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All Together Now 

Three top Charlotte groups join forces for experimental ensemble set

Usually, the super-group ensemble thing goes something like this:

At the end of some self-congratulatory televised event, all the usual inductees/nominees crowd the stage for an overblown send-off cover -- more often than not some three-chord warhorse only the truly drunk musician couldn't follow.

The entertainment quotient is pretty meager: a couple of chuckles and a twinge of nostalgia, neither of which you can really enjoy because midway through the 17-minute version of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" you sprained your eyes rolling them in disgust at all the camera mugging and "hey-check-me-out" guitar solos.

Still, some musicians can't help but play the "what-if" game. What if, say, my band and your band and then this other band got together, put our own projects on hold, practiced three times a week for a solid month, rearranged some of each others' catalogue for a one-time-only mammoth ensemble show? And what if we did it not for notoriety or money or some other horseshit reason, but because we admired each other's songs and wondered what musical surprises we might find recast inside them?

Well, then you'd have the three-band symphonic extravaganza of The Houston Brothers, Pyramid and Sea of Cortez playing each other's songs all together (mostly) on the Neighborhood Theatre stage Saturday night. But whether it's a night chockfull of sublime musical mementos or one littered with ambitious experiments gone askew (or a mixture of both), for the 14 musicians on stage it will be the journey there that they take with them when the show is over and the lights go out.

"I've never seen anyone else try it, so we've got that going for us," laughs Pyramid's Joey Stephens, who was instrumental in putting together what members of each band had talked about over the last couple of years. "No one will know what the hell to expect."

One thing not to expect is a "big Hall of Fame rock show where everyone's ripping on solos," Stephens says. Two weeks before the show, he adds, there's talk of taking an operatic approach -- mingling moments of intimate quiet, spaced-out soundscapes, traditional song structures and explosive passages.

The one-off nature of the event is a big part of the draw for the fans and musicians. And though the three bands share some musical similarities (each could be lumped -- lazily -- in the indie rock category), it's what they don't have in common that makes for the most intriguing contrasts.

Stephens' Pyramid is an eight-man collective of diverse experimentalists who compose unorthodox songs of delicate quiet and thunderous urgency via a van-full of instrumentation (horns, strings, guitars, percussion) -- think of a rock & roll Charles Mingus with a hazy hint of ambient country and you're in the general neighborhood. Sea of Cortez, led by guitarist Rodney Lanier (Jolene), is a three-guitar (pedal and lap steel, six string) septet whose cinematic, all-instrumental soundscapes reside somewhere between Japancakes, Dirty 3 and Friends of Dean Martinez. The Houston Brothers are a keyboards-inflected three-piece, led by brothers Justin and Matt Faircloth, whose pop catalogue is more traditional but still occasionally wanders off the path with improvised outros.

But the tension between those different sounds posed the greatest hurdle during rehearsals. Pyramid, for their part, compose songs on the fly, breaking down into two or three groups at a time with the embryo of a tune, re-adjourning with several ideas battling for inclusion. Sea of Cortez takes a similar approach -- only in a more collective fashion -- once Lanier draws up a melody or skeletal structure. The Houston Brothers, on the other hand, normally write either alone or together, emerging with more complete constructions.

"That's one thing that took some getting used to, because both Justin and Matt have some very specific ideas for parts (of songs), and Pyramid doesn't work like that," says Stephens. "It's just "do what you want, we'll figure it out as we learn it'...It's completely the opposite of the way (the Faircloths) work; they're brothers, they look at each other and they know what they're thinking."

After the long wait to get together, the reality was not what anyone expected, at least initially. The first all-day marathon practice yielded just two songs, Lanier says, and a whole slew of questions and logistical issues, at least early on.

"There were definitely times where it was, "oh, Lord,'" Lanier says. "It would be hard just picking any bands and putting them together, because I think the egos would be such a problem. But that's what has been pretty cool about this...nobody takes anything to heart."

"The first day of practice it seemed like maybe we had bitten off a little more than we could chew," says Justin Faircloth. "But everyone was committed to getting it done, and we've had some nine, 10-hour practices, which is up there with Prince, driving everybody into the ground and making everyone crazy."

But in fairly quick order things came together, in part due to a slight scaling back of expectations (the arrangements will be new, not the songs). And besides, once Stephens booked the date there really was no turning back. By show time, the bands hope to have between 18-20 songs ready, dividing the set-list fairly evenly between bands.

No matter what the outcome, the general consensus is that everyone will emerge changed. Lanier says it's largely intangible, but agrees with Stephens when the latter says:

"We've been sort of re-introduced to these guys' personalities. We've been doing that on top of learning the songs, so it's been a really good experience...When we walk away from this I bet we'll all be different musicians."

It's also a safe bet that those who witness this group lesson in the creative process won't be the same either.

The Houston Brothers, Pyramid and Sea of Cortez take to the stage together Saturday night at the Neighborhood Theatre. Tickets are $7 in advance, $9 at the door, and the show starts at 10:30pm; doors open an hour earlier.

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