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February 20, 2007

Train keeps a-rollin’, Heumann does improv and Ryan gets personal

Dennis Sheridan first assembled the local group Follow the Train without imagining a full-time, unilaterally charging outfit. And, as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Last year, just a few months after the band’s Darla release A Breath of Sigh came out to fine notices, members started peeling away.Eventually, the group leader was left by himself, just at a point where he was thinking that he absolutely would like to continue this particular group. Sheridan’s response was, basically, to take pride in his network of musician friends and go see who might like to begin FTT’s next chapter.James Hewett, an old school chum, was ready to consider an alternative to the intense scene around Cabin. “He wanted something low-key and laid-back,” Sheridan said. “And he’s an awesome drummer.” (Disclosure: Hewett is an account executive at LEO.)Guitarist Mike Sabo has pulled at the restraining straps on Sheridan’s own playing, “having me explore more solos.” Percussionist Brandon Jones may have been a surprise choice given the band’s previous sound, but “we knew he could be creative.”Sheridan obviously wants a lot more shared creativity of his bandmates, citing his excitement that everyone brings in songwriting potential.What was the biggest challenge about trading in one band lineup for another? “Just finding the right people to play with,” Sheridan said. “I was looking for fun and longevity.”It seems like the transition is well along. “We traded in some atmosphere for some balls,” Sheridan said, and added that the audience will immediately see the “energy level of everybody is now higher on stage. Everybody’s visually animated.”He knows this for sure, having made a test-run with a recent stealth gig at Lisa’s (“We billed ourselves as ‘Swallow the Brain’”).Follow the Train just scored three shows opening for My Morning Jacket, but you can see them Saturday at Headliners (1386 Lexington Road, 584-8088) with Wax Fang and The Features, who are single-handedly proving that integrity is not a lost art form in rock these days.Less than a year after releasing The Features’ fantastic Exhibit A, Universal Records dropped the band after it declined to cover The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” for use in a Chase Credit Card commercial.To Universal, the move would’ve surely broken the group wide open, but The Features chose not to oblige for creative reasons.Some of the resulting turmoil has come out in new material the band has been recording at a friend’s home studio in Murfreesboro, singer Matt Pelham said.While his opinion of record labels has changed slightly, Pelham isn’t walking around bitter. “It seems like all labels are the same,” he said. “You could end up in the exact same spot we’re in if you’re on an indie label.”The Features head out in early March for a short tour with Wax Fang, and have been generating label interest, but Pelham said they’ll approach any negotiations with record labels with the same goals in mind.“It just comes down to how much you think you can trust someone, which is really hard to do at record labels,” Pelham said. “That’s what we did: We tried to find someone who really wanted to work with the band. We’re taking pretty much the same approach.”Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8.•••A revamped membership renewing a group’s signature songs is one thing — but what happens when a musician moves on to a new instrument for an imminent tour, and his supposed proven capability is pure bluff?Arbouretum leader Dave Heumann can speak to this. He once talked Will Oldham into bringing him along on a Bonnie “Prince” Billy European tour as a bass player, though Heumann didn’t own the instrument, let alone have stage experience playing it.The annals of rock music have several such stories of quixotic opportunism. Probably the most famous is how Al Kooper sat in to play organ on the session for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” without a working knowledge of the instrument. Heumann said that his own tale is “maybe a little less of a stretch,” since he was just shifting to a different stringed instrument. But he did have to learn to shift to plucking after having previously played with a pick.That’s probably just one experience contributing to the effortless moody edge that comes from Arbouretum. When asked whether he gets concerned about recreating the very deliberate and gripping atmosphere of their release Rites of Uncovering throughout the shifting variety of tour stops, Heumann said, “We try to let ourselves be open to the crowd, and the sound of the room. It will sound different on a different night and at a different club.”This isn’t the casual attitude, though — the foursome obviously has great concern for what an audience gets from the night. For instance, to keep things fresh, he said, “We rarely use a setlist. When it’s a small club, and the audience is very close to us, we’ll call songs by codenames to keep a sense of surprise — “Let’s do ‘F-sharp.’”Heumann likes to cite Paul Bowles as a source of inspiration, and that writer certainly understood how worthwhile experiences don’t come around repeatedly or predictably in life. Consider renting the movie version of “Sheltering Sky” before going to see Arbouretum, with Speed To Roam, play Lisa’s Oak Street Lounge (1004 E. Oak St., 637-9315) on Saturday.•••It’s kind of wild to hear Matthew Ryan say that in order to play songs from his new album From a Late-Night High-Rise onstage, he had to “learn the record — then the two multi-instrumentalists (who’ll round out the ensemble playing at Phoenix Hill on Thursday) had to learn the record.”Upping the ante on having to self-teach: this is a remarkably personal and affecting record. It was set in motion as Ryan suffered the death of a close friend and the sentencing of his brother to a long prison term.Why did he have to go back to discover what he’d recorded? In speaking with Ryan, it’s clear that matters of context, distance and perspective have become vital to his creativity. It’s one reason he placed a spoken-word piece, “The Complete Family,” as the capper to this album. But at the time he started rolling tape to record, he was completely in the moment, looking to “try and come to terms with events. When I was first playing the songs, I wasn’t even concerned with knowing the chords.”Now he’s got those chords down and he promises a unique night of music. “What we’re doing is sort of like an electronic bluegrass thing. Well, bluegrass implies ‘fast,’ so maybe think of it as ambient, slow bluegrass.”The stage version of the songs will at times have different percussion from the mix that’s on the disc. Ryan brought in a live drummer only for specific cuts. Loops and machine-manufactured rhythms were often “part of what I was looking to get. They can get you a sound that’s, like, in Siberia. Electronic drums can get out the anger. But they can get predictable.”It’s guaranteed that you won’t have a predictable experience with this singer-songwriter. Matthew Ryan appears with Tim Easton Thursday at Phoenix Hill (644 Baxter Ave., 589-4630). Doors at 7 p.m., tickets are $10. Contact the writer at tlx@aol.com