From his work with Pete Seeger to his new protest songs, Silent Bear isn't so silent.
My first impression of Silent Bear was that his name fit him well: towering above me in his over-six-foot-tall frame, he was soft-spoken with kind eyes as he sat down across from me with a cup of coffee at The Laughing Goat. His ponytail touched the back of his jacket as he moved toward my tape recorder and clinked his cup against its saucer.
“So I started in open mics here [in Boulder],” he tells me, “and it was a lot different back then.”
I ask him when “back then” was, and Silent Bear tells me he moved to Boulder in 1993 when he drove his sister out to CU and ended up sticking around. And the difference?
“If you walked into a coffeehouse back then, it was before the digital age. So there were a bunch of people sitting around tables and they’d actually be talking to one another. They might not even know each other. But there would be artists drawing up posters for musicians, like, ‘Hey you got a gig Wednesday? Here’s some artwork for it.’ There would be people spreading the word about their gigs for the week, and there would be groups of us in philosophical conversation. And it’s different now. The world is so much bigger in some ways, but it’s a lot smaller in others. I miss that sometimes.”
I glance around. Save for the one soul actually reading a book by himself in the corner, every other person in the place (and it’s packed) is in front of a screen. As I ponder commenting on this, he beckons to me with a smile, “But certain things are the same- there are some artists who are still around and there’s still a great scene here.”
Silent Bear is one such scene staple himself. After becoming a Boulder transplant in the 90s, SB started out playing local open mic nights and worked his way up to co-hosting one at the late Penny Lane Coffeehouse with Chuck Nehring. Together, the two would tape the nights live to cassette, and the recordings were then played on KGNU. Silent Bear met a lot of local artists this way and started practicing his material in front of crowds, but after a few years in the scene, he had the itch to jump back to his origins in New York. There, he found himself inspired by the jazz club scene.
“There was a real collective there- there were the jazz elders- the legends- and the up and comers. And I dabbled in jazz playing but my roots are more in folk and blues. There were ‘Big Band Mondays’ with 16-piece bands- there was a lot happening.”
Silent Bear connected with percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell to record his first album, and although they were signed to a label, it was a jazz label. So when it came to booking shows and getting real distribution, things didn’t quite pan out. Their sound just wasn’t a fit for the jazz clubs Silent Bear was so inspired by. But he kept on.
Eventually, Silent Bear’s musical journey brought him back to the B in 2004. He found other artists to play with, and also kept doing a lot of solo work. One of his biggest music moments happened in 2012 when he played a benefit concert with Pete Seeger and the two became friends. Wanting to record and release some new material around that time, Silent Bear approached Seeger about working together. And soon after, he found himself in Seeger’s living room.
“Pete played banjo on a track- we recorded a couple of songs together in his living room in New York. My last album The Green Lion- it’s great because it’s a real honor that [Seeger’s] on there, but there are also a lot of local artists on there too.”
And that’s the thing about Silent Bear- he’s got the sort of spirit that welcomes you into his work whether you’re a music legend or an amateur.
As Silent Bear and I continue to chat, I ask him about his name.
“You know a lot of people think the name is Native American but it’s not. I do a lot of work with Native Peoples- I’ve been honored to be a part of of their traditional ceremonies, I’ve played benefit shows for Native causes, and I have been close with a lot of people in the community. They are my spiritual brothers and sisters and friends, but my blood ancestors are Russian and Polish. I’ve thought to myself, ‘There are bears in Russia as well as here in North America.’ But the way I actually got the name ‘Silent Bear’ was on a roadtrip when my sister Debra and I were just making up names for each other. She came up with Silent Bear and it kind of fit and stuck, you know? The bear is the guardian of the dream and the subconscious. The Big Dream. I like that. And it’s a strong image. I can be quiet, but when I get on stage, people are sometimes surprised by me; by my voice, by my performance; by the paradox. So you have the quiet nature of my character up front with the power and intensity of the bear behind it.”
I tell him I like that. And then I wonder aloud, “From Penny Lane, to your jazz days, to recording with Pete Seeger. . . what’s next for you at this point?”
“Well, we released The Green Lion album last year, but I’ve already got a lot of new material I want to record now and so I’m looking for avenues for that.” he smiled. “And I’m doing a lot of work with what I call my ‘Electric Band,’ my three piece. We’re a little louder, you know, a little different energy than what I do myself.”
Silent Bear is also hosting an open-mic night at Sancho’s Boulder Arrow on Monday nights, which is ironically where he played his first Boulder gig back when it was Branden’s Cafe. I comment on how that seems to bring things full-circle for SB’s Boulder career, and Silent Bear laughs in agreement.
“I want to create a musical community there; an artist’s community. Kinda back to the Penny Lane days, where people come and support one another and get inspired. There might be someone playing a song that you like and you go home and write one because you get inspired. Or you might meet somebody, like I met Kahlil at the jazz clubs, and they might be your musical soulmate. Maybe you get together and form a band. Maybe you’re looking to record and somebody will come and say, ‘Oh yeah I got a studio and I’m looking to take on some projects, you know.’ The possibilities are endless.”
Listening to someone with so much experience, I agree with him that they are. Silent Bear is more than just a well-known musician in the local scene, he’s someone who has watched it transform over 20+ years. I tell him this as he hands me a copy of The Green Lion.
He softly smiles.
“I want you to have this.” he says.
And that’s just like Silent Bear: Humble, but talented. Kind, but determined. Giving, but quiet. Strong on stage, but soft-spoken in conversation. A powerful spirit. A powerful musician.
Listen to Silent Bear here.
And check out Sancho’s Open Mic Mondays with Silent Bear here.
Watch the artistic video for the track “The Green Lion” below: