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Catch the Train 

by Alan Sculley


Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train, didn't use the words "identity crisis," but in a way that's something the band faced when its current CD, Drops Of Jupiter, arrived in stores last year.


To many people, Train at that point wasn't known so much by their band name, but by "Meet Virginia," the hit single that propelled sales of the group's debut CD over one million. Monahan was eager to create some new name recognition for his band.


"Oh, it's such a big deal. We're the 'Meet Virginia' band right now, and that's a bummer," Monahan says. "It's not a bummer because we're proud that we had a hit song at all. But it's really important right now that we become Train. I think to get a name, you have to have more than one song that is successful, in a lot of cases."


Still, this San Francisco band -- which headlines the upcoming Jeep World Outside Festival tour along with Sheryl Crow, Ziggy Marley and O.A.R. at the Gorge this weekend -- never pinned its hopes on a hit single as a way to establish the band and get an audience. If anything, the group's approach more closely mirrored the path followed by a group like the Grateful Dead or the Dave Matthews Band.


Like those groups, Train made building a grassroots following by touring the first priority. Formed seven years ago as an acoustic duo of Monahan and guitarist Rob Hotchkiss, the other members of the band -- guitarist Jimmy Stafford, bassist Charlie Colin and drummer Scott Underwood -- had been in the band only about a year and a half when the group landed a showcase for Columbia. Although the band fully expected the showcase to land them a record deal, it didn't, and they found themselves with independent label Aware Records, which placed "Meet Virginia" and another song, "Free" on a compilation CD. Train hit the road for an extensive North American tour to get the word out.


Eager to prove themselves more than a one-hit wonder, Train has clearly reached another level with Drops Of Jupiter. Sales of the CD have outpaced the debut, and the band is now firmly established as a headlining touring act. On a musical level, moreover, the Drops Of Jupiter CD is a solid step forward for Train. Songs such as "She's On Fire" and "Respect" bring out a brisk, rocking edge that was rarely present on the first CD. The mid-tempo material is also more fully developed, as Train branched out to embrace a wider range of instrumentation and sonic depth.


Monahan says some of the musical progress of the band was largely a product of the experience Train gained in touring extensively behind the first album.


"I think when we were making that first record it was really hard for us," he says. "We were still a young band. We hadn't known each other all that long. So even if it was a year and a half, it wasn't as long as six years. We hadn't been on the road together. There was a lot we didn't know about each other, so we went into the studio for the first time ever to make a record together as a band, and we went in without a producer. So there was really no true guidance except for one another.


"Plus we're kind of going through a phase where there isn't a record company out there who wants us right now," Monahan continues. "You have to want to do this badly enough on our own, have enough courage and faith in this project to go ahead and do that. We knew that if something came of this, it would be one of those times we would look back on for the rest of our lives, because we did the work without anybody else."
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