by Mike Corrigan

Ten years is a long time to slug it out in the mean streets of indie rock. You gotta love endurance like that, because quite frankly, there are times -- when gigs get cancelled, audiences are ambivalent, money is scarce and the van craps out -- when desire and the steadfast love of your own art is the only soul nourishment there is. Portland band Slackjaw has been duking it out for respect and a piece of your entertainment budget since forming in 1993. They've built up a large following in Spokane (hometown for a couple of the guys) through perseverance -- by performing here, without fail, just about every three months. They make another stab into the heart of local audiences with two (yep, two) shows this Saturday night. The early show is an all-ages gig at Sole with local acts Selfles, Soma and Lucid. The late-nighter is a 21-and-over affair at Mootsy's with Chinese Sky Candy opening.

"There are some towns that we do really well in," says Slackjaw's bassist, Robert Bartleson. "That's why we like to tour. And Spokane's definitely one of them. It's been really good to us."

It's a bittersweet return for many Slackjaw fans, as this will be lead vocalist, guitarist and co-founder Eric Schopmeyer's final performance as a band member. Schopmeyer has decided to call it quits, and after Saturday he will be replaced by original drummer Joey Prude, who is emerging from behind the kit to take up the reigns as frontman. Joining Prude and Bartleson in the new lineup will be David Devery on guitar, Derek Terran on guitar and keyboards (both musicians were in previous incarnations of the band) and Jeremy Jenks on drums. It's an admittedly jarring switcheroo, but one consistent with the personnel flux that has been a constant feature of the band's tumultuous career.

It's also, according to Bartleson, a necessary change.

"He's just kind of tired of the scene in general," he says of Schopmeyer. "And has decided to pursue other things -- filmmaking. Joey and I are just as devoted to it as we've ever been. I think Eric just got really frustrated and bitter toward the whole music industry in general."

He adds, "It's not been an easy route."

Slackjaw has always defied mindless categorization, a potential liability in these days when effective (and often narrow) marketing is often the key to getting your songs widely heard. Where does Slackjaw fall on the sonic scale? The band, not too surprisingly, is a product of its time (call it post-punk) and of its influences (The Cure, The Smiths, Afghan Whigs, U2 and The Replacements, among others). These factors manifest themselves in music that is fervent and thought-provoking. Slackjaw first struck wax in 1996 with the album A Sinking Ship Loves Company followed by Buoyancy vs. Gravity (in 1997), The Curvature of the Earth (1999) and Darkest Hour (2001). Despite all the hard knocks and hard-won victories, the band is pressing on with the new lineup, a new album (due this summer) and a tour to follow.

"We recorded the new album as the old band, with Eric's songs," explains Bartleson. "It's heading in the same direction (as 2001's Darkest Hour) but I think it's gone further. We've been exploring things as a three-piece and we kind of went more that way. There's more keyboard stuff."

The summer tour to support the album will be the first without Schopmeyer and the first with the expanded arrangement.

"Eric kind of had problems getting along with anyone other than Joey and me. But Joey and I always wanted a larger band to better represent the album. And so we're putting together the five-piece."

With the downtime necessary to dial in the new lineup (which can feel at times more like regression than progression), Bartleson sounds both pragmatic about the struggles ahead and positive about the future of Slackjaw.

"It's hard to get new members together," he admits. "It's a little frustrating. But I think in the end, our attitude will be better. It should give us a fresh breath of air."

Down From the Mountain -- Fiddler/singer/songwriter Laurie Lewis finds her way through the vernacular of old-time country, bluegrass, western swing and Cajun with deftness and grace. She also presents a formidable challenge to preconceived notions of musical tradition. With a pure, musical voice and exceptional instrumental skills, she was one of the first women to make a name for herself in previously male-dominated territory. Her ability to transverse genre boundaries infuses her work with a depth that's unique among her peers. It also makes for great live performance. Yes, yes, Lewis is on her way to a stop at Mother Goose Coffeehouse at Auntie's Bookstore this Saturday eve, performing with kindred spirit and West Coast folkstress Nina Gerber on guitar.

Lewis helped form the all-woman band Good Ol' Persons in the mid-'70s, moving on to create her own Grant Street String Band and then to establish a successful solo career (she was twice voted the International Bluegrass Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year). Over the years (and over the course of nearly a dozen albums), she has teamed up with a cache of respected artists, most notably mandolin player Tom Rozum.

That bow is a firebrand. And that voice, though subtle, packs serious emotional heat.

Publication date: 04/10/03

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