Sunday’s Colorado Dark Expo here in Denver featured live music, DJs, visual artists, fashion and stylists, alternative performances and vendors, all to benefit homeless and LGBTQ youth programs. Worthy cause, great event, and the high point for me was the opportunity to see the first local appearance of Fiction 8 in quite some time. It wouldn’t be accurate to call it a reunion show since they never broke up, but now that founder and front man Michael Smith lives in Austin it sometimes feels that way.
FULL DISCLOSURE: If you’ve been around here awhile you know that Mike and I are friends. He’s a regular S&R reader and sometimes commenter, and I have co-written songs on their last two CDs (with one more slated for the next one). So this is less about “objective music journalism” and more about the opinions of a guy who has known and loved the band for 15 years or so. Now, that said….
Sunday’s show was an absolute revelation. When band members live hundreds of miles apart they don’t get much time to rehearse, and when they don’t get to play together very often you expect some ring rust when they finally do pull the curtain. In addition, they have added a third member, with Heather Sowards stepping into the keyboardist role once occupied by the departed Steve Hart. In other words, there was every reason to be prepared for a sub-par outing.
Instead, we got the precise opposite. Mike’s guitar work was cleaner than ever and I don’t know that I recall him being in finer voice. He’s always been a confident performer, but lately – perhaps owing to the influence of Austin’s seethingly diverse music culture – he has seemed even more sure of who he is as an artist. To say that he was in full command of the venue is to understate the dynamic.
Sowards, a longtime friend of the band, brought a whole new energy to the production – a warmth and vibrance that was positively bouncy at times. She connects both musically and personally with Mike and bassist/violinist/vocalist Mardi Salazar, and the result is that F8 has evolved from a cold, dark, two-person industrial front into something that feels more like community, and the crowd clearly felt it, too.
But the big story was Salazar. F8 has always been Mike’s band. Mardi has taken on an increasingly significant role over time, but in some respects their CDs and shows have felt more like two bands trading songs. Nothing stark or discontinuous, exactly, but they haven’t seemed fully integrated, either. I suppose living in different states will breed that sort of dynamic.
And there’s certainly no blaming here. Mardi’s songwriting and instrumental contributions have always been flawless. But from my perspective, I guess she has always felt like the other person in Mike’s band. This is probably me projecting here, since he’s been the one constant in F8 since I discovered them back in the mid-1990s, and she’s the relative newcomer by comparison.
Regardless, Sunday night it was clear that Mardi has wholly inhabited her place at the front of the stage. Her playing was seamless and intuitive, and when she took the mic she absolutely owned the room. This is normally the place in the program where I’d step aside to tell you that the highlight of the show was “Hegemony,” and really, not just because I co-wrote it, you know. And yeah, “Hegemony” rocked the house – no doubt about it.
The real highlight, though, was Salazar’s “We Are Machines,” a song that I’ve never really clicked with. I’m fully on board with the message, but it’s never been one of my favorites. Sunday night, for the first time ever, I really believed it. Put simply, Mardi knocked it out of the park.
In summary: a) damn, what a fantastic show, and up against a set of circumstances that would have excused a not-so-great performance; b) how freakin’ awesome would it be if Mike moved back to Denver so they could, you know, rehearse and gig more often; and c) I’m very much looking forward to the new CD, which I have been told will be available sometime this year.