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The Pittsburgh City Paper 4/14/1999

Buzz by Sean Whalen

Stranger Danger

A local alt-country band that takes deliberate steps


The power in a song comes from the transmission of the songwriter's feelings into sound expression. You can play your song using a whole tractor-trailer full of amplifiers and speakers, but if the songwriting is weak, you'll sound really loud, yet still be just as weak. The Deliberate Strangers have turned down the electricity and looked to the power of the song, rather than the power of the amplifier.

"We were once told that Pittsburgh wasn't ready for what we were doing, that we were ahead of our time," says Tom Moran of The Deliberate Strangers. The comment came from a promoter who booked them for an "acoustic" night, but they were the only band on the bill that hadn't brought along a cargo van full of electronics and powerful amps.

"It says a lot that in Pittsburgh, you can play like bands did 40 years ago, and be told you are ahead of the times," says bassist and singer Stephanie Vargo. Perhaps there was something prophetic in the words of the promoter that night. The Deliberate Strangers have been playing alternative country since 1994, long before that term had come into common usage. They blend dark themes, country and bluegrass instrumentation, and the spirit of early Seventies punk into a powerful brew that will make you dance or cry, depending on the song.

Their latest CD, Mood Music for Snake Handlers, packs 13 songs into three quarters of an hour. The best shorthand description: It's as if Nick Cave and Maryanne Huff from Southern Culture on the Skids were drinking whiskey and writing songs in a dive bar in West Virginia and recruited the locals to flesh out the band. The songs range from crooked bluegrass to eerie ballads and jumpin' gospel delivered like Dan Bern on crack. The mix of more familiar instruments, like guitar and fiddle, with the unexpected, like a sampler and a theremin, breaks new ground and keeps this disc fresh and invigorating.

The disparate influences are the musical baggage brought to the band by the three principal members. Moran is regarded by many as an "underground rock legend," as he was the guitarist for The Five in the early Eighties. Vargo felt equally pulled toward hillbilly music from West Virginia and toward the raw power and nervous energy of the emerging punk scene in the late Seventies. Fiddler/theremin goddess Erin "Scratchy" Hutter was classically trained as a violinist and is involved with the local goth scene. All three share singing duties, and the range of styles and sounds is impressive.

"We get lots of radio airplay in lonely places," says Vargo. Those lonely places have included western Australia, Alaska and, until recently, Serbia. "The music is pretty dark, and I think it is welcomed by people in places where people are rich in spirit."

The nationwide distribution of their CDs has earned them headlining slots at alternative country festivals in Boston, New York and Richmond. Like many Pittsburgh bands, they have found that their efforts are received much more enthusiastically elsewhere than they are locally. "It's probably less hassle for me to set up a headlining gig at a good club on a Saturday night in Boston than it is to book one here," says Moran, adding that if The Rolling Stones lived here, they would have a hard time getting noticed and would definitely be playing Rickety Thursdays at the 31st Street Pub.

Last year, The Deliberate Strangers helped organize Twangburgh at Rosebud, Pittsburgh's first multi-day event to feature prominent artists in the rapidly developing alternative country scene. This June, they will play at the three-day Mountain Top Bluegrass Festival in Tarentum. You won't have to wait until June to hear the power of their songs. The Deliberate Strangers appear Sat., April 17, at Pluto's in the Strip. They share the bill with Jim Roll and his band. 281-0771.