Out on a Limb

Before the Owls could take on the pop world, they had to face stage fright, shyness, and each other

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Nick Vlcek
The Owls: Allison LaBonne, Brian Tighe, Maria May and John Jerry
Nick Vlcek
The Owls: Allison LaBonne, Brian Tighe, Maria May and John Jerry

ON A THURSDSAY night in late August, the following questions are on the minds of four people who have gathered to see a band called the Owls:

1. How can I find a way to define my hopes and dreams?

2. What is the best way to be politically active?

3. Should I buy the $4,000 recording system that I'm thinking about?

4. My friend Stephanie died one year ago. How can I best honor my friend Steph's life?

We know this is what's on their minds because audience members at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis have written down these and other questions on pieces of paper, along with their names, and placed them in a box to be drawn at random during a taping of The Radio8Ball Show. Hosted by Washington state musician Andras Jones, an actor in such trashy horror films as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the program airs in Seattle and Olympia, and features bands in cities across the country. Jones chose the Owls from Minneapolis because, as he says onstage, "I'm an insane fan."

The Owls look as if they've stepped out of a yellowing photo from the folk era, all ties and dresses, and into the spotlight for the first time. Their music could pass for an unplugged tribute to everything tender and lovely about the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, and the non-hangover parts of the White Album. Yet the three singers sound modern in their quiet lack of affectation. On piano, acoustic guitar, and bass, Maria May, Brian Tighe, and Allison LaBonne sing the show's theme song in high, delicate three-part harmony—"Radio8Ball, give us a shake"—but their voices fold into each other rather than lock. On nearly every song after that, they rotate instruments and lead vocals, as if to further de-emphasize virtuosity, giving drummer John Jerry a chance to put down his brushes and play bass.

Yet the hesitant spell cast by this quartet fits the laid-back vibe of the show. Radio8Ball invites lucky questioners onstage to read their pieces of paper and spin a giant wheel of zodiac signs. ("It's like $250 to ship that thing," says Tighe afterward. "Our goal was just to pay for the wheel [through ticket sales], which didn't happen.") Each sign corresponds to a different Owls song, which the band plays. Then the musicians, host, and audience participant interpret the music as an "answer" to the question.

"I like to think of this format as calisthenics for the part of our mind that recognizes synchronicity," says Jones, likening it to "musical Tarot cards."

Within a few go-rounds, however, it's clear that the sparsely attended show will be a kind of This Is Your Life episode for the Owls. Three of the first four audience members to the stage not only know the band but were key to the group's development, starting with "the Ledge," as singer-songwriter Jim Ruiz has dubbed himself. A longtime collaborator with Tighe's other band, the Hang Ups, Ruiz once recruited LaBonne to replace her sister on bass in the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group—just before a concert in Japan.

The life question from the Ledge, "How can I find a way to define my hopes and dreams?," echoes the title of the Owls' 2004 debut eight-song CD, Our Hopes and Dreams—a coincidence Ruiz says is inadvertent, uttering a very Minnesotan "Oh, jeez" when the title is pointed out to him. He spins the wheel, and it lands on Scorpio. The band plays the corresponding Owls tune, May's "Cinema," one of a couple dozen Owls songs that haven't been recorded. Quieter and more polished than LaBonne, May sounds a little like Aimee Mann with blood in her veins.

When the song ends, and the applause dies down, Jones asks the band for "contextual information" about the song.

"The movies?" offers May. She is tall, and movie-beautiful in her reddish curly hair, yet looks, right now, as if she might want to hide. "Violent movies, maybe? But also movies as an outlet."

"So maybe," says Jones, fleshing out May's idea, "[the answer is] finding some archetype in cinema that defines your hopes and dreams."

"Like Taxi Driver?" asks the Ledge. The audience laughs.

"I could see you going that way," says May.

"I think the Ledge needs to release an album," says Tighe.

By most local standards, the Owls are practically rock stars. Without any hint that their hopes and dreams might involve commercial success, they sold out their 2004 CD-release concert at the Turf Club, as well as four pressings (or 4,000 copies) of the debut, topping college radio charts around the country. Their song "Air" won a Minnesota Music Award and was the soundtrack for a Target commercial selling air filters.

"They're catchier than Feist," says Blender senior critic Jon Dolan, a friend of the musicians. And their circle is growing. Having opened for New Zealand greats the Bats at South by Southwest last year, the Owls celebrate their own comeback Thursday with a release show at the Cedar for a second nationally distributed CD, Daughters and Suns (on Magic Marker Records), their first full-length.

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