One of Denver’s most popular New Year’s Eve parties is about to change. For the first time in about a decade, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club won’t be helping Denver fans jettison the old year for a new one – at least, not at the same location. After a long string of consecutive, packed shows at the Bluebird – for more than half of the band’s history – this year’s New Year’s Eve two-day shindig will be taking place at the Oriental Theater in Northwest Denver.
We got the chance to talk to Slim – the enigmatic leader of the goth-country, funky americana outfit – about the move recently, and the fact that this year’s gigs have a special addition: Slim Cessna’s son’s band – The Sterling Sisters, based in Baltimore, MD – will be joining the party.
Turns out the change may have been in the works for a bit, too. The relationship between the band and the venue seems to have wilted of late – sort of the same way a hockey team seems to get tired of its coach. It’s no-one’s fault, really – it’s just that a change is in order.
“It’s become pretty clear over the past couple years that Scott [Campbell - AEG Booking agent for the Bluebird and owner of the Larimer Lounge] has been ready for us to move on,” explained Slim. “We’ve had the New Year’s Eve shows at the Bluebird – we’ve played the Bluebird for years – and we used to have total control of the shows. Which bands we brought to play with us, what we did with the stage, for instance. Not so much anymore – we’ve lost a lot of the control of the stage and bands.”
“Our 11th consecutive NYE show was at the Bluebird – and that’ll be the last one. The 12th will be at the Oriental,” he added.
And this year he’s bringing son George’s band – The Sterling Sisters – to the party
The new venue should be a fine place to hold these locally famous, near-revival-tent-like parties. The stage at the Oriental is larger than the Bluebird’s, and official capacity at the Oriental is about 150 more. And, since the ceiling was replaced after last year’s minor collapse, the sound inside has been largely brilliant.
Besides all of that, Slim and the boys seem to be happy with the management at the Oriental as well. Since Scott LaBarbera regained the Oriental over a year ago, the place has been running well, filling up more often, and attracting more significant acts nearly every week (if only the parking could somehow grow a little, it’d be set for just about anything). And LaBarbera seems to be making the bands that come by happy.
“Scott’s been great. He’s fair, allowing us to pick our bands, and paying them fairly. Which is really important for Sterling Sisters, because they needed to be paid enough to make their trip out here from Baltimore worth it.”
Sterling Sisters is Slim’s son George’s five-piece band, and it’s not a surprise that they stomp on the same mystical musical ground as the Auto Club. The group’s sound is spearheaded by George’s carbon-copied Slim Cessna vocals (heck – George even looks the spitting image of his father: tall, lanky, Hank Williams in a black suit), intertwined with the beautiful, operatic and haunting singing of Scout Paré-Phillips – a pairing that, though it doesn’t sound like it, brings to mind the kind of vocal pairing the Exene Cervenka and John Doe created to lead X. It’s unforgettable together, and makes the atmosphere of Sterling Sisters’ gothic freak folk all the more enticing, intriguing even.
George Cessna is a film student in Baltimore currently, studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art, on his own path, to be sure. But there’s no doubt he’s not fallen far from Slim’s influence. Sterling Sisters features the young multi-instrumentalist alongside Pare-Phillips vocals and bass, and Andrew Haas on Banjo, Nicole Rodrigues on violin and Corey Hughes on drums and percussion. Their sound is the next step in the evolution of the Auto Club, really.
Similar, but very different.
The group’s first, eponymous EP, starts out with Paré-Phillips crooning over a slowly strummed banjo, and immediately causes visions – invariably in sepia-tone – of ghost-towns, windswept prairies, high desert on horseback, and a heavy helping of desolation. And then the band digs in, with a style of country folk that only the Auto Club could have gestated. One standout, “Fairplay, Colorado,” invokes an eerily accurate vision of the town, probably because George has spent his fair share of time hiking through it:
“It’s not George’s fault that he looks like me – sounds like me,” said the elder Cessna. “But he’s definitely not “us.” He’s found his voice, and it’s unique, and it’s really beautiful.”
It’s obvious Slim is proud of his son when he talks about him. And why not? George is only 20 now, and seems to be well on his way. It’s amazing how a life around talent breeds even more of it.
“He started young – both of my kids did. They’ve had access to all of this music for all their lives,” said Cessna. “Amelia plays the oboe, and just recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a major in oboe.”
“George – he can play everything now,” he added. “Drums, piano, guitar, violin – hell, he can even play the cello!” (laughs).
“I’m good – I’m good at surrounding myself with talented people,” explained Cessna. “I’m good at making a fool of myself. George is actually, a naturally good musician.”
Asked whether Sterling Sisters is a regular sharing the stage with the Auto Club – at least on this tour, Slim pointed out that George was too busy with school to be a part of it all. But they have begun to make their mark with the elder band – even all the way out west here in Denver.
“Sterling Sisters played a show opening for us in August in Pittsburgh,” explained Slim. “We were happy to share that stage with them. They played their first Denver show at Bender’s in June, opening for Munly’s band – the Lupercalians. That was a great show.”
They’ll be sharing the stage again for both nights of the New Year’s Eve celebration this year, though.
“We wanted Sterling Sisters to play at least one of the two nights – an they’re opening for the Auto Club for both. And being paid – significantly. They’re pretty excited.George is 20 now – but he’ll be 21 for the NYE gigs – something he’ll no doubt be taking full advantage of.”
Slim is well aware of the influence he’s had on his kids. They are, in fact, the entire reason he’s based in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife, rather than here in Denver. Slim moved his family out there in 2003, specifically so that they could take advantage of some of the things other cities like Denver offered – but that they would never be able to afford because of the costs of living. Both kids went to the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and have obviously benefitted greatly from it. These kinds of sacrifices are what make the difference, and what make Slim even more of a rock star to his kids than to the band’s worldwide fans.
“Yeah – they were sacrifices,” he commented. “And they worked.”
The Auto Club has been, it seems, almost non-stop touring this year – to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a band. If you follow them on Twitter or Facebook, it seems they’re in another town just about every other night.
“On this tour, we’ve been to Europe twice, up in Canada, through the Northwest and Southeast in the US,” said Slim. “But, according to everyone on Facebook, we’re not in their town.”
Still, the band calls Denver their home, and still announces their allegiance at the beginning of every show. Though Slim calls Pittsburgh home, and guitarist Dwight Pentacost is based in Boston, the band’s real spirit comes out of Denver.
“It’s not like I’m not there,” explained Slim. “I spend weeks at Bob’s [Ferbrache - who has recorded the Auto Club’s music and engineered it for years - and plays in the band] house from time to time. And we play in Denver a lot, every year.”
And Denver’s a strong base for them, as well as the rest of the city’s bands. Slim was quick to express his gratitude: “Denver is a wonderful place for music. It’s got such a vibrant scene, and so many great clubs to play in,” he said. “Never take that for granted – Denver’s awesome.”
Besides celebrating their second decade, this year’s tour has been in support of the band’s eighth record, “Unentitled,” which is receiving some pretty strong reviews according to Slim. “It’s been accepted well – it’s selling,” he explained. “It’s a good record, and people like it, from what we hear.”
It is a good record, except for the fact that – if you’d been to many of the Auto Club’s many shows in Denver in the few years before it was pressed – their stage shows featured most of its songs. When it first came out, it was a little hard to get excited about the tunes. But, here in Denver, we’re spoiled.
“It takes a lot of time to record our stuff – partly because of the long distance thing, but partly because of the way we work and – just our stuff,” explained Slim. “We often find we go in different directions a lot as we’re working it all out, and so we play it live a lot before we record. It helps to get the whole thing straightened out.”
That it did. The tour now features a lot of that stuff, to be sure – but there’s still no match for the tent-revival meets psychedelic freakout of an Auto Club show. Slim was understandably tight-lipped about any real specifics about this year’s New Year’s Eve shows, but it’s certain to be unforgettable, at least.
I asked Slim if he felt, after 20 years of constant Auto Clubbing, that things might wind down soon, or that he might be passing the torch on to his son George. His answer was typically down to Earth – but hilarious, nonetheless.
“Well – this is it – I don’t have a backup plan. No 401(k), no retirement, no healthcare, even,” he said. “I’ll be doing this for a long while.”
He also perked up about another project he and some of the members of the Auto Club have been toying around with for a few years now: The Denver Broncos UK. A noisier, more aggressive version of the Auto Club (which is a purposely understated description, designed to get you into the oriental early for the first day of festivities), the side project looks like it’s going to start getting real.
“We’re also working on The Denver Broncos UK,” Slim pointed out. “Our first show in Denver will be one of the two at the Oriental, on Sunday, The 30th of December, opening for the Auto Club. We’re looking forward to on that as a real thing – not just a side project. We’re excited to see where that’s going.”