The Samples come back home: Colorado

The Samples’ front man, Sean Kelly, is originally from Vermont. But make no mistake about it: The Samples belong to Colorado.

“I remember the morning we got here,” Kelly, 47, said about his arrival to the state in 1987. “There had just been a blizzard. The weather was beautiful. It was 10 or 20 below. It had been gray and miserable back east and we got here, there was white snow and blue sky. It was magic.”

A bit of magic has propelled Kelly into a life of a musician as he took his musical talent and created one of the most popular touring bands of the ‘90s.

“I quit high school,” said Sean, speaking from his house in Highlands Ranch just outside Denver. “I’ve never taken a music lesson. I just know the basic chords. My focus has always been on making good music.”

Since its start, The Samples have cycled through band members – with Kelly always providing the anchor with his distinctive voice, songwriting abilities and guitar work. Now Kelly and The Samples are playing two Colorado dates. On Feb. 15, they’ll be at the PAC3 at the Third Street Center in Carbondale, and on Feb. 16, they’ll perform at The Grizzly Rock in Denver.

Playing in Colorado reminds Kelly of the touring the band did years ago around Vail, Aspen, Steamboat, Breckenridge and Telluride.

“It was a way for us to get our music out,” he said. “So many people come to Colorado from so many places, then they’d take our music back with them and spread it around.”

Birth of a name
Often described as a combination of Sting – Kelly’s voice has a similar pitch – and The Grateful Dead – The Samples are known as a jam band – the group is decidedly distinct. During the past 25 years, they’ve generated around 20 albums with more than a million records sold.

In 1987, singer, songwriter and guitarist Kelly, then 21, landed at 14th and Euclid in Boulder after driving to Colorado with his friend and fellow guitarist Charles Hambleton. The two drove from Burlington, Vt., where they had been playing music together.

“There were people crashed on the floor there,” Kelly said of the Boulder house. “We practiced in the basement, which was an unused garage. It was rock solid. And we played our first gig there. We were the entertainment for a party. We were getting our chops.”

Kelly and Hambleton soon added to their group when bass player Andy Sheldon joined them, along with drummer Jeep MacNichol and keyboardist Al Laughlin. The five started playing at FACs and in the frat party circuit in Boulder, and later in clubs like Tulagi’s.

Money was tight. Besides paying cheap rent at 14th and Euclid, the band members were always looking for ways to cut corners.

“We discovered the supermarket samples they passed out at King Soopers,” Kelly said. “After about three weeks of that, we thought, ‘Let’s call ourselves ‘The Samples.’ Eventually we graduated to the food at Happy Hours.”

Influences
For all the roots The Samples have established in Colorado, listeners can’t deny strong reggae-inspired influences in their music. Kelly said that came from drummer Jeep MacNichol who was with the band from 1987-1997. Songs like “Feel Us Shaking” feel more like beach tunes than coming from the mountains.

“Jeep was really affected by reggae,” Kelly said. “At the time when we were starting out, [rock/reggae jam band] Little Women was playing in and around Boulder. Some of their musical influences got blended into ours.”

Several other musicians have influenced the band as well. Kelly credits Neil Young, The Rolling Stones and Jackson Browne as having an impact on his songwriting. And surprisingly, another musician close to home affected Kelly.

“John Denver,” said Kelly, who has written numerous songs about nature and environmental concerns. He said he used to listen to Denver’s songs growing up.

Currently, Kelly has recorded a couple cover bootleg acoustic renditions of his own, of “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado,” and “Rocky Mountain High.” They sound entirely different than the originals, putting a new spin on some old classics.

Kelly said he wishes he could go to those musicians who have gone before him to ask how they have done it.

“I wonder how they made it,” Kelly said. “It’s a crazy world. I’d love to ask Neil Young, ‘How did you pull it off?’”

‘A new generation’
Kelly’s life leading The Samples has had its share of challenges, including several management and agency snafus, and music label buyouts. It recently took its toll this past year.

“I quit smoking cigarettes, I quit drinking,” he said. “It’s been really painful. It’s so mental. I’ve been punishing myself. I still was dealing with the sadness I had of my mom dying 17 years ago. I had to physically and emotionally remove myself. I can’t describe it. I had to heal.”

Now back and feeling strong, Kelly is ready with his new band mates to continue making music – and remaking it.

Just last year, The Samples song “Could It Be Another Change?” was featured in the major motion picture “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” starring Emma Watson. The song, which was recorded in 1993 has since had more than 400,000 hits on YouTube as a result of the film.

“It’s crazy,” said Kelly. “I got into The Doors way after they were around. Now there’s a new generation that is hearing The Samples’ stuff because of this movie and the Internet. Maybe they’ll get into the 20 albums we’ve done. There’s really cool stuff out there.”

Two Samples dates
Feb. 15
PAC3 at the Third Street Center
520 S. Third St.
Carbondale
970-379-5403
pac3carbondale.com

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