- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Luke Steele never took for granted growing up in a musical household. But like many children, the musician behind the band The Sleepy Jackson finally did find a way to rebel against his blues singer father.

“I boycotted the 12 bar [blues],” says Mr. Steele, his thick Australian accent slightly garbled as he apologizes for having just awakened. “I was just so over it.”

Instead, Mr. Steele began writing pop songs, something he does so well that his band’s debut album managed to land in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 50 Albums of 2003 list. The Sleepy Jackson plays at the Black Cat in the District on Sunday.

While he might have rejected the blues-singer route, Mr. Steele says he learned a lot from his father, Rick Steele, who signed to a record label when Luke was young, and later founded a club in Perth in Western Australia.

“I thought it was so good,” Mr. Steele says via phone from Perth. “It’s every kid’s dream to be around musicians.” Early on he tried his hand at the piano, but soon realized that guitar was more his instrument.

“It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 that I realized it was what I wanted to do,” he says. “Once I started, I was so into it.”

Hanging around in his father’s club taught him about the importance of networking in the music world and what it takes to be an artist. He started out playing the blues — influenced by rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan — and working in a cover band.

After his blues revolt, Mr. Steele formed The Sleepy Jackson in 1999.

Despite numerous lineup changes over the past few years, Mr. Steele’s singing and songwriting has remained at the band’s center.

“I wrote the totally 20 worst songs you need to write before you can begin,” he says.

In 2002, the group tested the waters by releasing two short EPs “Let Your Love Be Love” and “Caffeine in the Morning Sun.” With growing acclaim at home, the band released its first full-length album, “Lovers,” in the summer of 2003. Already popular in Europe, the band has slowly, but surely, been gaining a following in the United States.

“The idea was kind of to make each song in its own way really distinct,” he says. “You start to realize as a band you have your own sound.”

Pinning that sound down is not easy. While The Sleepy Jackson earns its fair share of comparisons to the solo work of George Harrison, more than a few songs are embellished with electronic touches and even a few country rock tunes thrown in for good measure.

Mr. Steele’s favorite song on the record is “Don’t You Know Why” because “it’s really the closest we’ve got to that high, orchestral thing.” It’s not a surprise that he cites Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys as an influence, because of Mr. Wilson’s own grand ambitions to turn the pop song into a symphonic experience.

This is not the first time The Sleepy Jackson has hit the United States, nor will it likely be the last. The band opened up for The Polyphonic Spree and My Morning Jacket in tours around the East Coast and plans about 40 stops on its current tour.

It’s a far cry from his first solo tour of this country, which included a mere two shows. While the growing work schedule has been taxing, Mr. Steele admits that it’s exactly what he’s been after in his music career.

“It’s funny, because it’s what we’ve been dreaming about for years,” he says. “Me and my brother have been talking about it for so long. We expected it.”

In Australia, the band has had a bit of a hero’s welcome, being nominated last fall for several Australian Record Industry Association awards and launching a triumphant tour of the country. The group plans to return back home after the U.S. tour and begin recording the follow-up record.

As for his plans, Mr. Steele has a bit of a general idea of where he’d like to see his music go, and his thoughts are anything but conventional.

“I’m thinking a bit more Trent Reznor in some parts of it and a bit more Carole King in the other parts,” he says with a laugh.

If anyone can mix the pop rock sensibilities of Miss King, known for hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with the goth rock of Mr. Reznor, head of the band Nine Inch Nails, it’s the eclectic Mr. Steele.

• • •

With the Grammy and Academy Awards finished for another year, it might be worth remembering back just a few years ago when a certain film soundtrack became the talk of both the movie and music worlds.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” turned oldtime bluegrass into “the next big thing” in 2000 and brought artists like Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys to a whole new generation. Several years later, “O Brother” is probably collecting dust in the collections of casual fans, but the bluegrass scene is as vibrant as ever.

For proof, check out Mr. Stanley and his band Sunday at the Birchmere in Alexandria. The music’s roots might stretch back to the dawn of America, but in the hands of masters like Mr. Stanley, it remains a fresh experience.

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