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September 28, 2001
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Music Preview: Deliberate Strangers loosen the parameters, rocking out on new CD

Friday, September 28, 2001

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

As he counted down the final stretch of highway to "Ghostland Next Exit," the band's latest album, Deliberate Stranger Tom Moran sent out an e-mail summing up his feelings on the project with "I think we put the last nail in the bluegrass coffin this time."



WITH: Assorted special guests

WHERE: Club Cafe, South Side.

WHEN: Tomorrow at 9 p.m.



When they formed, the Strangers' set was mostly bluegrass standards.

That was seven years ago.

"It's just amazing," says Moran, "that people still think, 'Oh, Deliberate Strangers, they're that bluegrass band.' And after all this time. Even people you'd think would know better. They're like, 'Oh, so you guys doing any bluegrass festivals this summer?' No, not really. You know?"

He laughs, then adds, "It just keeps hanging on."

There's certainly nothing especially fit for bluegrass festivals about the raunchy, cowbell-driven rock 'n' roll of "Heartland" or the dark spaghetti western vibe of cuts like "Highway Blue" and "Nothing But a Bitch."

Moran has heard a lot of people try to get a handle on the sound.

"We tend to hear, like, 'This song sounds like Gun Club. This song sounds like X. This song sounds like an Appalachian version of 'Apocalypse Now.' "

And they're probably right, although you also feel the spirit of the Bad Seeds, Chuck Berry and even some, I don't know, bluegrass?

Moran says the Strangers arrived at the sound by loosening its definition of the band's parameters.

"I think we pretty much just said 'The heck with it,' " he recalls with a laugh. "We just didn't hold back on this one, whereas before, I think, we were probably guilty of saying, 'No, we're not gonna do this. We're not gonna do that. I think we just got tired of limiting ourselves."

By we, of course, he mostly means himself.

Violinist Erin Hutter was "always for upping the ante," he says. "And I was pretty much the fundamentalist."

The turning point, he says, came at a show where they decided to just rock out on a song.

"And it was so much fun," he says. "I was just like, 'Oh yeah, this is fun again. I remember this.' For me, that was the point at which I said, 'OK, we can integrate it into what we're doing.' It's not like we're gonna go out and be a punk band or an alternative band or whatever, but really, what was I doing limiting myself?"

The band's reaction?

"Everyone was, like, real happy," he says, with a laugh. "I think they were sort of like, 'Oh finally. He cracked.' "

One thing that hasn't changed about the Strangers is the darkness of the lyrics. As Moran says, after all these years, "I sort of have to slap myself when writing songs that there's not a reference to firearms or a prison cell or something."

Asked what inspires the lyrics, he talks about the songs the other Strangers wrote. Stephanie Vargo, his wife and bandmate, wrote "Catfish," he says, "about her cousin Jimmy. She was really close to him and he passed away from lung cancer." "Dietz 8," he says, "is the name of the mining town in Wyoming where her mother was from. Her grandparents came over from Italy and they were coal miners in Wyoming." Jon Manning's "Stone Phantom" began as a poem Chuck Kinder had written.

And "Hangman," a song of Moran's that finds the hangman singing, "Well, I didn't choose this line of work of my own accord/ They told me 'Who are you to judge the workings of the Lord?'/ And I had this sickly feeling way back in my mind/ My profession wasn't right, but it sure beat doing time.' What inspired that?

"I had this dream," he says, "that I was elected to be the hangman in this town. It was the ugly job that nobody else wanted to do."

His "Hangman" is not only brilliantly written, it's funny as hell.

"We were joking around," he says, "that maybe this would be the disc where the Strangers lose their sense of humor. But I think the humor just got blacker."

And he knows it's not the best of times for humor as black as the Strangers' what with everything that happened earlier this month. He got the CDs in the afternoon before the terrorists attacked the Pentagon and New York City.

"And my big goal," he says, "was to get the Deliberate Strangers CD over to Paul's before the Dylan CD. That was my big goal. And then, of course, all hell broke loose and that was the farthest thing from my mind. We let them sit in the box for a week. I just felt creepy. What am I supposed to do, go in the store and be like, 'Oh, here's my CD?' "

They've cut out some darker songs for now at shows.

"There's a few that we're not gonna do," he says. "But mostly older ones, like 'Anthracite,' where it's about being buried alive. And before this happened, Becky Corrigan was gonna do the old Polish Hillbillies song 'Goin' Home in a Coffin.' I think for a while, we'll try to be sensitive to stuff like that. But in general, I don't think we're ... We're not gonna ... I don't want to sound callous or something, but I don't think it's really gonna change the band. I can't see us singing songs like 'It's a great day/ Be lucky you're alive.' "

Corrigan and others, from Carol Lee Espy to Peter Salvati of Plastic Jesus, will be joining the Strangers on stage tomorrow night at Club Cafe to kick off the party they're throwing to celebrate the new CD's release.

"They're just gonna do, like, three songs each with either the full Stranger band or some various combination of us," says Moran, "the whole idea being that you can't find two more opposite people in the world than Peter Salvati and Carol Lee Espy. Pretty much, we just wanted to see what would happen, like what if? They're doing covers, originals, everything from Kitty Wells to Mission of Burma. Peter's doing 'Galveston' and 'Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town.' My brother [Mike] and I are doing 'Knoxville Girl,' trying to do the old blood harmony stuff. And then he's gonna do his karaoke number on 'I Put a Spell on You.' It's hysterical."

The show begins at 9.

Tonight, on the eve of the album's release, the Strangers play a rare all-ages show at the Millvale Industrial Theater with Shannon Wright and Lonely Planet Boy.

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