Artists work their whole lives to develop and maintain an identity. It’s important externally — it helps form a following.
It’s important internally — gotta know what you want to produce before you produce it.
So how is it the veteran musicians of Danny Shafer and the 21st Century don’t seem to care about theirs? And what is the band? Is it a supergroup? A side project? A garage band? Are they Americana, rock, folk, country, funk?
The correct answer seems to be F, all of the above. The band’s lineup reads like a month-long binge on Boulder coffee shop music: Shafer, known for solo work and the Red Glory Ramblers, takes guitar and vocal duties; gospel/soul singer Dechen Hawk plays the organ; on bass is Jubal of The Rude Boys; Chris Ramey, formerly of Joint Chiefs, is on pedal steel guitar; and on drums is Todd May of Hot Soup.
To hear Hawk and Shafer tell it, the 21st Century is most definitely a side project. Hawk says the low commitment and music-first attitude have made the music fun rather than strictly businesslike.
The band started, Hawk says, like just about any band does. If you’re in high school.
“This was really outside of a job,” he says. “This was really just to play music, which is something I miss that we all did when we were in high school. Just playing to play.”
Shafer says he invited musicians to his home to play with no particular goal in mind. The idea was to explore music they’d enjoy, not prep for a show or make an album.
“We were just enjoying playing together and sitting around exploring stuff,” Shafer says. “That’s been one of the joys of this band, that we rehearsed it for a long time before we brought it out.”
“It was just sort of an excuse to get together, play some music, see what happens,” Hawk says. “He just thought of who he’d like to hang out with and was curious what it would sound like.”
It’s an unlikely mix. Shafer’s a staple of Boulder’s musical scene, and he’s developed a folk-rock sound well-tuned for Boulder’s cafes and bars. Hawk, meanwhile, is better versed in soul, gospel and even electronic music than bluegrass or folk, and Ramey’s background brings the funk — and the reggae.
It’s as if Bob Dylan formed a band with Stevie Wonder and Jerry Garcia, just to name a few. Fans of Adult Swim’s Frisky Dingo might recognize the sound of the genre-mixing alert.
Hawk says that’s been a positive thing for the band. “There’s just a neat blend of these genres coming together,” he says. “It makes his music sound really hip and current.”
The band’s unique membership creates a unique sound, Shafer says. “I haven’t heard anything like this band around here,” he says of the 21st Century’s brand of folk Americana. Many of the tunes strike a bright, bouncing pace offset by Shafer’s effortless croon. What could be by-the-numbers folk tunes are livened up by the group’s tight rhythm, which provides a little more punch and intensity than a typical bluegrass-folk band.
The use of pedal steel guitar and organ also takes the music in a different direction.
“It’s really nice,” Hawk says. “There’s a lot of space.”
He says playing alongside Ramey has given him an opportunity to develop his abilities as an organist and focus on expressing himself through the instrument. “All the assisting jobs,” he says, “they stretch me a lot. There’s a lot of growth there.”
Shafer says so too — for the band as a whole.
“We’re still doing a lot of experimentation. This band’s going to grow and change even in the next few months,” he says.
Too many cooks spoil the broth, the cliché says, but the 21st Century’s not risking that. Hawk and Shafer say that as the organizer and primary songwriter, Shafer’s firmly in charge.