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October 8 - 14, 2009

• Common musical ground

The Emmitt-Nershi Band finds the zone
by Dave Kirby

That ain’t a DJ
Rahzel’s vocal percussion must be seen to be believed
by Dan Hinkel

 Common musical ground
The Emmitt-Nershi Band finds the zone
by Dave Kirby

Billy Nershi was on the road when we caught up with him last week, winding his way through the fall colors of eastern Pennsylvania. Fall’s nice back East, but Nershi was hoping to catch a little autumn blaze in the high country back home.

“It’s getting really nice here. It got cold last night, and it’s really changing. But I hope there’s still some color left when I get back there,” Nershi says.

Festival season has wound up now for guitarist Nershi and his bandmate Drew Emmitt, and it’s back to the ground game, hitting smaller clubs and venues in support of their recently released CD New Country Blues. Steeped in blue- and new-grass stylings, the CD represents the culmination of a couple of years of collaboration between the two pickers, a lot of road miles as the Emmitt-Nershi Band, and a few decades worth of Front Range jamgrass trailblazing — he as guitarist and founding member of String Cheese Incident, Emmitt as one-third founding agent and all-nine-inning mandolinist for Leftover Salmon.

That the two would find themselves gigging and recording together in a more rigorously roots-oriented outfit speaks to both their mutual artistic admiration, their continuing dedication to acoustic string music (traditional and otherwise), and the remarkable binding influence of the Colorado music ethos, something both players and their former bands participated vigorously in establishing.
The two found a nice place up in the high country (where else?) to hole up for a few days and record the CD.

“I don’t know if it was in a hurry, but we wrote it in a short amount of time. We stayed at a friend’s house up in Estes Park for a long weekend and wrote the bulk of the material for the disc there. We had a couple of bits and pieces, a verse here and a chord change there, but we really basically wrote seven songs up there,” Nershi says. “I guess we just felt a lot of confidence in each other’s songwriting skills that we weren’t too worried about it.”

Collaborative songwriting can be an exercise in either finding common ground or finding a way to swing the joint effort well outside of both agents’ comfort zones. Nershi says the two tended toward the former.

“In the past, I’d only really collaborated on about four songs; a lot of the time I write solo. We weren’t sure exactly what would happen, but I think we brought out the best in each other, and we were both willing to really run with ideas… We would take somebody’s ideas and just say, ‘OK, what if we do this and add this, or add this chorus,’ or we’d sit down and say, ‘What’s missing is a fast song. What do you think of these chord changes?’… speaking specifically of New Country Blues, the song, and then, ‘OK, how about this chord change?’ Drew would write a verse, and I’d write a verse…There was just a lot of really good momentum during that session,” Nershi says. “I think we tended to go toward the common ground and toward progressions that kind of had a familiar feel to both of us.”

And familiar to them is familiar to a lot of other people, as well. Both Leftover and String Cheese evolved from local club acts into festival and solo stage heroes in their day, finding and expanding trails in the ’90s and ’00s first hacked open by Newgrass Revival a decade earlier, bending folk and bluegrass aesthetics into experimental forays of jam rock and endearingly offbeat hayseed pop. While both bands kicked out the full-time touring/recording plug (Leftover on New Year’s 2005 and String Cheese in 2007), they remain corporeal enterprises, not over and not ended… At least in the case of Leftover, the band is resurrected among their various members’ schedules, usually for holiday gigs, as if no one really has the heart to say goodbye forever.
But Nershi’s enjoying his post-SCI life.

“The thing that’s cool about what we’re doing now is that it’s much more about the music and less time is spent on the business end of things. I mean, the business end of our thing is really pretty simple right now. I think for both of us to get back to focusing on just playing music, that’s what we wanna do. Less distraction and more time onstage,” Nershi says.

But Nershi also says that getting String Cheese back together for the Rothbury Festival in July went pretty well, at least for a band that hadn’t been on ice very long.

“Yeah, I thought it went great. I was really encouraged by how well the show went, how it was musically, and how it went spending time with everybody,” Nershi says. “For me, it was just a matter of really needing to take a break from all of it, after 14 years. And for that, I feel more rejuvenated in the String Cheese world. And it’s given me the time to pursue things that I really was into, like playing with Drew in this band and diving into playing bluegrass with a lot of real great pickers.”

Diving back into bluegrass, the real thing, was something Nershi says he was ready for.

“Oh, yeah, I was just waiting for the opportunity. Drew and I had gotten together at a few different gigs over the years… like the Mark Vann Foundation gig at the Boulder Theater. That was one of the gigs where, after it was over, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Ah, this is something we should be following up on… whenever we have the chance,’” Nershi says.  “And this is our chance.”


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On the Bill
The Emmitt-Nershi Band plays the Boulder Theater on Oct. 17. Must be 21 to enter. Doors open an 8 p.m.; show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $21.50. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.

That ain’t a DJ
Rahzel’s vocal percussion must be seen to be believed
By Dan Hinkel

Rahzel’s next move makes a lot of sense.

He is the world’s pre-eminent beatboxer, but that’s a post that accords only so much eminence. In the 10 years since he used his former crew, The Roots, as a springboard to go solo with his rapping, beatboxing and virtuoso sound effects, he has released one studio album. His label, MCA, no longer exists, and a label was too much pressure anyway, he says.

But he thinks he might have a good idea: children’s entertainment. He has kids. He likes kids. He has guested on Nick Jr.’s breakout hit Yo Gabba Gabba! He has worked on video games. Now, he’s pitching a kids’ show. He wants to start “feedin’ ’em some good hip hop.” This makes sense. Adult themes have never been his milieu, and what better audience for an experienced MC who can realistically imitate a hydraulic drill and talk like a robot?

“I can’t do the ‘Stanky Leg,’ so I gotta figure out a different way to adapt,” Rahzel says.

You can catch an exhibition by the greatest living beatboxer Oct. 15 at the Fox Theatre with DJ JS-1 and Backpack Symphony.
Rahzel’s show will be short on hits, but his live shows are long on other things: crazy-ass sound effects.

You surely have one friend who can beatbox a spitty 4-4 rhythm of bass hits and snare taps. This beatboxing is only distantly related to what Rahzel does with his mouth. He can weave a complete musical track of syncopated drums, synth notes and Casio-type sound effects. He can sing while he beatboxes. He makes convincing auto shop noises and computer bleeps, and he can credibly imitate the sound of a tape being played backward. He does a stunningly accurate version of RZA’s instrumentals to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to Fuck Wit’.”

Before The Roots were a national institution, they were a moderately popular Philly jazz-rap crew. Rahzel — always a peripheral contributor to The Roots’ music — dropped his solo debut, the occasionally awesome Make the Music 2000, in 1999. A friendly programming executive dropped the trippy video for the excellent introductory single “All I Know” into routine rotation on BET, which helped Rahzel move a few discs and pick up fans who had never heard of ?uestlove. Rahzel’s only original studio album is less a coherent musical work than an exhibition of his unbelievable beatboxing skills. Several tracks are live-recorded beatboxing sessions, and the album ends with a long hidden track of sound effects. If hip-hop were basketball, MTM 2000 would be the halftime show in which those guys dunk from trampolines.

“What do you want me to do? I’m sorry,” he says.

The industry has changed, Rahzel says. No longer can an artist impress the right BET programmer and sell a bunch of albums. Rahzel sounds the familiar refrain of the elemental hip-hop aficionado: things have changed. He remembers watching dance hip-hop culture titan Afrika Bambaataa rock in the park.

“Now it’s a whole lot of red tape, politics,” he says. “It’s not really about love at this point.”

As awesome as Rahzel’s sound effects and beatboxing truly are, few people mention these arts alongside hip-hop’s vaunted four elements, two of which, MC-ing and DJ-ing, are actually profitable. But in what must be his only similarity to David Hasselhoff, Rahzel has “huge fan bases” overseas, he says. Beatboxing is generally more respected in Europe and Asia, he said. He recently attended the Bulgarian Beatbox Championships.

“It’s on a whole other level once you leave America,” he says.

You can hear the true hip-hop head in Rahzel when he diverts the conversation into a totally unsolicited paean to the Wu-Tang Clan. He claims to be “the biggest fan” ever of rap’s kung fu mafia Voltron. Although he congratulates The Roots on their success, he says he has always felt more like a Wu-Tang member than a Roots member.

No matter what Ol’ Dirty Bastard said when he hijacked the Grammy podium in 1998, Wu-Tang is definitely not for the children. But Rahzel is. He hopes to show kids the side of hip-hop that doesn’t hate women and isn’t hiding guns in its trunk. T.I., we are looking in your direction.
“There’s really more to it,” Rahzel says. “You gotta have the vegetables with the steak.”

On the Bill

Rahzel plays the Fox Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 15. JS-1 and Backpack Symphony open. Doors at 8:30 p.m., show at 9 p.m. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.

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