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Aural Report

Making everything OK for a few hours
The Restless Journey of the Stephens
by Kurt Dahlke

n easy trip through the usual rainy streets brings me quickly to Produce Row Café this Friday night in March.

The rains seem to be settling in for good as spring creeps up in its own sojourn. The Restless Journey of the Stephens, a new roots-music group, has brought its namesake couple and a few friends here tonight to make everything OK for a few hours and a few bucks.

Tina: most of the singing, along with strumming, shaking, banging – and even some flute.

Got to keep the journey funded, and any price is probably a bargain for a group that (like most local bands) claims not to have practiced enough even though they effortlessly accomplish everything they set out to do.

Good deal, I think.

Produce Row, in unprepossessing industrial southeast Portland, sports three intimate rooms (one with pool table) and a nice, warm covered smoking porch out back, not to mention a formidable selection of beers on tap and by the bottle.

It should also be mentioned that their beer prices are very reasonable. Outside, a large mushroom on the café sign hints at the counterculture origins of the place, which was sold to the kitchen staff of its previous McMenamins incarnation. Auspicious beginnings for a good-hearted establishment.

It's also a great place to shelter the indefatigably cheerful Stephens, Wayne and Tina, and their crew. Tennessee transplants, the Stephens fuel their trip through life with old-fashioned southern country music of the type from before the genre went down Garth's crapper.

Think Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys' music played by ex-kids (sorry guys) wholly without guile. They update the vernacular a bit without making it preciously modern. I'm sure they probably don't even make an effort to change the sound; they simply do it like they love it. It is what it is.

Wayne: vocal twang along with pluck and slide.

And that is a bubbling, high-but-not-so-lonesome, sincere, technically rock-solid sound. Tina does most of the singing, while either strumming a dulcimer in bluegrass rhythm, shaking and banging a battery of percussion instruments, or even playing flute.

Wayne contributes the authentic vocal twang while twanging acoustic guitar and handling solo-istic pluck and slide in the spaces in between. Closing his eyes, he recedes into fluid flurries of subtle arpeggios; a funky chunka-chunka peace wafts in on the scent of late-summer kudzu as smelled from the back of a pickup truck.

They have a smooth, five-string bassist and another gentleman on mandolin and guitar to cement their acoustic country-bluegrass concoction, and even a third vocalist to complicate matters further.

But even in a small room with no monitors and a bunch of friends talking back and forth, what happens is that the two- and three-part harmonies come out sweet, pure and right-on, as on the gorgeous "Tears For The Thirsty," a song from their new eponymous self-released CD.

It's not all sweetness and country light, though, despite what the amiable cadence and canny use of melodies and harmonies might lead you to believe. There's an undercurrent of discontent, a mannered lashing out at religious hypocrisy and a painful longing that lends much sophistication to the package. They play a Led Zeppelin cover, too.

The Restless Journey of the Stephens: an undercurrent of discontent, a mannered lashing out at religious hypocrisy, and a painful longing that lends much sophistication to the package.

The Stephens come prepared with a 31-song set list, and it's the first time in a while I've been so happy to spend that much time with one group, what with my aching back, ever-present load of homework and recurrent insomnia. This is intelligent, good-time, forget-your-worries music that extends even further into sonic experimentation on the CD.

My prescription for your journey is to pay a visit to the Stephens. It's like a shot of warm whiskey and honey going down your parched old throat.

E-mail Kurt at orangeandorange@msn.com, and don't miss his previous reports.

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