Music, Magic, Rock, & Reggae: The Very Long Story of Colorado's Burnt Lips

By: Will Baumgartner

The story of Colorado’s longest-running rock/reggae band, Burnt Lips, began in 1979, and according to rhythm guitarist Chuck “Beaver” Cavanaugh, there’s no end in sight. The eight-piece band, who play a style of music they’ve dubbed “island rock”, claim several firsts in their extensive history: In 1982, they were the first Colorado band to get a video on MTV; the same year Beaver coined the term “rock reggae” in an interview on CBS’s 'PM Magazine' TV show; and while there were a couple of English bands experimenting with the combination of reggae and rock in the late 70’s, Burnt Lips were undoubtedly the first band in Colorado to try that combination and get any recognition for it.

This summer has been a big one for the group, with shows at New York’s Davestock Festival and the 33rd Annual Bong-A-Thon in Colorado. This Saturday, the Burnt Lips will take the Heritage Stage in Civic Center Park for a two hour set at Denver’s A Taste of Colorado. The band is also currently in the studio completing their next album, 'Magic in the Music', with plans for release on 04/20/2017. (Their last album, Tropical Moon, was released on 04/20 two years ago; do we see a pattern arising through the smoke here?)

Burnt Lips shows are always high-energy, audience-interactive, and in the words of member Beaver Cavanaugh: “Fun, fun, fun”. They refer to their shows as an “island rock experience”. The entire band wears tie-dye, there are extended jams on songs that are more arranged on their studio releases, and there is always a lot of back-and-forth, call-and-response interaction between the band and audience. At this Saturday’s show, we’ll also be seeing some new contributions to the band’s repertoire from backup singer Geno Sirokman.

To get a more detailed picture of what Burnt Lips have been doing all these years, I sat down with Beaver and asked him some questions. His answers told a rich and colorful story. Read on and you’ll see what I mean…

As a band who has had such a long and storied history, it’s hard to know what question to ask you first, but let’s start with the name. Why and how did you settle on “Burnt Lips”? I know you’ve been around longer than the Flaming Lips, so it couldn’t be an “answer” to that band name...

One day in Loveland, CO back in 1979, a group of my musical friends and I were jamming out some reggae tunes, you know like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, when we lit up a small spliff. As we were enjoying the herb, the bass player, Fabrice Dolegowski, had the roach in his mouth as we finished a song. He blurted out “I burnt my lip!” Then he said that would be a great name for our little group, Burnt Lips. All I can say is that it stuck.

 Burnt Lips.

Burnt Lips.

1979 was a LONG time ago, but I know that you haven’t been a band that entire time. Between 2000 and 2010, Burnt Lips were on hiatus, so what did y’all do during that decade, and what brought the band back together?

In the summer of 2000, I got married and moved to Seattle, which only lasted a year. Then I moved to the hills of northern New Jersey, where I grew up. I got a day job in the IT business as a field engineer. In the meantime, Davey Boy stayed in Colorado and worked as an executive chef. Davey has kept me alive for 30 years cooking some amazing meals, which he still does to this day for me and the band. In April of 2011, I get a call from Davey. He said, “Beaver, break time is over. We are going to have a reunion concert with all the original members of Burnt Lips. You’d better start playing your guitar.” I hadn’t touched my guitar in ten years, [so] I had to learn how to play guitar again, and relearn all of our old songs.

The reunion concerts were scheduled for June of 2011, and when I got back to Colorado, I [only] got two rehearsals with the whole band. We hit the stage, and I was overwhelmed by the response we received from our old fans. Davey told me after the show that I needed to move back to Colorado. I only had a couple of weeks to pack up and leave. My company paid all my moving expenses and I made it to Denver. The rest is history.

Burnt Lips have shared stages with some world-renowned artists, including Jimmy Cliff, and the seminal reggae/dancehall artist Yellowman, both of those at the Rainbow Music Hall, Barry Fey’s legendary Denver concert venue. What was that like? How would you compare the Colorado music scene of those days to today?

 Chuck Beaver Cavanaugh.

Chuck Beaver Cavanaugh.

Well, [those shows] were awesome. Both were sold-out. Our band was on fire, and to hear a big crowd cheering after every song is a musician's dream come true. To share the stage with world-class acts inspired us to keep going and write new songs. We learned so much from both bands. Barry Fey loved and supported us. We were so honored that it is hard to find the words.

To compare then to now is also hard to express. Back in the day, there were a lot of great venues to play. Plus the pay was so much better than it is today. As a matter of fact, today the venues pay about the same, or less than we got then. The point is that everything has gone up but the bands’ wages. We could make a living back then. Now, it’s very hard to make a living. Plus today there are so many more bands in the scene. The competition is very tough. We learned to forget about going for the money and, instead, went for the creative joy of making original music. We have been an all-original band right from the start, and never wavered from that path. I must say that we have a great music scene here in Colorado though, both now and back in the day.

At what point did Burnt Lips decide to stop playing clubs and focus exclusively on festivals and special events? And what led to that decision?

When Davey Boy and I decided to put the band back together, we talked about how to approach our re-emergence into the local scene. We decided that the clubs would kill us playing four sets a night, so we wanted to try to break into the festival circuit. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. We stuck to our guns even though many local clubs wanted us to play. We started with going to the Performing Arts Jamboree. That first year, we got one gig out of it. But we kept going back each year, and each year got better and better. We now play just the summer season, from May to October. We average about two festivals or special events a month. These gigs pay much better than the local venues, and we don't have to work as hard. We get to play in front of canned audiences that are there to have fun and hear top-notch shows. At this point, we are so glad to stay the course. Plus, we don't burn out our band this way, and our fans are more likely to come see us. We keep the band and the show fresh.

 James Dickson.

James Dickson.

While you coined the term “rock reggae” in 1979, there were at least a couple of other bands messing around with combining those genres, most notably The Police and The Clash. How does Burnt Lips’ music differ from these new wave/punk experimentations?

When we started, we were a pure reggae band with players from Jamaica and the Island of Trinidad playing a lot of roots reggae. When we went into Applewood Studios to record our first album, First Wave, we had a song called “Long, Long Time”. Our recording engineer, Steve Counter, asked me if he could “pop up” the song. I agreed, and as they say, history was in the making. I started to add rock musicians to bring some sparkle and energy to our music’ that’s when I brought Davey Boy in. He got my vision and turned out to be a great songwriter and arranger. This was before The Police.

[When I went to make a music video for the song], I hired Ryan Production Group, a small startup business, to film the video. I also hired the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Group to perform in the video. They were a new dance group in Denver. Peter O'Fallon, the producer and owner of Ryan Production, went on to become a very successful producer in Chicago and LA. And Cleo went on to become one of Colorado's greatest dance groups.

 Ready for some rock reggae.

Ready for some rock reggae.

While filming the “Long, Long Time” video, CBS’ 'PM Magazine' taped a segment of us doing the video at a warehouse in Denver. This was at the same time that Michael Jackson was releasing the “Thriller” video, and CBS had an exclusive to air Michael's video on 'PM Magazine'. Cable was still in its earliest time, 1982. Our segment was called “The Making of a Rock Video”, and it aired right after the debut of “Thriller” nationwide. When I was interviewed on-air by 'PM Magazine' and they asked what we called our music, I said “We call it rock reggae”.

[After that], we all thought we were going to be rock stars, but, alas, the music business is the toughest business of all. We got lots of shows, but never scored the right management we needed to make the next step, to get to the next level. When The Police showed up, I couldn't believe they were an instant success and we weren't. We were possibly the first rock reggae band in America. But we kept going, and we are still producing original music today.

“Long, Long Time” was also the first song by a Colorado band to have a video on MTV. That must have been incredibly exciting. Did the band at that time recognize the historical significance that this would have?

No we didn’t recognize the historical significance at that time. We thought it was cool to be on MTV and we were proud of it. Today, we just recognize that it is part of our legacy.

 In the studio.

In the studio.

You’re a rather large band, with Davey Boy on lead guitar and vocals while you jam rhythm guitar, James Dickson on bass, Gene Sirockman on lead and background vocals, Ron Wright on flute and sax, Carl Holz holding down drums, William Cordiner on keys, and Amy Garcia on vocals. How active are the other band members in creating the music that ends up being heard on your recordings and live?

When I started the band, it was my idea to give all the players in the band a chance to tap into their own creativity. Each member basically writes their own musical parts with Davey giving them some ideas to work. He is such a good arranger and allows the players creative license. One of our vocalists, Geno Sirokman, writes lyrics, and Davey writes the music. They are kind of our John and Paul team. We do it collectively.

For your performance at this year’s A Taste of Colorado in Denver, do you have any special treats or surprises in store for the audience?

We will be playing some of our new songs from our upcoming release, Magic In The Music, including “Party Song”, which is a crowd pleaser.

With as long as this band’s been around, do you expect to keep going for a long time to come? I think your fans would like that just fine, but… you tell me: long-range plans for Burnt Lips?

Oh yes, we will be playing and creating new original music until the end. We built our own studio we call “Lips Central”. After our live-performance season, we take the winter months to record new material. We no longer care about making money, but put more stock in the making of new, original music. We live in the creative process. And we are a happy band.

Happy indeed.

Burnt Lips play the Heritage Stage in Civic Center Park this Saturday, September 3rd from 5:30-7:30PM as part of the aforementioned A Taste of Colorado Festival. Make sure to check them out and keep up with the band on their Facebook and their website.

-Will

All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.