Fishing for Insight

Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, the marquee talent behind Three Fish, claims he didn't so much assemble his new trio as imagine it into existence, like some freaky trance-rock apparition induced by the words of 13th-century Persian poet Jelalludin Rumi and too much wine. Apparently bored and fidgety during Pearl Jam's extended break from the road, Ament came up with this loose concept of a side project during a talk with his guru wannabe pal Robbi Robb (lead singer of the biorhythmic art rock band Tribe After Tribe) while the both of them were semi-submerged in the Big Sulfur Baths in Big Sur, California. Henry Miller and Aldous Huxley had dipped their bodies in the same spot, which evidently provided the pair with the proper intellectual and philosophical motivation. A large jug of Chianti did the rest.

Cut to Seattle, where Ament was able to coax Robb and drummer Richard Stuverud (ex-Fastbacks, currently with Pilot) into playing and writing with him whenever the spirit moved them. Two years later, and with some studio help from keyboardist Cary Ecklund, Three Fish (evidently in no hurry) has pieced together a self-titled CD. And as one might deem from such a hazy set of mitigating circumstances, Three Fish is coming from a pretty strange place -- a place that isn't for everyone, a place that isn't grounded in large hunks of reality, a place that's likely to incur the wrath of a few rock critics. "Mysticism, music and poetry meet in the grooves of Three Fish," proclaims a press release touting the wonders of this freaky trio. Mysticism, music and poetry? Fair enough. But grooves? Hardly. Most of the time, Three Fish are too out of touch with reality to locate one of those.

Opinions of Three Fish are bound to split right down the middle. The group says that every one of the 15 tunes on Three Fish took less than an hour to conceive -- some sound like it, some don't. Peaks of transcendence are offset by valleys of boredom. Repetitive, stream-of-consciousness banter and remedial chord changes make certain tracks a chore to sit through, while gorgeous mini-sagas such as "Song for a Girl" and "Silence at the Bottom" are propelled to satisfying conclusions by Robb's soulful vocals and a wind-tunnel sonic impact. It's important, the band says, to remember that Three Fish is an experiment. Translation: all those who hate the sound of failure should leave the laboratory.

Playing live should give the members of Three Fish room to test their theories and fiddle all they like. Bad or good, the results should provide sustenance for the ears -- and maybe even a little mojo for the mind and soul. And at $6 a head, the price is right. My guess is that Pearl Jam adversaries Ticketmaster had nothing to do with this tour.

-- Hobart Rowland
Three Fish performs at 9 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. Kristen Barry opens. For info, call 869-8427.

Steve Earle -- From the beginning, Steve Earle has looked in the mirror and seen nothing but a no-nonsense musician and storyteller in the Hank Williams/Willie Nelson mold. Plenty of others, on the other hand, weren't sure what they saw. The country music powers that be -- particularly those in his adopted hometown of Nashville -- hoped he would be an easily tamed hit machine. They were soon disabused. Granted, Earl's not an easy chap to warm up to. He's brought bundles of trouble on himself, thanks to his well-known battles with booze and drugs, a string of marriages and divorces and well-documented brushes with the law. But new evidence shows that Earle has turned himself around. He's coming up on two years clean and sober, and his new CD, I Feel Alright -- not to mention "Ellis Unit One," his contribution to the Dead Man Walking soundtrack -- has given Earle the only excuse he needs to hit the road again and let audiences determine for themselves what he's all about.

Earle's various scars and tattoos display a country outlaw reputation almost as definitively as his angry, outspoken music, which, over the last decade, has confounded radio programmers even as it earned praise from critics. In essence, Earle straddled the wide crevasse that once separated rock and country, and has done his best since to fill the gap permanently, song by song. As much a loner as a populist, Earle has staked out a hard-won middle ground just a stone's throw away from equally strong-willed singer/songwriters John Hiatt and Joe Ely. His sound is rootsy but far from dated, hillbilly-fused yet also strangely urbane. He's openly political and opinionated, prone to dropping diatribes about the death penalty, drug use or unlawful imprisonment without so much as a second thought. But even on his most agenda-oriented tunes, Earle manages to approach his subjects from a profoundly personal angle, as if he's been there himself -- and he probably has.

Whacking away on their instruments with a gut-busting intensity, Earle and band should stir up enough of a racket on-stage to carry the impact of his music. It would be hard for any decent bunch of players to sabotage songs this foolproof -- and rest assured, Earle knows how to pick 'em as well as write 'em. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 23. Tickets are $12.50, $22 and $27.50. 869-8427. (Greg Barr)

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr
Hobart Rowland