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As monsoon winds swirl around the south Scottsdale practice space of Shoeless Joe, three members of the Tempe quartet -- bassist Theron Wall, singer/rhythm guitarist Dave Wolfmeyer and lead guitarist Chad Hines -- wait for drummer Michael Wood to arrive.
"You're late," someone shouts as Wood finally emerges from an old Volvo station wagon. Wood's spent most of the day having car trouble. "Buy American," Wolfmeyer says with a broad grin.
For all the glamour that MTV attempts to bestow upon its manufactured pop stars, this tableau is much closer to the real story of rock 'n' roll. Four guys on a Wednesday night stuck in a 50-dollar-a-month storage facility. Strains of the metal band practicing in a shed down the row cut through the wet night air. The band members will spend three hours playing their hearts out to one curious onlooker in a cramped, un-air-conditioned, eight-by-eight room. "Livin' la Vida Loca" indeed.
All across North America, the same scene is being repeated by hundreds of other bands. In a way, the members of Shoeless Joe are not unlike so many of those groups -- shedding blood, sweat and chunks of their souls for a chance to make their passion pay their bills. The only difference is that most bands, no matter how earnest their effort, lack the talent or the insight to stand out. Any such doubts are erased when Shoeless Joe kicks off a galloping rocker with the opening salvo -- "Sitting around waitin' for my phone to ring/It's working wonders on my self-esteem."
Their music resonates with a simple clarity through a haze of pot smoke. The songs evoke lost innocence, when the possibility of youth fades into the harsh reality and unrealized aspirations of adulthood. "Burned out dreams and wasted time/I got a scrapbook full of empty pages that tell you/The story of my life."
Shoeless Joe had an inauspicious beginning. Wall and Wolfmeyer spent much of the early Nineties in a female-fronted outfit known as 10th and Ash. Typical conflicts broke up the group. Wall, having recently graduated from Arizona State University (where he studied cello), moved to Seattle. He urged the rest of the group to join him there in the hope of restarting the band, this time with Wolfmeyer singing. That didn't happen, and after a series of false starts, Wall and Wolfmeyer began writing and performing as a guitar/cello duo known as Truckers on Speed.
The grunge capital wasn't especially hospitable to the pair of desert outsiders, but the two paid close attention and came to the conclusion that for all its relative hype, Seattle's musical talent pool paled in comparison to the Valley's.
"The bands here [Phoenix] kick the shit out of what's going on up in Seattle. It's just that here no one will go see it unless somebody's telling them it's cool," says Wolfmeyer.
"Up there people aren't afraid to go out and see somebody for the first time and give something a try. I've seen bands that were here for five years doing the same shows at the same places for nobody. Up there, they'd be huge."
After 18 months, the pair returned to the Valley with a strong catalogue of songs, determined to forge the new group. "We planned on doing the same shit we were doing in Truckers but actually having drums -- doing the rock thing," says Wolfmeyer.
Now more than a year after their debut (and after finally settling on a stable lineup), the group is set to release a two-song single -- "Tales of a 25-Year-Old Nothing" b/w "Heart at Home." The band recorded the disc at Mind's Eye Studio, and plans to give it away as means to drum up local interest.
One reason Shoeless Joe lacks a hard-core fan base is that its sound is difficult to pigeonhole. At first, they come off like a more thoughtful version of the Denton, Texas, alt-country band Slobberbone, with elements of the blue-collar humor and pathos of the Bottle Rockets thrown in. And the band members aren't afraid to trumpet their No Depression leanings. "Uncle Tupelo was a total epiphany for me, man," says Wolfmeyer. "They seemed to make sense out of everything I listened to my whole life."
The influence of Uncle Tupelo, the Belleville, Illinois, trio, is evident in Wolfmeyer's songwriting. The lead track from the single "Tales of a 25-Year-Old Nothing" echoes the heart-on-their-sleeves country-punk ethos of early Uncle Tupelo. In fact, much of Shoeless Joe's material wouldn't seem out of place on either of the group's first two records; Wolfmeyer's biting, world-weary drawl sounds like a young Jay Farrar.
For the most part, though, the band prefers to look farther back in terms of their musical influences. "When we were doing the Truckers on Speed thing, we used to have a lot of people say, 'You must listen to a lot of Steve Earle.' And I was always like, 'No, I don't. I listen to the Beatles and Stones -- which is something that Steve Earle listens to -- that's a definite influence on him.'"