This article first appeared in Colorado Music Buzz, May 2014.
Birch Street Ready To Step It Up
by Tim Wenger
They played it off like it was totally pro. Then again, maybe it was. On a damp Thursday night in Denver, The Bluebird Theater is packed and hazy, like an early morning fog after a pre-dawn rain, and harboring the same anxious feeling of anticipation. Even now, I’m still not sure if someone forgot to turn off the smoke machine, or if the five belt buckled, plaid collared shirt and sunglasses wearing country rockers that make up Birch Street were just trying to cover up the smell of weed emanating from the pit area. That might allow them to focus their full attention on the task at hand- rocking the near-sold out crowd that packed in to watch the band release their debut album on the evening of April 3, 2014.
Either way, the lights dimmed and the crowd roared with the fury of the early morning rush hour. The band took the stage like that awkward alcoholic cousin you keep hoping is going to show up at Christmas dinner, bringing a much needed spicing of the air and distraction from the dull conversations happening all around. The guys wasted no time. Front man Jake Langenhorst gave a brief intro and the band dove head first into their record, coming up for air only briefly between songs to present the next, crack a joke, or take a pull of the beer that sat at their feet.
At first, through the catchy, pop-sensible choruses and Langenhorst’s country-twanged vocals, I was wondering if I was spending my Thursday night with the bastard step-child of Florida-Georgia Line. Another bro-country outfit trying to cash in on the roid-rage, tight shirt, vodka-cran tendency of modern jock sensibilities. The music was good. They crashed genres together well. The band was well-rehearsed and tight. But do they really have that country soul or are they just flashing their style in front of the crowd, hoping that some black suit A and R guy from Nashville just happens to have made his way to Denver for the occasion?
Then, about five songs in, they brought out some Marvin Gaye and everything changed. Suddenly, I saw the heart. I felt the appeal. I understood what they are doing. Their temptingly mainstream mix of rock, country and soul, although it took a few songs to break my barrier, is genius, and the next few songs convinced me that it is exactly what Denver needs right now. The crowd, including the skeptical journalist standing against the stage-right wall on the second tier, gave in to the panty-dropping, stage-owning awesomeness that was happening right in front of them. I don’t know exactly what the dance was called, but the lower tier in front of the stage was, by this time and for the remainder of the show, going nuts.
The next day I gathered my notes. Simply put, Birch Street killed it. The cheering of the audience got a little bit louder after each song, until the last moments when many seemed to have lost their voice. Going into the night the vast majority in the crowd was already on board with Birch Street, but by the time the bartender pulled the mats even the few standing outsiders were sold. In the ear of the national country market, their type of sound is all the rage right now, and its high time Birch Street joins The Yawpers as Denver’s modern national offering outside of the alt-indie mustache circuit. Put these guys in the van, crank up the Willie Nelson, and cut them loose on the nation’s freeways.
The band started, not unlike many others, in a basement. Langenhorst and bassist Chad Macht started jamming together. “Soon after that we found (drummer) Cooper Leith,” says Langenhorst. The two went to high school with keyboardist Sheldon Slater, who, alongside Andy Burns, joined the band about a year later.
“We all have different influences,” says Macht, who, as we sit a couple weeks later at Illegal Pete’s DU over a round of beers (that quickly morphed into shots of Jim Beam), is donning a Pink Floyd t-shirt. “I think that’s what makes us unique is that we all come from a different type of style.”
Langenhorst brings the heart of country to the outfit, very fitting since he is the lead singer. “I think in all, it’s cool, combining these pop sensibilities with modern country bands,” he says. “The hard rock, 80’s guitar solos. I think we stand out, but I think our music could reach any niche in Denver.
Anywhere you look in the music, you can find where we are all coming from.”
“Except EDM,” says Slater, a comment both humorous and true.
“I think we have so many sounds that no matter what show you put us in, we can find a way to customize our sound to that niche that they are going for,” says Macht.
Birch Street brought their instruments along with their many artistic influences into UI Sound Studios last fall to work with producers Evan Reeves and Tira Neal for this, their 12-track debut album. “It was a long process, about a month of recording,” says Slater. The actual recording process, though a bit lengthy, was smooth.
Slater did have a bit of a hiccup during the recording progression, landing him in a tough spot with the law. “It was later in the recording session, we were almost done,” he says. “We all went out to Pearl Street to party and I ended up having one too many long islands. I got separated from the group.” He decided to sit down for a moment and gather his thoughts.
“Apparently you’re not allowed to sit down on Pearl Street when you’re drunk because that’s considered public intoxication,” says Slater. “I was waiting for my buddies to pick me up. The cops found me first.” Slater, after a confrontation, ended up in jail and was worried he wouldn’t make it to the recording session the next day. He ended up getting out in the morning after a long, sleepless night in the slammer.
“It was kind of like going through high school,” says Langenhorst. “When you’re done recording an album, you start looking at what you’re doing individually. It makes sense more, and you know you’re purpose more.”
Learning their purpose has been an evolving process taking influence not only from the studio but also from live gigs, the guys say. Their sound, while always having country flair to it, has grown towards a slightly heavier side more conducive to dancing, as opposed to slower ballads and whiny tunes.
“Playing all these live shows, playing all this crunchy stuff, people start getting into it, and you dig that, you want to go more with that,” says Langehorst. “All the live playing makes you appreciate all that crunchy stuff.”
To prepare for these heavy hitting live shows, they need two things- drinks, and some breathing room. “A lot of time we spend time talking to our fans,” says Slater.
“But it is good to get away like twenty minutes before maybe and just let it wind down,” says Macht.
“Sometimes your head can be spinning with all the people you see. We have very good fans, they come out to our shows pretty loyally so it’s easy to get to know everybody.”
“That’s the best part,” says Langenhorst, whom the band trusts to set the tempo for each performance.
“Jake does a good job being our front man because he reads it better than us,” says Slater. “He feeds off the crowd in the right way.”
“That’s key,” says Burns. “Cuz then as the guitar player, you’re never in that spot. Everything works out with everybody, I’m never shy or anything.”
The band will hit the road for just under a month this summer to spread the album across the south and the Midwest. Following that, they will be back at the Bluebird Theater and Fox Theatre for local gigs while getting their next record ready. Get your copy of their debut record at all of the major online retailers.