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Neyla Pekarek of the Lumineers smiling and holding a cello

The best Denver music of 2019 with Neyla Pekarek

The former Lumineers cellist picks six of the Mile High City’s top releases of the year and dishes on her latest project, "Rattlesnake."

December 17, 2019

By Cory Phare

Denver’s boomtown status is both reflected and cemented by an eclectic, red-hot music scene. And though it’s proving to be a launchpad for some of today’s biggest acts – think Nathaniel Rateliff, FlobotsDeVotchKa and The Fray, to name a few – the secret ingredient may be the Mile High City’s tendency to stay grounded.  

“I feel so inspired when I go see live music here,” said Neyla Pekarek, former cellist for Denver superstars The Lumineers, and current affiliate faculty member with MSU Denver at DIME. “It’s so community-oriented – there are a lot of people in different projects who are always willing to help each other out.”

That collective formula catapulted the Grammy-nominated group from Tuesday-night open mics at the Meadowlark to touring the world within two years. The Lumineers would go on to open for U2 and play President Barack Obama’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

RELATED: DIME Group rocks Billboard's 2019 list of top music business schools

Pekarek left the band in 2018, but she isn’t slowing down. Her January concept album on S-Curve records, “Rattlesnake,” tells the story of Katherine McHale Slaughterback, a Greeley woman who rose to fame for singlehandedly killing 140 rattlesnakes after she and her 3-year-old son became engulfed by the migrating serpents while on horseback. 

“I got really involved in learning about her life,” Pekarek said. “It made me think about the rage needed to fight off all those snakes for two hours with your bare hands – and then go back later to gather their skins and make a dress out of them! 

“It’s a great story about a woman who lived outside the box and redefined what it means to be feminine.”

A musical based on Pekarek’s folk opera is in the works for a spring 2021 opening at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.  

In the meantime, we asked the prolific polymath who just wrapped up teaching vocal-technique and live-performance workshop courses with DIME to reflect on some of her favorite Denver music – with bite – from 2019.

Kyle Emerson: “I Can Change”

“The first time I saw Kyle Emerson play live in Denver, I turned to my friend and said ‘Oh, that guy is going to be a famous person very soon,” Pekarek said. “He’s just so full of charisma and writes super-infectious songs, and brilliant Denver musicians, such as Jess Parsons and Mark Anderson, contribute so much magic to his latest record. We’ll say we knew him when...” 

The Still Tide: “Change of Address”

“There are so many reasons to like the Still Tide, and this song ‘Change of Address’ is certainly one of those reasons,” Pekarek said. “From Anna’s mesmerizing vocals to the dreamy synths and poppy rhythm, it’s the kind of song that makes me want to roll the windows down and drive around feeling a whole lot cooler than I am in real life.” 

Kid Astronaut: “Spaceships”

“I’m a sucker for a theme, and in ‘Spaceships,’ Kid Astronaut delivers,” Pekarek said. “The vocals are gorgeous and the delivery super-intriguing. I am living for the theatrics in this – it totally feels like we’re in space, and I am into it.”

The Burroughs: “Forever in Love”

“I had the treat of witnessing the Burroughs at this past year’s Underground Music Showcase, and it was absolutely magnetic,” Pekarek said. “The spectacle of so many people on stage was exciting, but they’re also all absurdly good musicians. The arrangements on these soul tunes make it impossible not to dance around, and their frontman is completely bewitching.”

Heavy Diamond Ring: “Finally”

“‘Finally,’ Sarah Anderson’s gorgeous voice is out in the world for us all to hear,” Pekarek said. “Sarah, a former member of Colorado’s beloved Paper Bird, added dazzling harmonies in tandem with the other talented members of the band, but here she is front and center, and it is a true joy. The band is chock-full of expertise with the likes of Paul DeHaven, Blake Stephen, Mike Lang and Orion Tate Iglenzi.”

Sarah Slaton: “The L Word Theme Song”

“Sarah Slaton just released this track (in early December), and what a gift it is,” Pekarek said. “I knew I wasn’t the only one counting down the days to ‘the L Word’ reboot, and listening to this beguiling, haunting rendition of the theme song was a perfect way to celebrate.”

Take a listen to more from Pekarek's picks in the Spotify playlist below - including tracks from her 2019 release, "Rattlesnake." Cover image by Andrew Kelly

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