“You can’t step into the same River Arkansas twice,” a fan commented on a recent Saturday night at Front Range BBQ in Old Colorado City. There the band played a pair of tightly-winding sets of their distinctive Americana music held together by a gorgeous string section. As I stood on the packed patio under multicolored twinkling lights, I couldn’t help but think The River Arkansas represents the best things about Colorado’s current music scene. Their live performances showcase both collaboration and joy.
The five musicians in The River Arkansas are all seasoned players with other musical outfits from varying genres. The music they make when they come together reflects all of them uniquely. Frontman Mike Clark is well-known across the Front Range and beyond for his Americana folk music with The Haunted Windchimes, his barnburning rock-and-soul with The Sugar Sounds, and his early punk-influenced experiments with The Jack Trades.
Joining Clark’s guitar and banjo with joy is the distinctively-mustachioed Macon Terry on upright bass; he is also the original founding collaborator with Clark for The River Arkansas. The phenomenal interplay of Danah Olivetree on cello and Rachel Sliker on violin reinforces the band. And they’re all held up by the backbone of Robin Chestnut on drums. The band members have played together before in various iterations through the Colorado-rooted bands Clouds & Mountains, Spirits of the Red City and Princess Music.
It’s clear watching their musical communication on stage that they know each other’s strengths and beauties well. There’s no doubt this quintet has fun playing together, whether in a sweaty barbecue joint, a backyard show or outdoor festival—but also in the studio through collaborative and organic songwriting.
“For me, The River Arkansas is an outlet for these beautiful, big, swelling songs,” Clark said on a recent Sunday afternoon, while his dog Flapjack played on the floor at his feet. “I definitely write with the band in mind. They’re all such good musicians. It’s fun to think of string arrangements to go throughout your song. And Robin is such an incredible drummer, I can give him any drumbeat I can think of, and he can do it.”
The sophomore album from The River Arkansas, You Animal, is poised to be released March 11, with a release show that night alongside Trout Steak Revival at Denver’s Gothic Theatre. The record is sequenced intentionally to be listened to in order, and one of the best things about experiencing this new collection is how the 11 songs build from small tributaries to the final, raucous singalong sea.
The band’s debut album, Golden Light, was recorded while Clark was still working full-time as a land surveyor on the plains of Eastern Colorado, but he decided in January 2015 to pursue his musical projects wholeheartedly and full-time. You Animal was born during that period of transition. Listeners can feel both the dedication and abandon in these songs.
But surprising influences show up in these waters as well. Clark tells the story of the song “All The Way Down” as a unique musical moment on the new record. The foundation of the melody took root while he was making the long drive back from Texas with Terry, as the two listened to a collection of Ghanaian and Nigerian rock from the 1960s called Highlife Time.
Writing as they drove, Clark picked out these melodies from a far continent and a time several decades ago and happily allowed them to influence and stretch the development of the song. “That’s been my favorite thing about writing songs for The River Arkansas,” Clark says. “I can bring just about anything to the band, and they’ll go on the journey with me.”
First Listen from The River Arkansas
Stream “All the Way Down” from You Animal