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Sunday, April 28, 2024

Umbra - Umbra (1971-72 us, remarkable prog psych rock, 2018 remaster)

Umbra was founded in 1969 and continued to solidify into 1970. Steve describes Umbra as “a progressive, psychedelic, jam group”.  I had the privilege of listening to the band’s “garage” recordings from that period and have to say this was a very diverse and talented ensemble. Steve recalled that the tracks were put down on a 4 track and a 2 track recorder and recorded at a band member’s home.

Most of the band members were from local Denver area high schools with the exception of Nick Melliadis who came from New York.  Steve attended South High School which wasn’t a good fit for him back then. “I didn’t care much for high school so I dropped out to pursue my music.” It was a decision that worked very well for Steve. He did achieve his GED, but more importantly acquired a rich and deep education in music with his adventures from Umbra up to the present day.

The name “Umbra” was selected by the band while perusing the dictionary – an exercise common with bands back then (and maybe even now). “Umbra translates to “shadow on moon”, stated Steve. “We wanted a name that was short, mysterious, easy to remember, and sounded cool.”

Some on-line Umbra band histories state that the group was a ‘weekend band’.  Faulkner corrects this, “The truth is, we were a full-time band.  We did a lot of four and five night gigs locally and on the road.”  Steve continues, “We did a ton of road work.  We had a very good regional reputation.”  Umbra appeared regularly in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas as well as a few more States.

The original group was comprised of Steve on drums, Eric Frazee on lead guitar, and Terry Lewis on bass.  They were joined a little later on by twin brothers Gary and Larry Mann.  Larry departed in 1971. Nick Melliadis (alias “Nick Stoner”) joined Umbra later that year. Nick played guitar, harmonica, and sang lead vocals with Gary.  Gary would leave in late 1974 or early 1975.  The group continued on until 1976.

The band would work at many local venues including “The Rest of the Week”, “The House of Draught”, “Sam’s” on Lookout Mountain, “Tulagi” in nearby Boulder, Colorado, the “Eighth Infinity” at 1st and Broadway, the “Rathskellar” (which was recently destroyed by a fire) and more. “We appeared often at the Eighth Infinity”, Faulkner recalled. He continued, “We were literally the last band to perform at the Exodus in downtown Denver.” Steve explains that after the band had wrapped up their set, and were outside loading up their musical gear, the Denver police converged on the Exodus, stormed the entry and promptly locked the doors.

The Exodus was apparently delinquent in city tax or fee payments and were thus shut down, never to open their doors again.

Steve’s journeys through the local music scene put him in touch with Joel Cowan a local jazz musician who worked with the likes of Nat “King” Cole, The Ink Spots and Patti Page. Cowan would join up with a Chicago musician on Denver’s Band Box group releasing a LP on the Spicy Label titled “Party Time” (shown below). Cowan and Faulkner would become good friends and worked together for a time at Simmon’s Music on Broadway in downtown Denver.

Through his work, Faulkner would meet many, including Denver polka band leader Herman Dinges who was hugely popular throughout the Colorado Front Range. Steve would also become well acquainted with Denver recording star drummer Ronny Kae, visiting him often at Ronnie’s Drum City music store in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

“I would come into the store and go back to Ronnie’s desk where we would converse while beating on drum pads to pass the time”, Steve recalled.  Kae would release an LP and several singles on Denver’s Band Box label as well as his own “Honey” record label. Several of his tracks charted locally on KIMN and other Denver area radio stations.

Steve can pull up band names, venues he frequented and acquaintances he made in a long succession:  Mr. Lucky’s, The God Father, the Fetal Pig, Aphrodite (at the Infinity), the band Mandrake, the Wild Ones with guitar extraordinaire Ron Morgan, The Crystal Palace Guard, The Fogcutters, Lothar and the Hand People, the Galaxy Nightclub on West Alameda and many more!

During the 1970’s Steve would join up with Monte Dale and the late Joe Martinez (“Little Joe”). They performed as a trio and Steve doesn’t believe that they worked under an official group name.  Steve fondly remembers Joe Martinez, “Joe (was) much more influential in my life than most people.”

Dale had earlier cut four tracks released as singles for the CLW label out of Edgewater in the western part of the Denver metro area. Joe Martinez was another Band Box recording artist who had been a member of the 1960’s band “The Fabulous Cyclones”.

Beginning in 1966, Steve experienced a rich career which included working at Fred’s Music headed up by musician/instructor Fred Tafoya, a figure who played a very important role in Steve’s life, as a coach, a mentor and a dear friend.   Many local musicians would come through the store befriending Faulkner with their mutual pursuit of excellent drumming and making music.

Faulkner would do a stint with a band called “Lightning County” from 1988 into 1994 doing a country and rock n’ mix.  Faulkner recalls, “Lightning County” began as a part-time band and then evolved to a full-time band.”  We played locally and on the road for nine months at a time – six weeks out – two weeks back.”

Steve continues, “This was the only time I couldn’t teach.  This culminated with the European six week tour when Desert Storm broke out.”

That band had the privilege of touring through Europe performing at U.S. military bases. They had to make a retreat to the U.S. when terrorist activity began occurring frequently and the U.S. bases were on alert.

Steve shared this: “Two other noteworthy bands that I played in would be the Jennifer Price Band (did an all original CD with her] and a band called Bustopher Jones. I played a lot with both bands. Once in a while, both bands merged. We called that band the Outlets.”

And today Steve continues to work with Umbra band member Nick Melliadis in a band called “Secret City”.  Bass player Nathan Baker came in a few years ago replacing Terry Lewis.  Faulkner and Baker had previously played together in a band called “Bradford Junction”.

Today Eric Frazee resides in the mountain town of Bailey, Gary Mann lives in Denver.  The Secret City LP charted nationally in 2019 entering the “Jambands” Top 30 for 2 months!

Steve’s long career continues to this day teaching drums. Among his other musical endeavors, Steve was a long-time drum instructor at Rockley Music which was located on West Colfax in Lakewood.   Rockley first opened in 1946 finally closing in December of 2019.

In the early days, Umbra never made it onto vinyl in spite of laying down the 8 tracks in one of their homes very early on in their careers. That would change when Steve would come into contact with Vincent Tornatore, the founder of “Lion Productions” located in Geneva, Illinois.

Steve recounts, “I worked on obtaining a recording deal with Lion for a good two years or more from the initial introduction up until the debut vinyl LP and CD were released.”

The owner of Lion Productions, Vincent Tornatore, did the final mastering of Umbra’s music.  Tornature started up Lion Productions concentrating initially on reissuing Canadian psychedelic bands and expanding to other genres and over time becoming, in Tornature’s words “champions of the obscure”.

“What was available to unknown hard rocking dreamers like Umbra in Denver in 1971-72? Weekend gigs. Nothing but weekend gigs. But there was an upside to that: bands like Umbra could mix original material in with covers, and make enough money to survive. Or in the case of Umbra, to make enough money to build a home studio, where they recorded ads to promote their upcoming shows—and eventually, laid down the eight tracks on this disc. Everything was recorded by bouncing tracks back and forth between two-track and four-track reel-to-reel tape recorders. Spacey intros and weird effects were created by recording guitar licks, then re-recording them played backwards at double speed. What sounds like a flute was the result of blowing over the top of a 14” goose neck (believe it or not).

The resulting tracks are hard edged and heavy, verging on acid rock at times. Makes sense, as Umbra was a power trio most of their too-brief existence. Yet the songs (heavy though they are) have a deft touch. There are weird effects, space rock elements, plenty of melody, and a refreshing category-free approach to writing songs that makes Umbra’s music exciting to hear.”

1. Jupiter Probe - 5:01
2. C Mr. Me - 6:17
3. Harp Strings - 4:29
4. Denver Over Glide - 4:12
5. Ho Pideous - 3:33
6. Bloon Moan - 3:13
7. Ides - 3:57
8. Siberia - 3:55
All songs by Steve Faulkner, Terry Lewis, Eric Frazee

*Steve Faulkner - Drums, Percussion
*Terry Lewis - Bass
*Eric Frazee - Lead Guitar
*Gary Mann - Vocals (Tracks 4-8)
*Larry Mann - Vocals (Tracks 5,7)
*Nick Stoner - Vocals (Tracks 1-3)