Once More, From the Top
It was an impressive place for any aspiring performer to begin -- opening for Counting Crows on tours of the United States and Europe well before record companies had even bothered to take any notice of him. Night after night, Peter Stuart would take the stage armed only with his guitar and the personal set of songs that had struck a resounding chord with his more successful musician pals. As fate would have it, those troubled tales also struck a chord with audiences, and it wasn't long before Stuart was selling his homemade demo cassette by the thousands. Soon, Columbia Records came knocking.
Sound to good to be true? Well, believe it. Stuart played the music industry game the way it's supposed to be played: from the ground up. By the time the people at Columbia got their hands on him, the 23-year-old New York native was fine-tuned. It looked like the label had a sure bet: a multifaceted artist with a striking stage presence, a bountiful supply of material, a lucrative point of stylistic reference (Counting Crows-ish, almost to a fault) and a ready-made fan base.
"For me, that was the only way to do it," says Stuart, with the unabashed sense of pride that comes with knowing you've earned every scrap of your good fortune. "Because then, you have the confidence that what you're doing actually works -- a year and a half of getting out in front of 1,000 people every night and having them like what I was doing on my own."
Not that Stuart had always been alone. For mobility's sake, he'd left behind a band in New York City. And when Columbia came calling, that band, Dog's Eye View, was still very much alive. So he and his new record label decided to recast his hard-earned solo persona as that of a band leader. True, that might have undercut the name recognition Stuart had earned with his one-man grassroots campaign, but the singer/songwriter felt that any extra work the image reconstruction required would, in the end, be worthwhile in the end. "Solo guys are boring," Stuart confides. "I toured that way by necessity, [but] it's more fun to be a part of a band."
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Anyway, he notes, "when I was touring solo, I was always introducing myself as Peter Stuart from Dog's Eye View."
"Dog's Eye View" may be on the cover of the new Happy Nowhere, but it's fairly obvious that this debut is mostly Stuart's baby. The instrumentation, like many of the melodies, is spare, giving the players (bassist John Abbey, guitarist Oren Bloedow and drummer Alan Bezozi) little chance to develop any sort of unique musical identity. Stuart's acoustic guitar and his singing -- a likable teaming of Freedy Johnston's bendable chirp and Counting Crows leader Adam Duritz's Van Morrison-like croak -- dominate the gaps provided by the relaxed arrangements. Given that subtle feel, Happy Nowhere isn't likely to astonish anyone on first listen. The CD's lazy sense of dynamics requires at least a few tries to creep in on you; even the more upbeat tunes, such as "Everything Falls Apart" (the first single), "Speed of Silence" and "Cottonmouth," can come off sounding somewhat lightheaded and a bit reserved the initial time around.
But get past the airy charm of the music, and Happy Nowhere's words convey a blunt sense of isolation. Songs such as "Shine" and "The Prince's Favorite Son" reveal a near-agoraphobic fear of the outside world. Appropriately enough, the name Stuart chose for his band is a reference to a cramped basement apartment he occupied while living in Chicago and pursuing a degree in film at Northwestern University. That apartment, Stuart recalls, had "only one small window through which I [could] see a patch of sidewalk, a fire hydrant and people from the knees down as they passed by -- a dog's eye view."
During his time at Northwestern, Stuart felt excluded from life's equation -- an emotional point of reference that he hopes will be easy for people his age to relate to. "All of us in our twenties, we've been raised on television, where everyone's life looks really cool because it's been edited down to the cool bits," he says. "So none of us really feels worthy. And when we achieve our dreams, it never feels as good as you think it will."
Fittingly, Stuart finished his college studies disillusioned with his career choice. In the end, he decided that his experiences in a few local bands were more satisfying than struggling with a light meter and a secondhand movie camera. "I'm really not that good at it," he admits. "And in the classes, you're made to feel like an amateur because all the teachers are these burned out, frustrated filmmakers. I started realizing that I was really starting to dread going out and shooting something."
So instead, Stuart started writing songs. In 1993, when all of his outlets for performance were exhausted in Chicago, he relocated to New York, where he formed Dog's Eye View and began working on the material that would later catch the attention of Counting Crows, Tori Amos and others. Stuart's first meeting with the Crows came when he opened for the band in Detroit. Following the show, he introduced himself and passed on a few demo tapes. Weeks later, Stuart was opening for the group in New York, and by early '94 he was touring with the Crows across the U.S. and Europe. By then, Stuart the "wannabe" was close friend and confidant to guys who already were -- and he had a rather obvious revelation.
"For me, it was like, there are people who were born to do this, and there was me, and I'm this schlump from Long Island who's basically useless," he says. "Then I met some of my favorite bands and realized that they aren't really a different breed of human. They're the same thing as me."
Dog's Eye View performs Sunday, March 17, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7; $5, 21 and up. Michael Kroll opens. For info, call 225-0500.
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