Denver’s Mlima have covered a lot of ground in the five years since their formation, but their journey, in a lot of ways, is only beginning. The group, who have coined the term “mountain groove music” in an attempt to encapsulate their sprawling sounds, first played together in 2012. Since then, they’ve played Red Rocks and were discovered and nurtured by the late legendary concert promoter Barry Fey; they’ve been with Fey’s management company, Feyline Presents, ever since. The band has also seen multiple personnel changes since their inception, with the one constant being percussionist Jack Breitenbach, the group’s founder. But as saxophonist/vocalist Zach Simms told me in a recent interview, it’s really been in the past year and a half that Mlima has found itself coalescing into the type of band that can look into the sky and say, “We could go there. And fill it with music.”
In a very tangible way, that’s exactly what they did in their recent concert at CU Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium. Following a set of powerful, funky space-jazz by opening trio Dandu (definitely another Denver band to watch, by the way), Mlima populated the stage in their current incarnation featuring the locally ubiquitous vocalist Jessica Jones (who has sung with dozens of bands from the Glitta Kings to Galactic), masterful guitarist Jeph Kennedy, keyboardist Nate Todd (of Whiskey Tango and Jaden Carlson Band), bassist Ryan Thrush, drummer Lance Croucher, and the aforementioned Zach Simms on sax and vocals (also of Zobomaze and Like A Kenny G6). Together, these musicians proceeded to take the audience on a sonic journey that perfectly complemented the planetarium’s projected backdrop of intergalactic scenery.
Watch Mlima’s live set at Fiske Planetarium:
Aside from rallying all the talent onstage into an impressive and affecting musical whole, the concert marked another rather stunning achievement: virtually the entire set had been recently written by the band specifically for the planetarium concert, and the show was a debut performance of that material. This ambitious undertaking harkens back to another recent Mlima project, the transformation of their 2016 New Year’s show at The Bluebird Theater in Denver into the band’s soon-to-be-released next album, which drops August 17th, 2017. Much like this show, the Fiske Planetarium set will now be taken into the studio and made into the group’s next album, which they plan to release just a couple of months after the upcoming Bluebird record. These are not going to be live albums, but rather present an interesting twist on the live album formula: write a set for a specific show, go perform that show, and then take the material into the studio. If another band has taken that approach in the past, I haven’t heard about it!
The tradition among local bands playing Fiske Planetarium has been to gear their sets toward the starry, trippy background of projections against Fiske’s domed ceiling, and for both Mlima and openers Dandu, this concert was no exception. But make no mistake that both bands, while playing sets that definitely leaned toward a reflection of the psychedelic/spacey feel of the visuals, did not skimp on the funk and hard grooves. Fiske has a largely seated arrangement, but that didn’t stop people from getting out of those seats and dancing in the aisles during portions of the show. Since most of the music in Mlima’s set was new, I of course didn’t recognize most of the songs, but for being brand-new material, there was no sense of the band “rehearsing” the songs onstage. In fact, many of these songs came across as anthems one might remember from dreams, or from life in another galaxy. With titles like “Planet Borscht” and “Hallucination Rain,” there was a sense of not only the type of tripping-through-the-universe groove which might remind one of Pink Floyd at their “Astronomy Domine”/”Set The Controls For The Heart of the Sun” starry best, but also of the kind of mad fun one might find at a concert by Gogol Bordello, especially in the crazed performance of the Klezmer-party Mlima original “Kosher Dumpling,” which came near the end of the show and had Simms wandering among the audience honking on his baritone sax while audience members danced gleefully around him.
The one song I definitely did recognize was their cover of the psyche-pop classic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which was Kenny Rogers’ first hit in 1968. Mlima did the song proud, ably abetted by Jessica Jones’ always soulful and hugely powerful voice. For as much as that girl gigs, I must admit rather shame-facedly that this was my first time catching a performance by her, and I was far from disappointed. Her vocals are indeed a local treasure, but then again, everyone in Mlima brought so much to the stage: Simms is an insanely watchable frontman and an excellent saxophonist, and all the other musicians displayed dazzling virtuosity while making it all look easy and ridiculously fun. They definitely made a fan of me, and I can’t wait to hear their two upcoming albums when they’re released nearly back-to-back later this year.
I don’t know what Mlima were like when they started, but Barry Fey must have seen their potential when he arranged to have them open for The Disco Biscuits at Red Rocks during their first year as a band. It seems from that highly auspicious beginning, the band has truly grown into a full realization of that potential, and will go amazingly onward and upward from here: even the sky may not be the limit for this band.
Mlima play The Fox Theatre July 7th opening for Jaden Carlson and Broccoli Samurai. Tickets here. Keep up with Mlima on their Facebook.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.