Road to the Ryman 

Stellarondo and Rick Bass shoot for a dream

Of course Stellarondo is up to something that is a bit over the top, a little hard to imagine and ready-made for failure. Hey man, that's art though, right? Leaping beyond the easy thing and not playing "Mama Tried" at your live shows are the differences between great musicians and the rest of us. What they're crafting is An Evening of Songs and Scored Stories with author Rick Bass at the University Theatre. Bass's award-winning work—The Watch: Stories, Where the Sea Used to Be and Why I Came West, among many other books—is well known in fiction and environmental writing circles, and he is a tireless advocate for wilderness protection. The marriage of the group and the writer may seem odd at first, but since Stellarondo vocalists—including primary vocalist Caroline Keys—are poets, the notion of scored stories isn't all that foreign.

Don't be mistaken: This project isn't an author reading aloud while the band mimics the alliterative shape of words or reinforces the meaning of words with whimsical sound effects. "We put a lot of thought into the sound," says bassist Travis Yost, "avoiding musical quotes, not making a rooster sound when there's a rooster or an owl sound when there's an owl. We are developing themes that we can revisit, something more musical than cock-a-doodle-doo."

Guitarist Gibson Hartwell explains how the author's words and songs become a singular artistic work: "The process changes his stories. He'll strike adjectives or phrases because the music does the work [for them]." Bass brings in a story and ideas are developed quickly or over the course of months. "We don't say, 'This song would go with this story,'" adds Hartwell. "The music by itself wouldn't stand alone without the words. The stories do, but maybe in this form they wouldn't so well because they've been adapted to the music."

This University Theater performance isn't a one-shot deal. This is the kick-off for something much larger—something called the Road to the Ryman. The Ryman Auditorium is home to the legendary Grand Ole Opry, and Stellarondo and Bass are intent to perform there in 2013. In the meantime, the group plans to tour on their way to a recording session in Portland. But not without realistic trepidation. Singing-saw player and cellist Bethany Joyce says, "It's weird to move ahead with a project that's only been performed twice." Yost interjects that the Pet Shop Boys didn't initially perform live. Joyce, ever the voice of reason, continues, "This whole tour seems like a large step for a small band. We're trying to fill an 1,100 seat theater, but it's exciting not to play in bars."

"I can't see it anywhere else but a theater," Hartwell says. "[This] is not a multimedia Hollywood experience. It's not going to pummel you. It's not going to hand-feed everything to people. There is a conscious effort to make the audience concentrate and focus on what is happening onstage."

The group has moved from playing porches in 2010 to playing 1,100 seat theaters in 2012 to touring and recording with a well-known writer, to filming the entire experience in a documentary format and finally (hopefully) performing in one of the most vaunted music halls in the world in 2013. But if that happy ending doesn't work out, Hartwell says they have a back-up plan. "If we don't end up playing in the Ryman, our second goal is to play the parking lot."

An Evening of Scored Stories and Songs with Rick Bass and Stellarondo takes place at the University Theatre on Wed., Apr. 11, at 7 PM. $15/$12 advance/$10 students. Tickets are available at Griz Tix outlets.

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