Imagine this: It’s late on a weekend night and Denverites are out and about. Maybe they’re hanging out at the latest hipster bar along South Broadway or enjoying an adult beverage at a popular downtown watering hole.
There’s a rumble in the crowd and the mood shifts. The commotion builds and, before anyone has time to question anything, they’re all are dancing to the driving rhythm of a drum corps, punctuated by cymbals and electric guitar. There are lights, a dancing figures and synthetic sounds — it’s chaos, but of the best variety.
This is how many people are introduced to the enclave of Denver musicians and performers better known as the itchy-O Marching Band. This 36-piece ensemble rarely puts out a list of show dates, but, rather, routinely performs in a guerrilla-style manner, springing up when and where least expected. Which is part of the troupe’s excitement, as is the fact that itchy-O performs in masks and uniforms adorned with lights and a signature itchy-O emblem.
The itchy-O sound is likewise unique, driven by a dozen drummers and other percussionists and embellished with a handful of theremins, vocoders and assorted handmade electronic instruments.
“It’s kind of like the ultimate punk-rock, rhythm booty shake,” says Jeff Campbell, one of the owners of 3 Kings Tavern, a frequent Denver spot for planned and impromptu itchy-O performances alike. “When the drums start hitting, you have to move.”
Campbell has been working in the nightlife business for over 15 years, and says few Denver acts can compare to itchy-O. He has witnessed the band come into 3 Kings and “take over the place,” entering the space from all directions and sending crowds into a frenzy of dancing.
This is exactly the type of pandemonium that itchy-O strives for.
Answering Confluence’s questions via email as a “hive-mind collective,” itchy-O says the band started in 2005 as a one-man “ambient project made from the layered tracks of animal heartbeats found on vinyl from a veterinarian school.”
From these auspicious and bizarre beginnings, the act evolved. In 2007, the band grew to nine players, and they started creating extravagant multimedia showcases. But the complex shows limited itchy-O, and it started to experiment with new concepts and platforms — eventually leading to the pop-up style itchy-O uses now.
“Our first crash was the Santa Fe First Friday Art Walk,” says itchy-O. “The adrenaline that comes from playing virgin crowds and blowing fresh minds quickly became addictive.”
Productions have evolved since that first crash to include Taiko drummers, Chinese lion dancers, a few “creeps” interacting with the audience and “a ton of new sophisticated gizmos like a 16-unit wireless system and digital sound board that make playing large venues as engulfing as any small intimate room.”
Denver is very much at the heart of itchy-O, driving the band’s distinct sound and spectacle.
“There is a magnificent DIY scene and culture here we have the privilege of recruiting from,” says itchy-O. The band also attributes local success to small independent venues like Mercury Cafe, Deer Pile, Rhinoceropolis and 3 Kings that “keep the Denver underground scene alive and vibrant.”
Jeremy Heidl has seen the band perform on several occasions, both planned and impromptu, and remembers being taken aback as itchy-O crashed Mercury Cafe. “They are equal parts theater, music and energy,” he says.
For fans like Heidl, itchy-O promises there is lots to look forward to in 2014, like its first full-length vinyl record with a well-known label that has international distribution. The band also says a new website and Kickstarter campaign will be launched in 2014, with hopes to tour to the South, New York, and Chicago.
This could be the year of itchy-O.
Yet the band stresses that the ultimate payoff doesn’t come in the form of money or musical accolades, but in the remarkable energy shared by Denver audiences.
“Itchy-O is a mammoth, genre-defying spectacle, but the power, we believe, lies in the shared visceral experience between the performers and the audiences we play in,” says the band. “All of the members volunteer their time and talent, so the live exchange is the supreme pay-off for us. Denver audiences have never failed to make it worth our time and toil.”
This story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here.