By Dave Herrera | Aug. 22, 2016 | 4 a.m.
Chella Negro (aka Michelle Caponigro) has been making music in Colorado now for the better part of two decades, and with each new phase of her career, she’s continually moved forward artistically, strengthening her foundation admirably with each step.
Originally from La Crosse, Wisconsin, the singer-songwriter first moved to Denver in 2000, and she made her mark fronting a five-piece jam band called Purple Buddha. After more than a half dozen years or so with that act, she branched out on her own. Picking up the guitar and learning how to play, she started penning her own songs, which she eventually shared on Silos & Smokestacks, her auspicious solo debut in 2009.
Negro returned two years later with Flatlands, a five-song EP that featured a trio of musicians backing her—including Joshua Trinidad on trumpet, Darren Dunn on drums and Alex Wynn on bass—resulting in a broader sound. That record set the tone for the 2014 follow up, Chella and the Charm, which featured Negro with a whole new lineup.
Backed by David Pinto on pedal steel guitar, Jason Leija on bass and Melanie Karnopp on drums, Negro sounded more seasoned than ever as a songwriter. Bolstered by the lush pedal steel playing of Pinto, her songs benefitted from being in a grander setting, which gave the tunes greater depth, vibrancy and texture.
Throughout each release, Negro’s vocals—which have the pleasing warmth of Hope Sandoval and the robust resonance of Neko Case—have been consistently captivating. Likewise, her songs, which often have centered on recurring themes of heartache, longing and, periodically, trains (owing most likely to the fact that she grew up near the railroad), have been equally as engaging on each record.
On the band’s latest effort, Denver Delay, just released at the beginning of August, Chella and the Charm seamlessly pick up where they left off on the last album and sound simply terrific, thanks to some great songs and some excellent engineering on the part of Nick Sullivan of American Relay, who recorded the record at the Keep, the studio he co-owns with Jeff Kanan.
Delay opens with a full band rendition of “Adelaide,” a song that originally appeared on Negro’s 2009 debut with just vocals and guitar. This version offers a great representation of her steady progression as a songwriter. Pinto's swelling pedal steel perfectly complements the proceedings adding a "Harvest Moon"-like hue.
The next batch of songs find Negro and company hitting their stride, particularly the singer as she delivers a succession of stirring lines like these from “Mad Max,” in which she wistfully remembers better days being near the tracks of another passing freight:
“And I swear I remember as sky so blue it was nearly clear/And the Burlington Northern's song ghost-like and sad/The sun shone like diamonds on the river, I remember/Now memories are all I have/In this sorrowful place, the air feels rotten/ Those golden days, nearly forgotten.”
“Queen City of the Plains,” which closes the album, is easily the standout song of the set—which is probably why the band chose to make it the first tune you hear when you dial up the record on Bandcamp. The song pays tribute to the place Negro’s called home now for almost twenty years:
“You have made me/You tested and saved me/Carved your name into my bones/If I ever curse your name, know I love you all the same/Queen City, you will always be beautiful to me.”
One of the better tunes devoted to Denver in recent years, “Queen City of the Plains” easily stands tall next to similarly titled odes like “O, Queen City” by Houses, which preceded it. It's the perfect ending to a really great album.