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It's just another Friday night at a Tucson java hut with the usual folk singer serving up some low-key strum 'n' hum as accompaniment to young coffee achievers' nonalcoholic mating rituals. However, on this particular evening the entertainment is provided by longtime scene veteran Chris Holiman, late of the Old Pueblo's beloved River Roses and 35 Summers, and Holiman's vocal and fretboard soliloquies are given rapt attention by patrons and barristas alike.
Such is the blessing and curse of the so-called local icon everywhere: You can release records and even tour to international acclaim (in their late '80s/early '90s heyday, the Roses earned quite a following across the U.S. and in Europe), while back on the home turf, a devoted but nonetheless modest following isn't necessarily going to make you rich. For Holiman, though, that could change. Interestingly, his recent solo coffee-house gig wasn't truly representative of his newest endeavor; even though the 11 tunes on Send In the Waitress were most likely written on acoustic guitar and easily work in an unplugged setting, the CD's a full-bore power-pop effort from start to finish.
It kicks off in a swath of electric distortion from which a tune that is decisively "desert rock" -- does anybody remember that musical legacy? -- emerges, the slow-burn "Stop Laughing," whose lyrics bequeathed the disc's title. "Send in the waitress/We need a drink/What about the crying?/Stop laughing," Holiman insists, as his song's narrator and friends ruefully commiserate around a bottle. From there the record moves across Stones/Faces territory (the chunky, organ-fueled "Night Set Me Free," and "Firetrucks," which contains a sneaky guitar hook reminiscent of the Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy") and quirkily atmospheric pop ("Rocketship," a neat marriage of Velvets drone and R.E.M. avant-rumble; and "Broken & True," a Todd Rundgren-like heartbeat-pulse ballad par excellence). Throughout, the group's knack for seamless arrangements -- each tune has its share of acoustics and electrics churning in the mix, and Holiman's turned into an impressive keyboardsman as well -- and unique melodic twists suggests the workings of seasoned pros, at ease both with their individual abilities and with their collective craft.
Arizonans familiar with Holiman's sweet upper register will encounter much musical solace herein; his voice remains a local treasure, a genial but urgent cross between Neil Young and Radiohead's Thom Yorke. At the same time, with the Downtown Saints operating as a trio -- included is drummer Todd Pearson (who was previously part of 35 Summers) and bassist Kelly Burd -- Holiman is doing double duty as singer and lead guitarist, forcing him into a more dynamic front-man role. In recent years, Holiman the songwriter has tilted to the gentler side of pop and folk rock, but these days he also seems intent on balancing his instinctive melodicism with a more direct, edgy style that harks back to River Roses' glory days.
Toting around a release this strong as a calling card, there's no reason Holiman won't be able to draw the attention of a top-level indie label looking to cash in doubly on the long memories of those who still think fondly of Arizona's once-vaunted desert rock sound, and on the good consumer sense of folks who simply can't stomach today's aggro mook-metal or white-boy faux-hip-hop. Indeed, these tunes are as radio friendly in the traditional sense as it gets. (Contact: P.O. Box 85691, Tucson, AZ 85754.)