Syntax Physic Opera (554 S. Broadway, Denver) is a new restaurant and venue that is the physical embodiment of the 11-year-running magazine Denver Syntax. With an interior that is part museum of the old west and part Dracula’s bordello, Physic Opera bills itself as “a forum for local artists and musicians.”
And it is succeeding resoundingly in that effort. So much so, that if an earthquake had swallowed Syntax Physic Opera last Friday night during The Czars tribute show, Denver would have lost her arts-&-music royal family in one fell swoop.
A quick scan of the audience turned up talented musicians like Slim Cessna, Nathaniel Rateliff, Ben Desoto (himself a former Czar), Natalie Tate, Bill McConnell and more, plus visual artists such as Gary Isaacs, Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Dave Seiler, Richard Peterson, Mark Sink, Sabin Aell, Randy Rushton and Chris Bagley.
At a time when parts of Denver are becoming almost unrecognizable to her long-time residents, it was heartening to see such a massive gathering of familiar and famous faces come together to honor the legacy and release of "The Czars: Best Of" (Bella Union, 2014).
Though The Czars broke up in 2006, the imprint they left on the Denver music landscape cannot be overestimated. While no one anticipates a full reunion—due either to bad blood or the fact that former singer John Grant currently resides in Iceland--it was satisfying to see members of The Czars take to the stage in various rotations to play their songs as well as to showcase their other projects.
Also taking to the stage was Andy’s jazz singing sister Julie Monley, who guested on the 2004 Czars recording of "Little Pink House." She provided lead vocals on several tunes on Friday. Missing from the lineup was drummer Jeff Linsenmaier, whose influence on “The Denver Sound” is ubiquitous. He was kept away for the evening by duties with The Fray.
Listening to songs from the Czars come alive again was clearly an exercise in nostalgia for all in attendance. However, it is safe to say that The Czars without John Grant can’t help but leave something to be desired, which is why the real revelation of the night came when Andrew Monley ignited the stage with back to back sets from his two beloved projects: The Velveteen Monster and Jux County.
What transpired was a reminder to Denver about how lucky we are to have all members in tact, and in town. It was a joy to watch these groups make music together with clearly as much love today as they had two decades earlier.
Jux County formed in 1986 as singer/guitarist Andy Monley’s novel yet completely coherent juxtaposition of punk and country. By 1992, the band had solidified as a three-piece featuring the relentless and infectious Chris Pearson on bass and the inventive, abruptly switchable Ron Smith on drums.
To not know Jux County is to not know Denver. The band insistently explodes with the irrepressible energy and angular ingenuity of their own invented sound. Velveteen Monster formed in 1997 as the more layered and cinematic little sister of Jux County. It features an identical lineup, but with the addition of Denise Rick on keys.
So while The Czars have settled into their place in history, only to be enjoyed on record, Jux County and Velveteen Monster are very much alive. As a city, Denver would do well to demand they play more often.
The evening at Syntax Physic Opera began with a screening of The Tornado Dream, Davis Coombe’s documentary about the melt-downs of three Denver bands ( The Czars, Orbit Service, and Rainbow Sugar).
Bonus: a review of "The Czars: Best of" album:
The retrospective release "The Czars: Best of" is a terrific entry point for anyone who missed this beloved Denver band the first time around. Comprised of 18 tracks culled from the albums "Before… But Longer" ( 2000); "The Ugly People –vs- The Beautiful People" (2001); and "Goodbye" (2004), the album focuses only on the songs recorded during the bands tenure on the Bella Union label.
It will also appeal to fans of John Grant’s new music who may care to dig into the history and youth of this compelling, baritone-voiced singer/songwriter. Most importantly, for those wanting to learn about an important era of Denver’s musical history, it is crucial to have some Czars in the collection.
Ultimately, this record will appeal to anyone who appreciates exquisitely produced, textured, moody, achingly beautiful, unclassifiable songs of longing. Some have compared The Czars to Nick Cave and the Cocteau Twins, but even those who do so will agree that The Czars are one of those few bands that truly sound like none other.