Sean Kelly’s long road

The Samples frontman on exhaustion, nostalgia and refocusing the dreams of youth

Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly

For Sean Kelly, being back at altitude wasn’t really all that.

“Honestly, right now, I’ve been on the road since spring, and I got to go home once, and I’m really in need of getting home,” Kelly told us earlier this week from his hotel room in Denver, sounding a bit like a guy balancing gratitude for being able to keep steady work in a broken economy with the frustrations of a guy for whom the endless tour has lost its appeal. Feeling homesick is a bittersweet condition when you feel like you’ve actually got a home to miss.

Kelly pulled the plug on The Samples, the storied, Boulder-founded, pop-reggae franchise, last year, at least as a full-time touring outfit. Sheer exhaustion and some bad business experiences had taken their toll, and Kelly was ready to call it a day.

“That was very true at the time,” Kelly explains. “I just do scattered Samples dates now; there’s not many. I do far more solo dates now. But sometimes it’s a waste of good music if we’re not out there playing. Try to keep it going to some extent.”

It certainly wasn’t a lack of work that prompted Kelly to step back from touring The Samples.

“It was the offers,” Kelly says. “Whatever version I was in at the time, people kept asking, ‘Will you please play, will you please play?’ but I wanted to get off the road. That was all a bit much for me. I had been through a string of three bad managers, and just said, ‘That’s that.’ A little easier to handle those issues when it was just me. I didn’t have the 21-year-old in me anymore. And of course, the economy went into the shitter, it just wasn’t possible to head out in the bus anymore.”

Kelly released a 39-song solo album earlier this year, B-Sides and Outtakes, a collection of new songs alongside some solo-revisited Samples tunes like “Birth of Words,” “Feel Us Shaking,” “Still Water” and the endearing pop-reggae gem, “Did You Ever Look So Nice,” rendered on solo acoustic guitar, sounding like a prayer to the past.

Oddly, the CD kicks off with a deepwoods baritone ballad called “Caroline” sung, not by Kelly, but by Bud Huntsinger, the father of sometimes- Kelly collaborator/ drummer John Huntsinger, with Kelly harmonizing gently in the background. If you spend much time talking to the 46-year-old Kelly about his life now — immersed in the subtle joys of being home (in Southern California), around his girlfriend and her two small kids, after two decades of plowing interstates and two lanes and watching his contemporaries grow up and into family life — you get why this song, even in another man’s voice, should spearhead this collection.

There’s a cabin in the pines / In the hills of Caroline / And a blue-eyed girl that’s waiting there for me.

“There’s about 10 new songs on it,” he says. “I dug up some older tunes that I had, but kind of revamped them. Did it all on my own, kinda quick. … It came out really neat, like something you’d listen to on a long road trip.”

While Kelly stages his Aug. 5 Nissi’s gig with a klatch of Denver-based players he’s had most recent associations with — Dave Preston, Rich Roth, John Schaller and Ben Loshin — and who form the core of the band nowadays (Kelly says they’re edging him toward making a new Samples record), he did report that the Samples gig that he staged at last year’s Mile High Music Festival with the original members went off well.

“It was interesting,” Kelly says. “At the time I had been playing with these other guys, who I made several albums with and who I desperately wanted to play that gig in that version. But they didn’t want that — they would only do it if it was with the original guys.

“So it was seeing them for about four days. We had two days’ practice, and we did it. And everyone disappeared. Everybody’s doing their own thing now, in their place … and it worked. When you play that long together, you don’t need that much practice. It was very cool. Very nostalgic, but very fast. We got a nice reception. No hard feelings on any level. … We did what we were supposed to do, and that was that.”

But isn’t it a little weird, going back to do something you did years ago, at a different stage in life?

“A little bit,” Kelly says. “It’s like someone telling you to go on a date with your old girlfriend. It brought up the best part of our relationships together, all of us, for a day or two.”

But Kelly still counts himself as a fan, even if he can’t live in that world full-time anymore.

“The songs, as far I’m concerned, have always been underrated in the sense of not really having a shelf life,” Kelly says. “[I still get] endless emails about how some of these tunes have touched people’s lives. Y’know, I gave up my fight to be something — or, whatever ‘fight’ it is when you’re younger — and just want to play music.

That’s pretty much it. I’m not trying to impress anybody, I’m not trying to get a record deal. I’m done with all that.”

On the Bill

The Samples play Nissi’s Bistro on Friday, Aug. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door. 2675 N. Park Drive, Lafayette, 303-665-2757.