The idea of a warm barbecue on a cold winter’s day was all it took for Sean Kelly and Charles Hambleton to move from Vermont to Colorado more than 20 years ago, setting the stage for one of Boulder’s best-loved bands.
“We were burning furniture to stay warm and I called my brother James in Boulder,” Hambleton recalled last week during a visit with the Colorado Daily at Boulder’s Trident Booksellers and Cafe. “He said it was 70 degrees and they were barbecuing on the porch. We got there a few days later, armed with $30 and more amps than underwear.”
Who: The Samples at the Mile High Music Festival
When: 3 p.m. Saturday on the Wolf Stage
Where: Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, 6000 Victory Way, Commerce City
Full lineup: milehighmusicfestival.com
That was in 1987, and it wasn’t long before the duo met up with Andy Sheldon, Al Laughlin and Jeep MacNichol to form the Samples, one of Boulder’s — and Colorado’s — most high-profile musical exports of the late ’80s and ’90s.
Two decades later, after a brief stint on a major label and sharing national stages with jam bands such as Widespread Panic and Phish — and even enlisting the nascent Dave Matthews Band as an opening act — Kelley is the last Sample standing.
Saturday, however, that original lineup will reunite in concert for the first time since the early ’90s, playing a set at the Matthews-headlined Mile High Music Festival in Commerce City.
“I’m psyched for the reunion,” said MacNichol, who still lives in the area. “We’d been trying to co-ordinate this for awhile, and the timing finally felt right. It will be nice to come back with a fresh perspective.”
And Saturday’s concert could be a new beginning for the Samples.
“I’d love to record a new album with the band,” said Kelly, who recently returned to Boulder County.
Hambleton replied: “I’m open for anything. I’m working on a lot of projects, but the Samples will always be a part of my life.”
A little history
Kelly and Hambleton, who’s been described as a “rambling gypsy,” were amenable to meeting at an old school location last Friday, so the duo sat back and chatted about the Samples at the Trident.
“We didn’t have a name when we started,” Kelly said. “We used to live hand-to-mouth and we ate samples at King Sooper’s. We said, ‘Let’s just call ourselves The Samples.'”
In its early years, the band played shows at local clubs and “a billion parties.” The Samples’ genre-bending sounds, artsy shows and community of fans quickly boosted the group’s popularity.
“We started mixing originals into the shows, and we showed movies and films while we played,” Kelly said. “That was really different, and lot of bands were still playing covers.”
Hambleton added: “Word started spreading on the band, but it was the CU students that put us on the road. All these students asked us to play their hometowns and they’d get all their friends there. We booked complete tours like that.”
The Samples were one of the first Boulder acts to fuse multiple genres into their mix and sing about environmental issues.
“Everyone in the band brought their own styles into the music,” Kelly said. “We had reggae, folk and rock in the mix, and we always changed the music up. As we recorded, we got tighter and things started to happen.”
The Samples’ community grew and it wasn’t long before they were signed to Arista and later MCA records. The band went on to play large venues and perform with top acts of the ’90s.
“We reached people because we were our peer’s age — we were all 21, 22,” Kelly said. “There was definitely a community for our music.”
In the early ’90s, Hambleton departed the band. Since then, the Samples’ guitarist has worked on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and co-produced last year’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove.”
The group released several more albums, but by 1996, Kelly was the only member to carry on the Samples’ name.
Kelly recently recorded a children’s CD, and he has a song in the upcoming movie “Santorini Blue,” starring Ice-T.
MacNichol packs clubs with his dub act Mr. Anonymous, and Sheldon and Laughlin found their own musical callings.
“The Samples have staying power,” Kelly said. “There was something about this band that was incredibly unique and different. Fans still love this music and told us that our music is life-changing.”
“The Samples laid the groundwork for what I do now,” said Hambleton. “I went from eating samples, to playing in the Samples, to studying dolphin samples for ‘The Cove’ — now I’m looking at water samples in the Gulf.
“Music is wonderful medium and the Samples transformed me to getting a message out in film.”
The Samples helped lay the foundation for the current-day Colorado music scene — and locals have fond memories.
“The first time I saw the Samples, I saw this great blending of acoustic, reggae, pop sensibilities and songwriting,” said Cheryl Liguori, CEO of Z2 Entertainment, which owns the Fox and Boulder theaters. “They definitely had this high-energy show and played music that everyone loved.”
Steve Koppe is the Boulder Theater’s house engineer and he’s had experience working Samples’ shows.
“The Samples were really an idealistic band and believed in what they were playing,” Koppe said. “They made Boulder a place where you could come and create inspired music, but they never got enough credit for what they did.”
Local journalist Leland Rucker included the Samples in his 2001 Boulder music-scene documentary “Sweet Lunacy.”
“The Samples had this light, pop-reggae sound that was really pleasant and appealed to a lot of people,” Rucker said. “The Samples really sounded unique. The band’s ‘Did You Ever Look So Nice’ is a wonderful pop song.”
AEG Live Director of Operations Rob Thomas, who doubles as general manager of the Mile High Music Festival, is a longtime Samples fan, and got the wheels turning for this reunion.
“This is the first really successful band I ever got to hang with — and I watched them grow,” Thomas said. “The reunion will let people experience what a great band they are and what makes them so special.
“They’re homegrown local heroes.”
With Sheldon and Laughlin in town from Portland, Ore., and Boston, respectively, the Samples have been rehearsing all week at a studio in Boulder, and they say they’re ready to rock Mile High.
“We have an hour set, so it looks like we’re going to focus on our first and second albums,” Kelly said. “It’s great to have the opportunity to play in front of all these people.”