome back!
(Laughs) Well, yeah. Thanks.
So, aside from certainly several years – and maybe a few extra pounds – what’s the starkest change you’ve found in the music “industry” since the band began?
It’s funny, I actually teach music business at the University of Colorado, so…
You’re just the man to ask.
(Laughs) Yeah! So I’ve been watching and studying it for a long time. Back when Magic Music started the only way into a mass market was through getting a record deal. That’s probably the biggest change. If you got that record deal it was pretty much a sure bet that you at least got a chance to make your mark. Nowadays, in order to reach a mass market, you don’t need a record deal, but in some ways it’s harder because there’s so many really incredible independent artists out there with direct access to the internet – everything from Spotify to iTunes. So that’s a huge change. The other thing is that records used to pay musicians money in royalties, and now with Spotify and iTunes, a whole lot of royalties kind of disappeared (laughs).
Well we could have an entire conversation on just that one question, as you can imagine…
Let’s fast-forward here. So just about every piece of literature I’ve read about the band includes the fact that your band is known as Colorado’s first jam band. What is your definition of a jam band?
For Magic Music in the 1970’s it was arrangements and solos that were extended beyond just what Paul McCartney used to call “the middle 8.” Paul would talk about “the middle 8” that would come along 9in the song) and you would put a little solo in there, and then you’d go back to the song. For us, “the middle 8” were solos that were extended that were entire sections or pieces of music, like “A Cossack’s Song” (found on Magic Music), that just sort of travel. And I think our inspiration was Joni Mitchell, the Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, who were writing songs that were not standard pop songs.
I think you may have already answered my follow-up question, because I was going to ask, based on your definition, who would you consider to be the world’s first jam band?
Well, oddly enough, there’s a couple or three of them that are always sort of my touchstones: one is obviously The Dead, but the other two are Little Feat, who used to go on these wonderful exploratory things, and then the wonderful characters in (Louisville-based 70s progressive bluegrass band) New Grass Revival. And that was sort of “jam-grass.” Sam Bush (New Grass Revival), who plays on the record, was one of my all-time heroes.
We may have come up with a musical genre: “jamgrass” or just “jass” (laughs).
Well let’s dive into this record here. Over four decades in the making, the self-titled debut has a whopping 17 tracks! First of all, you had over 40 years to come up with an album title, Chris. Why did you decide to go the eponymous route (laughs)?
(Laughs) That is such a good question! No one’s asked that (laughs). I have no idea. The original title that was gonna be on the record many years ago was called For Our Fathers. I’m not sure why that was the title, but that was the tile we came up with, as teenage and 20-year-old kids. But when it came to this record – usually people use the title from one of the songs, but those just didn’t seem to capture all of it. The record goes from almost Irish pentangle sounds to country sounds to almost pieces that are symphonic. (Laughs) I think we were stumped and we going, ‘What do we call it?’ Well, I guess it is what it is: it’s Magic Music.
As I mentioned, the album holds 17 tunes. What’s the timespan in which these songs were written?
I think roughly 1969 to 1976.
And can you tell me which of the tracks on the album is the oldest, and which is the newest?
Probably the oldest is “Bright Sun Bright Rain.” The wonderful story on that song is that – as people are want to do in Colorado – (original band member) Lynn “Flatbush” Poyer – who sadly passed away – and our flute player George “Tode” Cahill were out in the fields up by Rainbow Lakes in Colorado, and according to them, a band of elves walked by playing the song and they learned it from them (laughs). So take it for what it’s worth, that’s the story (laughs)!
(Laughs) True story, I’m sure. Now speaking of timespans, the lengths of the tracks on the record range from the 48-second ditty “The Shuffle Refrain” to the mystical and to my ears Joni Mitchell-meets-CS&N 7:26 “El Dorado Canyon.” For those who don’t know, where is El Dorado Canyon, and was the song written there?
It’s just south of Boulder, and it was written there. We all lived in school buses and one donut truck in El Dorado canyon in 1970 and made our living chopping wood and selling cords of wood, and going out and haying for farmers, where you would get six cents a bale. And then we started going to the University of Colorado Boulder and panhandling by playing music. We’d set up on the lawn and get the prettiest girls to pass the hat. So we were living in El Dorado Canyon and it really was the real deal. It was the hippie lifestyle.
Still talking about the song “El Dorado Canyon:” about four minutes into it you guys break into a really tasty, extended jam. I once asked the great Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule fame about playing live onstage and how the band knew when to jump back into a song following a long jam, and he used a phrase I’d never heard before – and haven’t since – and I’ll never forget. He said they just find the “window of return.” Do you understand what he means?
I know exactly what he means! I’ve never heard that terminology and I think it’s exactly right on. The window of return is that moment in the jam when you’re watching the soloist and we’re looking for that window when all of a sudden it’s like, okay, that’s the peak! That’s the moment. He’s reached his zenith (laughs) and now it’s time to open that window of return. I think that’s a great way to put it.
So is that when you guys started recording?
That’s when we started recording. You’re exactly right. We had stayed in touch with each other and starting in about 2002 we started doing these little reunions and play at, just for fun. The original band founder with “Tode” was “Flatbush” and he got very ill and died in 2011. A year earlier, I had been diagnosed with a really nasty form of Leukemia. So in 2011 we were sort of coming together to celebrate the fact that I hadn’t exited (laughs) and also the passing of a dear friend. That brought us together and I said let’s go into the studio. We gotta capture this music.
Wow, well losing someone close to you, and you fighting and winning your battle to stay onboard here, I guess, and the power of music bringing you guys back together. The power of music always amazes me.
Well I think you just nailed it. You said it much better than I did. It was truly the power of music that brought us all together. It was those songs, and when we’re playing them live, I close my eyes and I hear the parts that the different people are playing, and singing the harmonies: I could be 18-years-old again. It’s a true time machine.
Some of the additional song titles on the album include “The Porcupine Flats Shuffle,” “The Flatbush Jig,” “Country,” and “The Cosmic Jingle.” If a music fan who’d never heard of you guys were given these song titles and asked to guess what style of music the band played, what do you think they would say?
(Laughs) I have no idea (laughs)! There were a lot of things that were done with a sense of humor. We took the music incredibly seriously; we didn’t take ourselves seriously (laughs). The place we used to live, just up north of Boulder we nicknamed Porcupine Flats, so that’s how that happened. We all grew up in the 60s and it was a time period when people used to have jingles for songs. You know, “Plop, plop fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is.” So “The Cosmic Jingle” being a song about trying to find a deeper meaning in life (laughs); we couldn’t take ourselves too seriously, so we had to laugh about it and call it “The Cosmic Jingle.”
Now Chris, I’m not asking you to pick a radio single here, but I wonder which song on the album you feel best represents the truest essence of Magic Music?
Boy that’s a great question. I think the essence of Magic Music is a song called “Mole’s Stumble.” It’s a song about a bunch of folks who’ve been living through a cold Colorado mountain winter and spring comes, and all of a sudden its truly euphoric. It’s just a feeling that the band expressed, probably far too many times. Being out there and feeling spring was pretty important to us (laughs).
I’m gonna preface this question by saying it’s probably a tough question, I think. Who is a Magic Music fan? Can you describe one?
Well oddly enough it’s kinda fun because it’s cross-generational. The fans from that day and era – fans of the Grateful Dead, fans of Little Feat, fans of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who were devoted to that (sound) are our natural fans. What’s been really interesting is to play this for my college-age kids who all go, “What is this? This is incredible!” Maybe it’s the political times we live in. Maybe it’s the same reason that that generation has discovered vinyl. I think there’s a correlation there. I think they find something genuinely powerful that they can connect with in this music from another age.
Just a couple more questions for you, Chris, and again I thank you for your time. Here’s a fun, hypothetical question for you: if you could only open for one of the following artists in concert, which one would you pick – and I should say we’ve been dancing around a few of these artists throughout our conversation, so I feel like you’ve been peeking at my notes (laughs). Here goes: Crosby, Stills & Nash, Earl Scruggs, or the Grateful Dead?
Oh boy! Well that would be a question of who would be the most willing to give us a listen if they didn’t know about us. All three would be fine, but I think Earl’s audience is a little more traditional, and we opened for Earl. I think I would say Crosby, Stills & Nash. The reason is because of the harmonies. The vocals were a whole lot of the core and the essence of Magic Music.
So which current band do you feel best represents the spirit of Magic Music?
Oh, god, that’s a great question! I’m almost reticent to say this because we weren’t the kind of genius soloists that the band I’m gonna mention are, but there is something in the Punch Brothers that we’ve got. It’s just an energy. I’ve seen them a bunch of times and they walk onstage with the kind of energy that we walked onstage with.
I’ll throw out a name here: The Infamous Stringdusters.
Oh yeah, sure! Oh yeah, I’m a fan!
Let me finish, Chris, by maybe embarrassing you a bit: you are a proud member of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Very belated congratulations on my part on that.
Yes, sir, thank you.
Oh let’s see. The first person they had to induct of course was John Denver (laughs). Judy Collins was inducted, Poco, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Glenn Miller – he was a Colorado guy – Stephen Stills, because he was in Manassas and they were a Colorado band (and also inductees). So it’s a real honor. Colorado’s fun because it never got known as one (musical) thing. It’s really nice that we’ve had that kind of diversity.
Well you’re in great company. Chris, it’s been a pleasure, and again, welcome back and we’ll be sure to spread the word on the debut, self-titled album from Magic Music.
Thank you. The thing that I would say about this record, and the band, is that it brought out the years of playing and knowledge that we gained. We’re better players now than we were then. I’m really proud of the work that all of us did because we really stepped up our game.
Well congratulations and save travels. Take care.
Okay, thanks Jim, thanks so much.