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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The DejaBlue Grass Band lit up Red Light Café Thursday

They come from Utah, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Decatur, but The DejaBlue Grass Band has blended the roots from their regions to bring something new to the Atlanta bluegrass scene.

Friends, family, former band members and even in-laws crowded into Red Light Café Thursday night for the band’s CD release party for their first album, Bucket Full of Rain.

The burgundy, cinderblock walls of Red Light Café aren’t ideal for acoustics, but this 5-piece lit up the dingy room with sharp vocals, crisp chords and one hell-of-a fiddler.

The night was filled with The DejaBlue Grass Band’s unique sound — bluegrass twang meets country lyrics sauced with a whole ‘lotta soul. It was spun into mostly covers, but they did toss in a few originals: the title track “Bucket Full of Rain” by lead vocals and guitarist Joey Bowers and about three new songs from mandolin player and harmonies Rutland “Rut” Walker.

“It’s nerve-wracking as hell playing a song you wrote in front of people,” Walker confessed to the crowd

Obviously, this band is in unfamiliar territory.

The three singers, Bowers, Walker and banjo player Mark Jones, hovered around the only mic on stage, a setup used by traditional bluegrass bands, but they spice up traditional with different flavors of songs, ranging from lyric-heavy to chord-driven harmonies.

The band’s original songs have simple chords with steady beats that accent their unique vocals, but it’s when they cover classics like The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” you see just how fast they can pick a chord.

Fiddler Keith Stewart, who’s played with Kansas, David Allen Coe and Tracy Bird, may be off to the side of the band’s centerpiece, but he steals the spotlight when he fires up his solos.

And the only sight of bass player Todd Cliatt are his fingers tearing up the chords on his double bass and bellowing out steady beats behind the singers.

But, it’s their totally synched 3-part harmonies that set them apart from other local musicians of any genre. Just from the opener, an acoustic version of the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” you can tell that this isn’t the first time they’ve done this.

With each song and each harmony, Walker — the “harmonazi,” Bowers joked — locked eyes with Jones to perfect the pitch and had no reservations restarting “Stuck on my Baby” because it just wasn’t right.

“How can you not be proud of these guys for all having day jobs and families and getting up there to do this?” asked Jones’ wife Kitty Ray Swain. “I don’t know many people who could do it.”

“Our main goal is that the people listening are having a good time,” Bowers said.

They don’t just play the music, they live it and have a damn good time doing it.

Before the Bluegrass

A random roommate pairing brought Bowers and Jones together in the early 90s. Crammed into a Virginia Highlands apartment across the street from Blind Willies, their common ground was never music: Jones was a 70s head and Bowers was traditional bluegrass.

“I didn’t even know he could play guitar,” Jones said.

It wasn’t until nine years later when they married and moved out that they started jamming together in Jones’ attic — “So, we didn’t wake anyone up,” Bowers chimed in.

So what brought this classic rock nut and country boy together? The Soggy Bottom Boys rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Days after seeing O Brother Where Art Thou?, Jones bought his banjo and picked “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to Bowers over the phone.

They were hooked.

After six months of late-night jam sessions, the bluegrass boys joined up with Nelson Nolan, Jon Timberlake, Danny Ray Cole and Tom Landstreet for their first gig, opening for The Yonder Mountain String Band at Smith’s Olde Bar. They packed the place out.

But due to busy schedules, the others couldn’t commit to performing fulltime with The DejaBlue Grass Band, so it was just Bowers and Jones, until Cliatt joined in the early 2000s.

Another chance meeting brought Walker into the gang in 2004. Strolling up to a party at Bowers’ place, he plucked a mandolin from his trunk and joined Bowers and Jones in an all-night back porch jam session.

Instant chemistry and surprising fluent harmonies motivated the band to take it to the next level, Bowers said.

Stewart is the newest addition, fiddling along in October 2007 after playing a gig with Jones who knew that he was “the dude I need in DejaBlue,” he said after the performance.

Breathing bluegrass

In January, The Deja Blue Grass Band started recording. Even with fulltime jobs and families, they pumped out the 15-track album in three months, finishing in time for the 2008 Telluride Band Competition in June, the first competition the band will compete in.

“If we didn’t absolutely love it, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Jones said of their hectic lives.

Aside from yearly trips to Telluride Bluegrass Festival and regular gigs around Atlanta, the band also wrote the theme song “I’ve Got a Friend” for YourBestFriend TV. Producer and host Michelle Kabashinski saw the band for the first time live Thursday.

“I don’t see Mark the engineer and Joey the furniture sales guy up there,” she said. “I see guys that could come straight from the Georgia mountains who totally love their music and their audience.”

The five guys are in the spotlight, but it’s their gals with “very long leashes” that keep the band in check, Bowers said.

His wife, Beth, does promotional work for the band, Walker’s wife, Susan, designed the CD and Jones’ wife, Kitty, handles production and photography. Even Walker’s 9-year-old son, Will, designed a “Bloograss Dad” T-shirt — for one Father’s Day when he was 5 — that Bowers sported during sound check.

“We couldn’t be doing this without the number of friends and family who come out every time we play,” Jones said.

Check out The DejaBlue Grass Band’s Web site for upcoming shows and to download Bucket Full of Rain.

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