Elegy for a Jamband: Olospo
A tapas-bar in Granada, Spain seems like an unlikely locale to hear about a new jamband, but that's where I overheard a conversation about a "terrific band." The summers of inland Spain are scorching hot, and the summer of 2002 was no exception, rendering Bodega La Mancha a cool oasis away from the heat. The man talking was a friend of the band a Texan, conversing with a blonde California girl in her late twenties.
"I’ve been to pretty much all of their shows. So far they’ve been doing like two-to-three shows a week, mostly in the Dallas-Austin area, but they need to be on the road so people can see how great they are. They just recorded their second CD and I went over to the drummer’s house to listen to the un-mastered mix. It is so awesome!"
When he turned around a few minutes later I had to ask for the name of the band he had been describing. "They’re called Olospo. A lot of people compare them to Phish, but Phish doesn’t even sound like Phish anymore," he said. "Olospo is like ’93 Phish, not in music, but in attitude high energy jams, cool covers, and silly lyrics. They’ll cover anything from Steely Dan to the theme from Super Mario." Any band with a description like that deserves some attention, and over the next year and a half I asked around, but very few people seemed to have heard of them. At least outside the Lone Star State.
During the same time Dallas-based Olospo were busy, working hard to become one of the few torches actually on fire among the hundreds of jambands touring the nation. They had a few pockets of fans here and there, but they were just another hard-working band with high mileage on their newer van.
After tracking down a copy of one of their shows from a taper friend, I concurred with the Texan at the tapas-bar. My friend, also a Texan, had taped Olospo at a Dallas bar. "My brother knew a few of the guys in the band and he suggested I tape them, so I did. I always though of them as a local band, nothing more." I was given the DAT dump on CD, went home, listened and mastered it. The CDs kept finding their way into my CD players in the car, on my computer, my Discman, and in my living room.
Olospo’s music is much like driving a truck at break neck speed through the woods with no headlights a little scary, but a lot of fun since you never know just how it’s going to end. Their music can at times sound like a funky Stevie Wonder jamming with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or a Red Bull-fuelled Talking Heads on a collision course with the attitude of vintage Phish. Some of the songs have an undeniable pop-flair, but not for long the band will eventually steer into the realm of math rock or mesquite-infused funk. Their music stood out from the flood of Phish wannabes, mixing whimsical lyrics, such as "I love my bills," or "Read the caption, find the secret prize," with both long funk odysseys and more structured pieces, demonstrating that the band’s incredible musical abilities. In addition, Olospo knew the oft ignored art of stage humor:
"Who bought a t-shirt?" the bearded guitarist Chris Holt shouts from the stage, and the crowd cheers in acknowledgement. "Liars, heh, heh." or
"Did anyone buy the new Olospo thong?...Do we have any takers?...No?"
In late 2003 they played a "BS-show" where first set were all originals starting with B’, and second set’s started with S,’ only to blow it with a "Fearless" encore.
During the summer of 1999, after Holt disbanded Walter Mitty, a Dallas-based outfit, it didn’t take him long to form another band. Following eight weeks of intense rehearsing and fruitful songwriting sessions, the new band played its first show on 9/9/99 at the Home Bar in Dallas, Texas. By word of mouth more than a hundred people showed up. "The crowd really went nuts for us," Holt explains. "It was a great feeling for me to come back from [Walter] Mitty so quickly." For the gig, which was dubbed "Name the Band Night," the band had a ballot box for people to write down suggestions for a name. A group of Britt’s old college buddies showed up at the show screaming "OLO SPO! OLO SPO!" and by the end of the evening a majority of the ballots said just that and the cryptic name somehow stuck.
While the origins of the name remained a well kept secret, the band got a kick from telling different stories about what it meant. It was Russian slang. It was the name of an African village. It was an anagram, and so on. The real origin was far less exotic. Back in college, keyboardist Britt Morris used to have an old Polo Sport hat that missed a few of the letters, and his friends gave him the nick name "Olo Spo" By early 2000 the name of the band was shortened to a single word "Olospo."
Olospo gigged as much as they could, but the majority of the gigs were in Texas. In the spring, bassist Nick Ramirez quit, forcing the band to do the same. Nick, who is mostly into classic and progressive rock, didn’t like the scene and the frequent song requests for Dead, Phish, and other "hippie bands." The rest of the band wanted to be a jamband, but Olospo was doing its best to develop its own sound and avoid playing the requested covers. It was the only scene where Olospo could get away with being shaky singers, play a different set every night, and most importantly, avoid the whole "image game." Two months later, and over a few beers with drummer Tom Bridwell, Ramirez changed his mind, and Olospo was suddenly back together.
In the summer of 2000 Olospo played its first "Post Panic Party." From then on, whenever Widespread Panic played nearby, Olospo would book a gig, playing for packed bars, and introducing their music for Spreadheads who had never heard of the band before. "We had some of our best shows playing to these new fans, which were always enthusiastic and friendly," Holt says.
The first big chance came in 2002 when Olospo was invited to play the Big Wu Family Reunion in Wisconsin. The festival also featured Yonder Mountain String Band and Umphrey’s McGee. Olospo rented a huge RV and drove up with wives, friends, and girlfriends. "It was an incredible experience," Holt says about the event. "It was Olospo’s biggest publicity to date. We played a solid two-hour set and the crowd was very responsive. The stage was huge by Spo’s standards, and the sound system incredible."
Spo’s performance exposed them to many new fans in the mid-west, and Pastor Tim, archivist for Big Wu and YMSB, told me about the gig.
"They came out and played with such energy it blew me away. Behind them hung a big ol’ Texas flag, and toward the end it fell down. After the show I was surprised to see that they packed up and left without their flag. I mean, Texans leaving their flag behind? So I picked it up."
The next day Pastor Tim, flag raised between his arms, tracked the band down at their RV and they roared when they saw him coming. "They were all on top of this huge RV soaking up the sun, and invited me up for margaritas. I had such I good time I forgot to tape the show I was supposed to tape, busily drinking margaritas instead."
Olospo was on a roll, and toured relentlessly throughout the summer. Another highpoint came when the band was invited to play the huge Austin City Limits Music Festival in September the same year. Featured early in the day on the Jam Stage, Olospo was granted a short set. "Our set was decent, but very awkward for me. The Spo never adapted well to the forty-minute sets. One part of me wants to come out and play a couple of long funk odysseys, but the other part of me really wants to sell potential new fans on the more structured and appealing shorter songs. It’s just bullshit, because we couldn’t even get warmed up in forty minutes. We needed at least twice that to build some momentum."
The New Deal, Particle, and String Cheese Incident were on the same bill. "It was a crazy experience. We got free keg beer, food, all access passes, and the staff would drive us around in golf carts from one end of the festival to the other," Holt reminisces. Playing for a big crowd, the band was nervous. The brutal Texas sun left no shade, and it was next to impossible to make out the LED lights on pedals and keyboards.
"We actually played much more confidently the night before at La Zona Rosa, opening for Particle. That was a sick show, with a massive crowd."
Entering 2003 Olospo knew that this was the year to "make it or break it," and the Spo went into it full throttle. The members quit their day jobs and took a huge leap of faith for the future of the band. At Club Clearview in Dallas the band kicked off their first official tour with a release party of their second album, "Pagoda," in front of a huge home-town crowd.
Olospo spent lots of time and money to make high quality studio albums, and are still in the process of paying off the debts they incurred. In March Olospo headlined the Jambase SXSW showcase at The Vibe in Austin, Texas. Throwing down hard, the 400-strong crowd raged throughout the show. "We made a lot of new friends and fans that night, but I remember being let down a few weeks later."
Fans of the band were certain that Olospo would explode like Particle did, but another "big opportunity" for the Spo became an eventual let-down. The band’s tour spanned a dozen states. At a tiny bar in Kentucky they played a furious five-hour show ending at four in the morning perhaps the most energetic and epic show the band ever played, and the place was packed.
In Nevada the band played the Area 51 Sound Test, a festival intended to be a huge jam fest, but it was rather under-attended. Olospo played a strong set in the early afternoon, but unfortunately most people showed up later in the night for Particle and moe.
Back in Dallas the band recorded a two night gig at Club Dada that was later compacted to a single disc live show, "Live at Club Dada." The live disc sounds fresh and the band is extremely tight, playfully interpreting their own material, but also showcasing Spo’s chameleon-like ability to play cover songs, opening the disc with Pink Floyd’s "In the Flesh."
Road-Spo had become a well-oiled jam-machine. The main problem, wasn’t the music however, it was management and promotion, or perhaps the lack thereof. Olospo had been a self-contained unit, and during the last two years, drummer Tom Bridwell was practically handling all booking and management duties. Being both a band member and a manager/promoter kept his hands more than full. "We just never had the money to pay a publicist and we were never able to get enough people to come see us in all markets," Holt explains. In many towns Olospo played for virtually empty rooms, which was frustrating for the band. Blind touring going to new places with no advertising and no clue where to find fans, eventually led to a dead end. "We were just guys who knew how to play music and that was it." Although the band polished its craft, Spo floundered financially. "Spo would occasionally get on a roll, but we just couldn’t maintain the momentum for very long, especially in 2003," Holt says.
After a show in Aspen, Colorado, the band nearly broke up. The four band members had a long talk, and agreed that they doubted the possibility of future success. The ACL Fest and SXSW had failed to put the band "on the map," and the inevitable depression that comes from playing to tiny crowds had manifested itself. But instead of giving up they were able to rally for the cause. Their spirits momentarily lifted in October with a batch of new songs, a string of successful gigs, and a great Halloween show at the Curtain Club in Dallas.
"We decided to all dress up as characters from The Big Lebowski," Holt explains. Britt Morris dressed up as the Stranger, Nick Ramirez was Jesus Quintana, Tom Bridwell was Walter Sobchak, and Chris Holt was The Dude.
The Chalk It Mafia, a rap group fronted by Olospo’s road manager, opened up the show, and for the encore a surrogate band came out playing a Spo song as Olospo. Olospo’s main musical costume for the night was "The Song Remains the Same," played in its entirely, and according to Holt, part of the show might be available on DVD. In hindsight, the show was the band’s last gasp for air. The tour in November proved to be a real back-breaker. Although some shows were great, most attracted few people and fewer dollars.
On November 19 in Boone, North Carolina the band decided enough was enough. Holt explains: "It was a mutual decision. It wasn’t so much breaking up as it was giving up. I was really angry and frustrated at first. I had worked really hard to make this band the best I’d ever had, and I didn’t want to start over again, at [age] thirty."
The farewell show took place on December 5th at the Vibe in Austin. It was an emotional roller coaster for the band. A huge crowd of Spo fans were there to cheer them on into the wee hours of the morning. It was an amazing night and Olospo put on a hell of a show, playing five hours of music. Holt broke two high E’s in the first set and had to use a size fourteen B string tuned to an E for the rest of the show. "It was excruciating to do a full step bend, but I didn’t even notice," says Holt. "I was too lost in it. I was really sad that the band was ending."
Today, Chris Holt is busy playing with Nick Ramirez, and drummer Drew Hunter as a house band at Club Dada in Dallas, where Tom Bridwell runs the sound. Club Dada calls it "Chris Holt’s Jukebox," and tries to hype it as an all-request show, but the band also plays a number of Holt and Spo originals. "I just found out today that we got nominated for a Dallas Observer Award." Not bad for a band who has only been playing for eight weeks. Holt is also attending the Mediatech Institute at Dallas Sound Lab to further his understanding of audio engineering, and on the side he is working on a studio album. "With a backlog of more than 150 songs I need to get some of them done in the studio," he says. Britt Morris, on the other hand, swears that he hasn’t even touched an instrument since Olospo’s last show in December. He is selling real estate and is happy to be actually living with his wife instead of being on tour.
In Spo-world nothing seems to be definite, and the band united in early May, playing two successful shows in Dallas. "This is the best Olospo I’ve heard," one long-time fan exclaimed afterwards.
Not all bands that make it are great, and not all that fail are bad either. Olospo was a great band which lacked the promotion and marketing skills needed to float in the vast sea of jambands. If you want to hear what the Spo is all about, and you should, seek out their studio albums and, if you can, a copy of one of their live shows. You won’t be disappointed. When I asked Holt if there was any chance of the band coming back together he shrugged. "If by some miracle, Olospo’s web presence grows and gains momentum, something could happen."