Bender’s Tavern, Denver CO

Nice to see oneself on Google Maps occasionally.

I woke before my hosts, tiptoed out the door and walked ten minutes to the MAX station. The MAX is Portland’s rail system, and I’ve always found it to be timely, clean and easy to understand. It wasn’t a long journey, and soon I arrived at the airport for the second flight of the tour. Check-in and security were easy, and as I put on my shoes I could hear a pianist blowing nicely through “Body and Soul”. It was tempting to stay and listen in the sunny atrium where their baby grand was set up, but I needed to head off toward my gate. Soon, though, I saw another musician, a guitarist set up with a table of merch, tuning up between songs. I stopped to ask her about the music, and she said the airport books local artists for weekly paying gigs in all the terminals. I LOVE this town.

(I know I keep saying that. I don’t think I’ll ever live in Portland – I’ve come to enjoy living in the East where I grew up, and the long damp winter here wouldn’t be my bag – but the quality of life is consistently impressive).

The flight was painless, and soon I arrived in Denver. The airport here looks brand-new, and is massive. It was an awfully long walk between anything, and when I looked up transport into town I learned that it was a similarly expansive distance to the city itself, probably 90 minutes to the state capital area where the club was located. I decided to get lunch in the airport, generally a depressing proposition, but after dragging all my stuff past legions of bad fast-food choices I found a small counter that offered a decent Mediterranean salad. I tucked in, got online and caught up on online tasks for an hour.


Though I’d known that the presidential debate would be happening today, I’d learned just yesterday that it was actually taking place here in Denver. This did not come as good news, as the main highway south of town was going to be completely closed, and at least one friend would be unable to come to my gig. I was also worried about traffic from all directions being backed up as the debate time grew closer, so I figured I should get into the city center as soon as I could. I pulled my stuff outside and by a stroke of luck immediately caught one of the hourly buses. While hardly a bargain at $11, it was a comfortable ride and I got some more stuff done online, before arriving at the outdoor promenade/mall area downtown, another 14 blocks or so from my destination.

I decided to get some tea, and wandered for several blocks looking for a nice indie coffeeshop before finding that this part of town offered nothing but chains, typical for a business & politics center. I finally settled on one that at least appeared to be local, ordered a lemon-ginger blend and set up outside on the patio. I caught up on tour diaries and watched the interactions of the local homeless population, who leaned pretty young and gathered in great number on the prefab concrete square nearby to argue, commisserate and share smokes. 

The sky started to darken after an hour of this, and I decided to head off in the direction of the Cheeky Monk, a Belgian restaurant where I was meeting a couple of friends. The wind picked up as I continued my stroll, eschewing the free buses that travel down the mall in favor of the exercise. By the time I turned away from the mall, though, I was wishing I had hopped aboard, as the wind was now blowing at a terrific strength, forcing me to clamp my hat on my head with one hand and lean forward into the gale at a sharp angle to avoid being blown over.

As I turned with great effort and freezing ears onto East Colfax, the brassy chain stores suddenly gave way to small bookstores and quirky bars, mixed in with check-cashing places that showed that gentrification is not yet complete. A few blocks down I spied the Monk, and though I was half an hour early to meet my friends, I was eager to take shelter. I gratefully ducked inside, plopped into a vintage chair and ordered some fried pickles, a rare treat. While I make it a practice to never touch a drop of alcohol before I perform (not that I haven’t played with a beer or two in me – it may be more superstition than anything at this point, as I’d hate to play sloppily and regret the drink), the gig was two hours off and the impressive list of abbey brews was just too tempting, so I ordered a relatively dainty twelve ounces of 5% DeKoninck to wash down the crisp, hot breaded pickles.

Just the additional draught selection at the Cheeky Monk.

My friends arrived before long, and we caught up over mussels, fries and burgers. It had been over two years since I’d seen them, and there was lots of news to share, including a son who had been born since my last visit. We also talked about the process of leaving Mexico (my home for five years) in 2009, something I haven’t discussed in depth in quite some time but which figures heavily into the story of In Place.

The time passed quickly and soon I had to get to the club to set up. They dropped me off and parked their typically Coloradan ski- and bike rack-festooned vehicle, and I entered the rather uninviting front door of Bender’s Tavern to find a ratty, cavernous room with a stage at one end. I was greeted offhandedly by the bartender, who also turned out to be the soundman and booker, with whom I’d conversed much by email but who didn’t seem to remember me.

I arranged my merch on a table, then hopped onstage and plugged my guitar in at his behest. A blast of feedback filled the room, and I yanked the cord right back out again, staring at him. Rule number one of a public addess system is to turn the channels down before you plug anything in, then raise the volume, and he wasn’t anywhere near the board. I suggested, a bit testily, that he turn things down, then I plugged in again and was again treated to a thunderous howl. I unplugged once more, and this time, asked him if it was turned all the way off before plugging in, and finally was rewarded by a clean sound coming from the monitors, my ringing ears informed me.

Though it was almost showtime, there was nobody else in the room but my friends and one of the other performers, and I tried to suppress my frustration at the unpromising start, all the more frustrating because I only had a 30-minute slot to play. In so many ways, live performance is a mental game, and overcoming this kind of situation is just one of the challenges in the game. I ducked into the bathroom for a few minutes of privacy to try to settle my mind, and when I came back out a handful of more people had arrived, which brightened my mood. I lit things off in the usual manner, and was happy to see a few more people showing up, and a nice reaction after the first couple of songs. I had a lot of music I wanted to get through in 30 minutes, and the urgency led me to minimize chatter and to play the tunes at a pretty fast clip. The monitors were blasting and I was feeling good, enjoying the experience of feeling more like a loud rock band than a singer-songwriter. The turnaround in my mood had happened without my even noticing.

It was over too soon, and I hopped offstage, sweating, to let the next player go on. I accepted some very nice words about my performance, then settled at a high table with a couple of friends who’d arrived just before my set to catch up and enjoy the rest of the music. An easy late-night bus to my hotel (I was flying out early the next morning, and Denver is so sprawling that it wasn’t practical to stay with any of my friends on the East or South sides), and I crawled into the Motel 6 bed, satisfied.