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New Vegas trio Sportello experiments with music for its own sake

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From straight-ahead pop to oddball jazz, the sounds of Sportello are as freewheeling as the band’s notion of itself.
Photo: Sam Morris
Max Plenke

“We’re doing some pretty weird sh*t in front of kids but they keep letting us come back,” says Sam Lemos, in a sentence born to begin a music story while also describing what he, bassist Justin Peterson and drummer Nicholas Kittle are doing in Sportello, the barely begun melting-pot musical trio who, as they’re talking, just finished a Tuesday morning gig at the Container Park and are, as of this writing, one of the most promising local groups on the rise.

Maybe the promise comes because this is hardly a band in the industrial sense—there’s no significant identity, no marketing, no expectations. Sure, they each come from structure; between the three of them they show up in the Shaun DeGraff Band, the Rockie Brown Band and the Gonzo Groove Situation, among others. For them, this is, pretty much, the amorphous, Facebook-absent stepbrother experiment. This is the pinnacle of aural idealism: music for its own sake, named for little else than something to tell bookers.

The guys have found, after minutes of discussing and months of rehearsing, that genre-dubbing Sportello leads nowhere. This isn’t a jazz band, but there are jazz elements. Nor is it a singer-songwriter group, though at the front of the triangle is Lemos, the former Moksha frontman. “We’re totally just learning what it’s going to be,” he says.

At any given show, whether midday outdoors or late-night in a Downtown bar, Sportello starts as a straight-ahead pop act a la Neil Young or Joni Mitchell. But then comes the collapse. Lemos might pick up a sax, or improvise vocal tuts and howls against his own shaker groove. The drums behind him might turn robust and complicated, at once off-the-cuff and controlled, Kittle broadening his range as he adds to the pattern with his own cache of hand percussion and a driving right foot. Peterson might then severely augment the bass rhythm, interjecting a mash of influences ranging from oddball jazz to West African pop until something standard becomes, thankfully, anything but. “I think if it was just a singer-songwriter thing it would be boring and people wouldn’t care,” Lemos says. “Allowing all of our own aesthetics allows us to be anything.”

What it will become after time takes its course is anyone’s guess. The desire to play larger shows in bigger venues could replace nebulous creativity with cold structure. But, given the structured projects each member already belongs to, the chances for that are gloriously low. “I think expectations and identity tear apart musicians, because you become so ideological about what you’re trying to achieve,” Peterson says. “We just want this to be what it’s gonna be.”

Sportello performs Tuesdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Container Park.

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