Evening at the Improv

A trio of local music virtuosos teams up for a special showcase

The living room of Jamal Ruhe's downtown Tempe home is a mess. The small quarters are cluttered with amplifiers, cables and instruments of every variety and size. Amid this labyrinth, it's nearly impossible to find a place to sit down. The only unoccupied seat, it turns out, is behind the drum kit.

In the corner of the room, pedal-steel virtuoso Jon Rauhouse is vamping something sweet and sad. Looking up from his fretboard, the spectacled guitarist trains his eye on Robin Vining, who's busy sawing away at a black accordion dangling from his neck. Its lush tones combine with the swell of the steel to produce a hypnotic and soothing three-chord drone. Though the two men have only just met, their musical chemistry is obvious; they weave through the instrumental, navigating its nuances as Ruhe provides some liquid rhythm lines from an electric bass.

"I've got a good title for that one," Rauhouse declares excitedly as the song comes to a close. "It's called 'Suite in G Major for Accordion and Banjo,'" as the room collapses in gales of laughter.

Circle R, from top, Jamal Ruhe, Robin Vining and Jon Rauhouse, performs this week.
Circle R, from top, Jamal Ruhe, Robin Vining and Jon Rauhouse, performs this week.
Muddy Violets singer-songwriter Jason Longo goes Off His Rocker this week with the release of the group's debut disc.
Muddy Violets singer-songwriter Jason Longo goes Off His Rocker this week with the release of the group's debut disc.

Such scenes are familiar ones here; Ruhe's home has long been something of a musical clubhouse for local eclectics. This time out, though, he and his comrades are taking their muse out of the living room and putting it on the stage. Billing themselves as Circle R (which appears as ®), the group is scheduled to make its debut appearance -- and possible swan song -- this week.

The genesis of the project was born of Ruhe and Rauhouse's regular workouts as two-thirds of dream-pop combo Sleepwalker.

"[Jon and I] always sit around and dicker with these half-songs, these instrumentals, and one day we decided, 'If we had one more guy, this would be real music,'" Ruhe says.

The two decided to enlist fellow multi-instrumental virtuoso Vining, front man for Valley rockers Clyde (formerly Mr. Pink).

Eventually, the idea of a mostly improvised instrumental set evolved into something more, as Ruhe conceptualized a special event that would draw out the kind of subtleties inherently absent from typical bar-band rock.

To that end, the group's Thursday, December 21, show at Long Wong's will see the venerable bar's dank quarters transformed into a cabaret lounge, complete with mood lighting and a makeshift dance floor.

"The idea that we were talking about initially was aesthetic more than musical. We wanted to be able to say we did this once with this group of people," enthuses Ruhe. "With this kind of [improvisational] setup, it's more of a challenge. It'll involve active participation from everyone."

Specifically, he says, it will require the audience being ready to dance.

"Well, that's the whole point," he says. "It's not going to work if people don't get up there and slow dance."

After only a couple of informal jam sessions to feel each other out, the combo has already expanded its sonic palette to include a drum machine and vocal samplers.

"We're set up so that we can sample stuff on the fly if we want," says Ruhe, as he demonstrates a machine that creates an immediate stack-o-vocals effect, like a Beach Boys record.

Ultimately, whatever form it takes on the night of the show, the Circle R is an all-too-rare opportunity to witness a brand of unvarnished artistry, free from rules or parameters -- save one.

"There won't be any up-tempo songs. That's the only restriction," says Ruhe.

"That's 'cause we're really moody guys," chimes in a grinning Rauhouse.

"Yeah, and we don't hate our mothers enough to play that damn rock music," adds Ruhe.

Although the core will include the three men, gig night will see a steady stream of guest musicians come up and lend their talents, including keyboardist Matt Mahr, Sleepwalker drummer Darren Henley and fellow trapsman Jim Knapp from Reuben's Accomplice.

"Everyone is basically unrehearsed, including us," notes Ruhe, smiling. "So it will be okay."

But, cautions Ruhe, hit or miss, Circle R will be a one-time-only affair. "No, this is definitely it. We want it to be a graceful thing. We're trying to engineer a moment for us and whoever the audience for this might be."

A couple of side notes to the story: Vining's main outfit, Clyde, recently finished work on a three-song single called Before War, which should be available early next year. In February, the group will begin work on a full-length effort for a midyear 2001 release. The band's next performance will be at the Green Room on Saturday, January 6.

Also, Circle R's Thursday debut at Wong's will be followed by another notable local bow at the club on Friday, December 22. This one comes from the Vodka Jesus, the new (tentatively dubbed) outfit from Piersons front man Patrick Sedillo. Featuring the same lineup (Sedillo, Beat Angel guitarist Michael Brooks, Los Guys bassist Paul Cardone and Piersons drummer Tony Chadwick) that performed at the Piersons' November CD release, the group will play periodically as Piersons bassist Scotti Moore continues to recover from a near-fatal October traffic accident.

The Vodka Jesus show begins at 9 p.m., with an acoustic opening set from Kevin Daly and Dave Insley. Also, look for a big announcement with details on a benefit show for Moore next week.

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