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Backwoods Blend

In the Pines unites the classically born and the garage-bred.

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It's only 20 feet.

A few steps, a moment of courage, and that gap would be gone. Yet no one in the sidelined audience shuffles toward the stage when the band begins warming up.

There are some obvious clues as to why. Setting up on the other side of the long, lonesome floor of the Hurricane, In the Pines is a mismatched collection of talented musicians, tuning and retuning an impressive stockpile of vintage instruments while stage lighting and the sun setting through nearby windows filter out any shades of familiarity.

There are six of them -- four men, two women -- each completely different from the next in terms of style and substance. The men -- lead vocalist and guitarist Brad Hodgson, bassist and vocalist Darren Welch, organist and guitarist John Ferguson and drummer Mike Myers -- fill the typical roles, if you consider a 1940s pump organ and a complete lack of electrics typical.

And then there are the women, Laurel Morgan and Erin Wight, both vocalists and classically trained violinists. They stand (Morgan on violin and Wight on viola) in stark contrast to the standard-issue rock band setup to their right.

For those of you keeping track at home, that's two professionally trained, mid-20s women on strings; a goateed, slicked-back bassist with a massive Taylor acoustic; a lead singer and songwriter with a penchant for the baroque; a drummer who looks like he has enough pent-up energy to crawl out of his own skin; and the guy with the pump organ.

No wonder the crowd seems confused.

"Brad had a vision," Wight will say a few days later, when the band gathers at Dave's Stagecoach Inn in Westport to discuss how a collaboration like this could have come about.

"I just wanted to do something that was older, more organic -- more traditional," Hodgson will add, while his bandmates come up with phrases such as "folky-rootsy" and "like fucking Silver Dollar City music" to describe their vibe. "There are so many different influences in this band, it kind of makes it a beast of its own," Hodgson will say.

But back at the Hurricane, the 20 feet remain.

Myers launches off the stage in the direction of the bar. This night -- an all-ages show opening for emo anthemers the Appleseed Cast -- is a little different from what they're used to, but the band members say they're willing to take chances and try new things to expose new audiences to their music.

"We don't want to overplay the same place too much," Myers says. "But at the same time, this is a town that loves its bar bands."

But in this bar, the love seems a bit restrained for a show ten minutes from kickoff. The unspoken feeling between this band and its audience isn't disgust or apathy -- far from it, in fact. This is more like the first hour of a middle school dance -- pure intrigue from both parties, but overwhelming, unabashed apprehension keeping them separated.

On the band's end of things, though, apprehension is the last word that comes to mind. Despite rather large differences in age and experience, this is a group whose members seem completely comfortable with one another. Welch, the group's oldest member at 34, has known Myers for nearly ten years. Wight, the band's youngest member at 23, was 5 years old when Welch played onstage with his first band, in 1986. The others have been friends for varying lengths of time, but the band has officially been together only since June 2004. But there's a silent connection between each of them, siblinglike in its purity, when they begin talking about writing songs.

"They give us so much shit," says Morgan, referring to the fact that she and Wight are more familiar with the symphony than the garage.

"We think in terms of riffs, and they think in terms of musical substance," Ferguson explains.

"We had to come up with our own language for it during practice," Hodgson says.

"But it's just like any other band," Welch adds. "I don't think it's come any easier or any harder than any band I've done before."

"I like that it's such a democratic process," Wight says.

"In some bands, you're just kind of lucky and things sort of work out," Ferguson continues.

"Yeah -- this is just so meticulous and precise," Hodgson finishes.

Obviously, there's no disorganization among these six -- they're even finishing each other's sentences, for Christ's sake. Cohesiveness is essential in such a massive, complicated conglomeration. It has already paid off in the seven or eight songs recorded and in the mixing stage for a first album.

At the Hurricane, Myers has returned to the stage, beverage in hand. With no more than a few minutes left before the show is to begin, the crowd finally shifts. People of all ages -- a teen in a Bright Eyes T-shirt, college girls in spaghetti-strap tanks, men in polos who look like they've just left the back nine -- exchange looks and move to the edge of the stage.

Almost at once, the six personalities meld into one. Hodgson and Welch strum and sing effortlessly over the haunting melodies of bows gliding across strings, as the eerie, ethereal tones of Ferguson's organ filter through Myer's insistent rhythms.

This is poetry without the prose. It's down-tempo music that's not lifeless. Emotion without excess. It's what Sigur Ros would sound like if they dropped the superiority complex and read some Faulkner.

And it makes 20 feet seem like nothing.

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