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Blue Merle at Iota: Rock Done Just Right

Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page C02

You never know what you'll get at a club as eclectic as Iota, or from a band consisting of young skinny guys in smart-alecky T-shirts. Or, for that matter, from a band with "blue" in its name.

Under a profusion of tiny pink lights, Blue Merle blossomed on Tuesday night. The Nashville-based band plays neither blues nor bluegrass, but a colorful rock amalgam that's somewhere on the road between the playfulness of Dave Matthews Band and the ethereality of Coldplay.

The instrumentation -- drums, acoustic guitar, mandolin, double bass and violin, with occasional keyboards -- suggested prog- or even folk-rock, and those genres were touched during "Every Ship Must Sail Away," a stately song, if one too groovy for grandeur. With evocative grace, K Ishibashi's violin embellishments suggested the glint of sunlight off a mast, simply by withholding those notes for a half-step after everyone else had soared. Again and again the group offered unexpected pairings: classical violin with country banjo on "Stay," pensive chords against a vigorous tempo on "Boxcar Racer."

When Lucas Reynolds talked, his tone suggested a subliminal "Duuuude!" But when he sang, it was with delicate swoops of notes -- never fey, just tensely emotional. His Jeff Buckleyesque high notes, especially on "If I Could," were so gorgeous you wanted to wrap his voice in silk and store it carefully in a safe for protection -- except it's so clearly an instrument that needs the open air, the wide space.

Unpretentious, un-self-conscious and buoyant, these guys sound like . . . themselves.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

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