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Tim Van Schmidt
It’s January 2021, and the subdudes should be playing at The Armory. However, their two shows on January 7 and 8 — postponed from last June — have been canceled amid continuing virus restrictions.
But it was just what we needed to start a new year — some of that good rhythm and soul that makes up the music of the subdudes.
To get some anyway, I ordered up the subdudes’ latest release, “Lickskillet.” But before we get to that, let’s go way back to the beginning.
“The beginning” would be the subdudes’ first cassette tape. Self-titled, the 1987 tape included eight songs, including the one that put the band in the music business flow. That would be “On His Mind,” featured by Musician Magazine in its Best Unsigned Band Contest in 1988.
The song was chosen from a field of 20,000 entries, included on a compilation CD which led to a record deal, signed at the Colorado governor’s mansion — and the subdudes were living in Fort Collins when all of this broke.
The subdudes’ good news was breaking just as I was coming on to write about music in the Fort Collins press. I was writing about every kind of music but closest to my heart over those years was following the story of the subdudes. A lot of that had to do with access — if not the whole band, then several members lived in Fort Collins and since I was the “music guy” in town, I got to interview them for many years into their career, catching up to somebody or another when they were off the road.
That connection allowed me to chronicle the early years of the subdudes. Thanks to them, I got to interview New Orleans legend Earl King when he was in town to play with the band. Steve Amedee told me about a wild trip to L.A. to play and record with Joni Mitchell. I heard road stories and music business stories and recording stories. I got to meet famed producer Glyn Johns, who produced some tracks for the band, at Mishawaka one afternoon. This was just amazing core material for someone working on a music journalism career.
Loving the subdudes also became a community thing in Fort Collins that still endures. Many loyal fans here today were there when the group left New Orleans, where the band was formed, and moved to Colorado in the fall of 1987. The subdudes brought with them rich original music mixing rock, blues, country, and gospel — definitely dance-friendly — their smooth harmony vocals offset by enough gravel and grit elsewhere to take things out to the edge.
The move found them welcomed in Colorado and the subdudes quickly became a regional hit. They played every conceivable place in Fort Collins anyway — from their regular gigs at The Page to a pizza place with the tables moved aside — and a core of fans would turn out to every gig, dancing in a kind of subdude ecstasy. A little bit like Grateful Dead fans, subdudes fans were agreeable with each other and just wanted to have fun.
I’ve kept up with the subdudes in more recent years as a lot of other fans in Fort Collins — a part of the crowd at their annual appearances at Bohemian Nights.
Until now. Their most recent album release is 2019’s “Lickskillet” and a lot of what made the subdudes a great group in their younger days is still strong. Of course, compared to that 1987 tape, the recording is so far advanced over those recordings from the dim past — “Lickskillet,” first of all, is a great sounding album.
Still, the basic elements from 33 years ago are clearly echoed today — songwriting with heart, impassioned lead vocals, and superfine backing vocals, tuned to harmonic perfection. Let’s also not forget some raucous electric guitar, a lot of joy, and some bitter-sweet sadness as well. There’s also some characteristic playfulness, which underscores one of the best tracks on the record, “Them Figs.”
Add in some rich horn parts for a little extra shine.
But it was the tune “Love Has the Power” that got to me directly. The refrain is “love has the power to heal the world” and that’s exactly what everyone needs about now, is a lot of healing. And I can imagine a room full of happy subdudes fans dancing and singing along — and getting “healed” as well.
Healing with the subdudes is not a somber experience, but an uplifting one. Between the music — rhythmic and expressive — and the message — full of down-to-earth soulfulness — the subdudes inspire. We need that so much, so their Armory dates will be sorely missed.
But thanks to “Lickskillet,” a choice slice of the subdudes’ healing soul music is served up any time.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Check out his YouTube channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”