Eric Halborg’s harmonica chops were honed in a radio-less pick-up truck. The frontman for Denver psychedelic blues band Dragondeer used the time suck that is driving around a city and its suburbs to woodshed and learn the harmonica. It’s heard in Dragondeer, the Denver-based rock band performing this weekend at the San Juan Brewfest, the beer tasting in Buckley Park that benefits United Way of Durango.
“Our practice space at the time was in not the best part of Denver. The car stereo got stolen and I never replaced it, I just put harmonicas in there. So every time I was in my car commuting or doing whatever, I would drive with one hand and blow harp with the other. I did that for three years, never played with another song, never played with another person, but did it every day,” said Halborg. “Now it’s a big part of our sound, and I run it through some delay and reverb pedals and do my best to get a Little-Walter, Sonny-Boy-Williamson kind of tone.”
Dragondeer’s story starts five years ago. Halborg had been playing in the band Swayback and met musician Cole Rudy through the Denver scene. Casual conversation revealed a mutual love of the blues, Rudy heard Halborg’s harmonica playing which, at that time, didn’t extend past sessions in the pick-up truck. An idea for a band was born.
“We wanted to have our own take on blues; he wanted to play mandolin and lap steel, I was playing classical guitar through a tube amp, blowing harp and playing tambourine with my foot at the time, since it was the two of us at the time,” Halborg said. The band then added Carl Sorenson on drums, and Casey Sidwell on bass. “Those guys have jazz degrees and we realized we wanted improvisation to be part of the equation. Since, we’ve been forging our path and figuring out how to create this sound,” he said.
The quartet’s latest recorded effort will come in the form of digital releases and 7-inch vinyl. Earlier this year, the band headed out to Topanga Canyon in Southern California where they recorded 12 new songs with producer Mark Howard. Howard has a long history of working with producer Daniel Lanois, and his resume is loaded with work from The Tragically Hip and Iggy Pop to Bob Dylan.
“Topanga Canyon Sessions Volume 1” is the first of numerous forthcoming releases, an EP that is raw and dark while equally soulful and up-beat. Members file the sound under “psychedelic blues,” a genre that has kicked around since the summer of love and existed in music scenes everywhere since, perhaps without that two-word tag. It’s how one would describe The Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, or Otis Taylor; The 13th Floor Elevators have tripped out a time or two, and Dragondeer gets there via haunting covers from the public domain or their own explorations of the American gothic.
“I think the psychedelic part is that we’re running mandolins and wa-wa pedals through delays and using distortion. And the improvisational thing,” said Halborg. “When we think of it, we’re stretching it and using our far-out take on blues. Someone said ‘indie rock for jam band kids, jam band for indie rock kids.’ However they label it is cool with me.”
Playing with Dragondeer at the brew fest is local rock band Farmington Hill. Topanga Canyon Sessions Vol. 1 will be available on vinyl at the show.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. firstname.lastname@example.org.