- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Most everyone has a secret dream job, something to fantasize about during the workweek’s grind. For most people, though, the dream will remain just that — a fantasy.

Meet the exception.

Stephen Pedersen worked his way through law school and got a nice job at a corporate law firm, all the while spending his free time playing rock ‘n’ roll. As of this summer, fantasy finally became reality when he was able to say goodbye to legal briefs and hello to guitar riffs full time.

“Up until a year ago I never really expected there to be an opportunity to do it full time,” Mr. Pedersen says from his home in Omaha, Neb. “I’ve never gotten so many congratulations for quitting a job.”

Feel free to congratulate him in person when his band Criteria plays Saturday at The Black Cat.

Mr. Pedersen grew up in Omaha, tracing his love of music back to his teenage years when the song “No New Tale to Tell” by Love and Rockets captivated him. The guitar playing was so great it made him want to pick up the instrument.

“I had taken four years of piano and gotten nowhere,” he says. “In two weeks, I wrote my first song on guitar.”

Through high school and college he played in a series of bands — including Cursive, which has gained popularity in recent years along with other Omaha bands on the Saddle Creek record label.

“It was a great escape as a teenager in Omaha, Nebraska,” he says. “There was not that much to do.”

Mr. Pedersen was out of the band by the time the Omaha music boom started, but he came back after getting his degree at Duke University School of Law.

While a law student, he formed the band The White Octave and managed to both earn a law degree and record an album at the same time. Not that his studies didn’t suffer a little from his extracurricular activities.

“I kind of accepted that I was going to be an average law student,” he says with a chuckle. “The five weeks before exams were brutal. I’d just cram and cram and hope it all stuck.”

Though music was certainly fun, Mr. Pedersen was looking at some massive student loans and says coming back to Omaha to work made sense. Law, though, wasn’t something he just picked by chance — lawyers stretch back several generations in the family and the idea of being paid to think, as he puts it, appealed to him.

“I’ve always kind of had one side of my life on music and one on academics,” he says.

Back in Omaha, he put out a record under the band name Criteria, playing many of the parts on his own. “En Garde” didn’t set the charts on fire, but it gained the attention of some major record labels, which is when Mr. Pedersen started to think just maybe he wouldn’t be spending the rest of his working life in an office building.

Most of his high school friends were still in town and involved with the Saddle Creek label, which grew in stature thanks to acts like Bright Eyes. They took a look at his new work and decided to put out Criteria’s second album, “When We Break,” as well as reissue “En Garde.”

Making his current album was a far cry from his “one-man” band days. He actually had a full group, consisting of Aaron Druery on guitar, A.J. Mogis on bass and vocals and Mike Sweeney on drums.

“When I was writing these songs I was confident these guys would be able to take it and make it better,” he says.

The result is an emotionally intense album propelled by heavy riffs and ferocious drumming and anchored by Mr. Pedersen’s enthusiastic, shouted vocals. It sounds like a band that would have a great live show, even though Mr. Pedersen has had only limited touring experience with Criteria.

During his time as a lawyer, he worked mainly in intellectual property rights, something he’s found helpful in doing everything from signing a recording contract to incorporating the band. Having old friends running things at his record label is a bonus, though: He says the business relationship is far more relaxed than at many major companies.

And if rock doesn’t work out, Mr. Pedersen always knows he has something better than a dishwashing job to fall back on.

“As much as I like being a lawyer, I really love being a musician,” he says. “If the rock and roll miracle dies, I’ll be able to go back, but for now I’m a rocker full time.”

• • •

It’s not every band that manages to make it to 30 years. But for those that do, there’s something about those decades of playing together that can make a live show magical.

Want proof? Check out “Live at the Fillmore,” a set Los Lobos recorded last year to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The Los Angeles band, which plays Tuesday at the Birchmere in Alexandria, is at the top of its game on the DVD and accompanying CD, showing off its Tex-Mex-flavored roots rock.

For the Birchmere show, the band is stripping back its sound and doing an all-acoustic gig, something that should be a treat for fans who’ve only seen the band plugged in.

While they aren’t close to matching the Rolling Stones’ longevity, the band still manages to sound fresh for a group that could have hung up the guitars long ago.

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