- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

Over the course of 10 years, Zero 7 has canvassed more musical territory than most groups cover in their entire careers.

The group was born in the recording studio, where co-founders Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns made their names as two of the United Kingdom’s most sought-after producers. After working on material for the likes of Radiohead and Robert Plant, they launched their own project in 1999. The duo’s knowledge of the studio enabled Zero 7 to bounce between genres with ease, sampling everything from electronic hip-hop to acid jazz in the process. A number of guest vocalists — particularly Australian star Sia Furler, who remained with the group until 2007 — only enhanced the variety.

“We’re excited about change,” says Mr. Hardaker several days before the launch of Zero 7’s American tour. “That’s the nature of this beast we’ve created. The lineup is constantly changing, and although we’ve had a lot of musicians who’ve been involved over the years, people come and go.

“Sometimes it seems impossible to continue without a certain element that one musician brings. What tends to happen is that we deal with the panic and embrace something new, which can be exciting.”

Ostensibly, he’s referring to the departure of Miss Furler, whose voice is noticeably absent from Zero 7’s most recent release, “Yeah Ghost.” The band’s ability to attract songbirds like Miss Furler has proved to be a double-edged sword, with many singers leaving the group’s fold to focus on their promising solo careers. Losing one of their most iconic vocalists — the same singer who appeared on “Destiny,” the group’s only Top 40 hit — left the band in a tight spot.

“It was the first time we hadn’t been working with Sia,” Mr. Hardaker remembers.

“We thought the change was a positive one, and we wanted to try other stuff, but then we struggled to find someone we could build a record around. It became more and more glaringly obvious that we couldn’t continue until we found the right person, and that was frustrating until we got together with Eska.”

Eska Mtungwazi, a London-based vocalist with a love for pop music, brought a new sound to Zero 7’s relaxed electronica.

“She was a real force,” Mr. Hardaker says, “an absolute fountain of ideas and a real talent. Her influence over these songs was huge, and she and Henry really sparked things off. They just rejoiced in their shared love of Britney Spears and wrote some really poppy stuff.”

Like Zero 7’s other vocalists, though, Miss Mtungwazi has a solo career to nourish. Following a recent tour of European venues, she stepped down from her post as lead vocalist. The group renewed its search for a new singer, ultimately emerging with a new talent named Abi Maro.

“She’s really young — like 20, 21 — and she’s never done anything on this sort of scale before, but she’s absolutely over the moon to be doing it,” Mr. Hardaker says. “We chose her because there’s something really exciting about her voice. She’s not a pro, and she hasn’t been around for ages doing session work; she’s a young kid who’s just getting into it. That was really exciting for us. Although it’s also a bit nerve-wracking, I think it’s worth it.”

Miss Maro will play her first American show at the 9:30 Club, which marks the start of Zero 7’s stateside tour.

“I can see how exciting this is for her,” concludes the singer’s new band mate, “and how she’s working hard to make the songs her own. I think it’s interesting to work with a person like that, someone who’s just getting started. D.C. will be our opening night, so … fingers crossed!”

Zero 7 launches its American tour at the 9:30 Club on Thursday. DJ Christine Moritz also will appear. Doors open at 9 p.m., and tickets are $25.

Concert calendar

The District’s concert calendar is a bit sparse this time of year, as many artists prepare for the holidays by winding down their tours. Like Zero 7, however, some groups are still making the rounds, and several must-see gigs are hitting the area this week.

First up is Push Play, whose teenage pop songs have earned the band comparisons to the Jonas Brothers and Hanson. However, the group is perhaps more indebted to Maroon 5, with a sense of R&B swagger and risque undertones permeating the faster songs. Push Play will visit Jammin’ Java on Monday with opening act Emily Osment, a “Hannah Montana” actress with an affinity for loud guitars and spunky alternative rock.

Also Monday: Those seeking a more multicultural sound should head to the 9:30 Club, where bossa-nova star Bebel Gilberto will be performing tracks from her latest album, “All in One.” Mixing Brazilian traditions with sophisticated elements of pop music, Miss Gilberto carries the torch that her father, bossa-nova pioneer Joao Gilberto, first lit in the late 1950s.

Speaking of family legacies, the Del McCoury Band rolls into the Birchmere on Saturday. Featuring the titular songwriter and his two sons, Robbie and Ronnie, the group has left its unmistakable mark on bluegrass and country music for multiple decades. The Del McCoury Band typically visits the District once a year, and 2009 marks the 50th year of father McCoury’s storied career.

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