By Hal Walter
It’s Monday evening at the Taos Inn, and DonCon is scurrying about like an Ebert’s squirrel hyped on the gathering March sunlight. Fresh from the challenging Taos ski slopes, he bounces around the stage area with speakers, amps and wiring, setting up the sound system for the open-mic show he hosts weekly, which attracts some of the region’s best musical entertainment.
I first saw Don Conoscenti perform one evening at what was then Bongo Billy’s Salida Cafe about nine years ago. I was introduced to him by a friend there and bought one of his CDs, which remains a favorite album on my iPod. I’d wanted to write about Don since seeing him play that night. His songwriting and guitar playing are mesmerizing. The storytelling runs the nerve line from spiritual to geographical. His album “Mysterious Light” made it into one of the top 20 played by folk and acoustic DJs worldwide. His song “Beautiful Valley,” from his “Paradox of Grace album,” describes many geographical features in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
The former Alamosa resident now makes his home in Taos and has played at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival every year since its beginning in 1998. He also performed on the television show “Crossing Over” with John Edward after his song “The Other Side” became popular following the 9/11 attacks. In additon to the weekly open mic sessions in Taos, he and fellow musician Jimmy Stadler host a radio show on KTAOS Solar Radio on the second Sunday of each month from 5 to 7 p.m. You can catch it streaming online at ktaos.com.
A few years ago we made tentative plans to meet up while I was visiting Taos. We missed each other during a comedy of errors. At one point during that fiasco I was driving to Don’s house and actually saw him briefly in his car at a stop sign, only to realize this after I knocked on his door and discovered nobody was home. He had run out on a quick errand involving a guitar, and I missed him by only a few minutes.
Maybe that was just as well, because interviewing DonCon at the open mic a couple years later proved to be a special night, with Don incorporating me into the “green room” scene and introducing me to other musicians, including Lisa Joyce, as I followed him around with my notepad. Lisa, as it turns out, is a Colorado College grad who worked a stint at Bear Basin Ranch here in Westcliffe for a while.
At 57, “DonCon” told me he’s starting over. “I’ve got to step up my game,” he said. “It’s on me. I’m always trying to make it better.”
What the former Atlanta rocker means by that is pushing new terrain with his guitar in studio sessions with musicians like Ellis Paul and Bill Dillon. Which is really saying something – a reviewer once said of his live solo album “Extremely Live at Eddie’s Attic” that “it’s sometimes hard to believe that there is only one guitarist creating all of that sound.”
DonCon has produced eight albums of music, all of them on his own Cogtone label. In addition to his amazing songwriting, vocal and instrumental talents, he’s also a skillful studio artist. As a performer, he travels extensively, including throughout Central Colorado, performing both solo and as part of a duo with Alamosa musician Don Richmond called “The Dons.”
A life-transforming mountain bike accident brought the world into greater focus for DonCon a few years ago. Without insurance and the ability to pay for traditional medical care, the healing process was on him. He says he went from living his life at 120 miles per hour every day to being flat on his back. “Dead stop,” he says. “I consider it a very beautiful journey … I’d do it again. It was a very cool time in my life.”
He said he was on his back for a month before he was able to begin walking in a pool, then with crutches, gradually working his way to walking up stairs. Today he is back on his mountain bike and pushing the envelope on double-black-diamond ski slopes, which he sees as a metaphor for what he wants to do with music.
And he’s back to telling stories through his music, much of it written against the backdrop of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “I write about the larger perspectives, the vistas, and the more spiritual things that are not obvious to people,” he says.
“Spirit rules here,” he says. “That’s how I live.”
Later that night I got a pleasant earful of that spirit. The Taos Inn was abuzz with the news that local musician Max Gomez had dropped by for the open mic session. Max is another Taos musician whose song “Run from You” was just made into a music video directed by Kiefer Sutherland.
I scoped out an empty chair and table in the front row and sat down to watch Max and Don team up for a performance of “Run from You.”
Kiefer should have been there. It was one of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever had.
Check out Don at www.doncon.com.
The video “Run from You” is at www.maxgomezmusic.com/run-from-you-official-video/
Hal Walter writes and edits from the Wet Mountains. You can keep up with him regularly at his blog: www.hardscrabbletimes.com.