- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

Package tours have proved to be quite popular this year as more and more bands seek to share touring costs by traveling together. Country music titans Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum recently packed the Nissan Pavilion, while veteran rock acts Def Leppard, Poison and Cheap Trick sold out a surprising number of venues earlier this summer.

There’s something different about the Saturday Night Rebel Rockers Traveling Circus & Medicine Show, however, and it’s not just the exhausting title. Launched in late June, the national tour features music by Spearhead, Counting Crows and Augustana. Counting Crows may be the most famous of the pack, but the three bands enjoy what amounts to equal billing.

“Each show opens with a cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Caravan,’” explains Jared Palomar, bassist for the San Diego-based Augustana. “We have 18 people onstage at that point, because all the groups are up there. The venues are usually full, which is great. Being a band like us — a group that normally opens shows — it’s good to be in front of that many people.”

After the opening number, the Traveling Circus & Medicine Show takes on an improvised format. Musicians enter and leave the stage at will. Members of one band often join the members of another, effectively creating new lineups every night. One group might choose to perform another group’s material but use different arrangements.

The bands also play their own sets. Throughout the entire evening, though, collaboration reigns supreme.

Counting Crows, a band notorious for its willingness to rework older material in concert, is largely responsible for the innovative tour.

“Adam Duritz had the vision for it,” Mr. Palomar says of the Crows’ dreadlocked frontman. “We were on tour with them last summer, and both their guitar player and keyboardist had babies. So a few of us started filling in a bit. Eventually, we’d be onstage with them for seven or eight songs. The current tour kinda grew from that, and we decided to do the whole thing in the style of a big group ensemble. It’s fun to do something completely different.”

In another break from tradition, the Saturday Night Rebel Rockers Traveling Circus & Medicine Show encourages its audience to be prompt. Because the bands rarely stick to a schedule, set times are moot. Fans who show up several hours after the show begins, hoping to catch the Counting Crows’ headlining set before heading home, may be sorely disappointed to find that their group played first.

The tour will wrap up Sunday, just one day after its stop at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. Augustana plans to hit the recording studio soon after, using some tricks learned from its Traveling Circus mates.

“We’ve been able to challenge ourselves quite a bit,” says the bassist, “especially by playing all these cover songs. We’ve learned a lot by getting inside another person’s material and exploring the songs. Now it’s time to incorporate that into our own stuff.”

The Saturday Night Rebel Rockers Traveling Circus & Medicine Show takes up residence at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday. Tickets start at $35, and doors open at 6 p.m. Expect the bands to take the stage en masse at 7 sharp.

Leaving home

If Seattle was the rock ‘n’ roll capital of the early ‘90s, Brooklyn deserves that distinction in the 21st century. From the Strokes to Animal Collective, the borough has consistently spawned bands that shape the indie rock landscape.

Chairlift‘s debut album, “Does You Inspire You,” is one of the city’s most imaginative exports. Released in 2008, the album mixes retro-minded pop with dreamy, experimental rock structures, creating a sound that owes its diversity to the band’s home.

Brooklyn soon will trade places with New Mexico, however, when Chairlift takes up temporary residence in the Southwest. The reason? A second album is in the works, and the musicians thought a change of setting would be beneficial.

“We’re going to go to somewhere in New Mexico,” says co-founder Aaron Pfenning. “We’re looking for some kind of isolated house in the area, with enough land to let us ride horses in the morning and record in the afternoon. The idea is to escape, to go someplace that’s a little bit scary to us but also conducive to the creation process.”

Mood and location are important to Chairlift. With its otherworldly ambience and accessible melodies, the band’s material sounds like the soundtrack to a fantasy movie, somehow foreign and familiar at the same time. The musicians maintain a striking visual presence as well, using their Web site and music videos to help illustrate what Mr. Pfenning calls “the world of Chairlift.”

“The music comes first,” he explains. “Once that’s done, we think about the way it’s going to be perceived. The live show, the videos and the Web site are all important. Whatever visuals we can create to help reinforce the ideas before our music, that’s what we go for.”

Chairlift visits the Black Cat on Monday. Pash and John Maus will open the show, which starts at 8. Tickets are $12.

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