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Red-Headed Strangers ride in with lively shows, lush country-rock sound

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2009 - It's a bold step to schedule a CD release party on a major holiday such as, say, Independence Day. But the Fourth of July proved kind to the cause of the Red-Headed Strangers, who saw hundreds of their friends, family members and fans move through the doors of Off Broadway for the band's epic, 46-song, night-long engagement at the South Side venue. And as the eight-piece group worked through its third and final set, the best sight of all was a packed dance floor, with folks swaying to original material and time-honored classics, such as the Rolling Stones' "Tumbling Dice."

"It was intense and hot," remembers co-lead vocalist Maureen Sullivan. And it was busy. "We didn't really get a chance to socialize," she said. "We'd take a break, spend 10 minutes saying hello to friends, and then were back on stage."

And playing to quite the enthusiastic audience.

Of course, one could argue that building a rabid fan base gets a head start when you have eight people to spread the word. On the flipside, splitting up the group's take at the end of the night means a thinner piece of the pie for each player. But the number eight is great for the Strangers, who include four red-headed siblings in the ranks: Tim, Dan, Brian and Maureen Sullivan. Rounding out the ranks are Dave Spangler, Brian Wiegert, Tom Coriell and Clare Krueger, a redhead herself. While some members stay put on a single instrument, others move nimbly around the stage, taking up piano one minute, guitar the next, adding to the visual treat that comes with any RHS show.

How the band got its start is a plenty complicated story, with several members matching up in this band, or that, over the years, with groups like Racketbox and the Round-Ups as a few of the common threads. But a couple years back, bartender/impresario Johnny "Vegas" Moynihan began pestering the group to play his Wednesday "Stag Night" promotion at the late, lamented Magee's. That's when it all began to stick.

"Johnny Vegas started needing us to play before we were ready," offers Maureen Sullivan. "He'd just say, 'You're booked.' Playing those 'Stag Nights,' you didn't feel any pressure. We knew everybody in the room. It was like we were in 'Cheers.'"

"And when the show was over," Krueger says, "we'd just take the party upstairs."

Lots of bands can claim open-mic nights or multi-band theme nights as their inspiration. And you get the sense that the RHS members could get together in an empty room to make some sweet music, indeed. The fact that the group has players with real chops allowed it to move beyond the fun story of a bunch of kids growing up to make music together. With the Red-Headed Strangers, you have that story alongside an octet that's crafting a finely honed bar-and-festival band in the process.

Tim Sullivan, an ace guitarist and keyboard player, says that maturity's a part of that, especially for the six male members of the group.

"We've all played in our metal bands, our punk and hard-rock bands," he says. "With this group, there's no more aggressive music. It's about us getting along."

The band's sound mixes outlaw country, alt-country and rock, with exquisite harmonies and dense layers of instrumentation the rule. The skill level allows solos to be traded, briefly and effectively. That said, all eight members realize everyone can't shine at once. Rather than overplaying, there's plenty of space within the cuts, which are written by individual members and brought to the group for arranging. Usually, you'll hear Krueger and Maureen Sullivan's solo, or dual, vocals in the lead, with at least a couple of guitars providing both melody and color.

"There are a lot of people writing music for us," says Maureen Sullivan. "And that's a positive thing. We have a variety of songwriter credits. We tend to arrange together, but we write on our own, especially the lyrics."

Adds Krueger, "We all have so much to add with arrangements. We write in individual moods and moments."

Combined, those moods and moments are heard on "Come On In," the band's 13-song debut, a mix of ballads and rave-ups. The CD's look should also be cited, since the young All Along Press hand-cut the covers, which feature two swinging saloon doors that open up to the inside contents, a nice touch.

With families and work commitments keeping the big group relatively set to St. Louis dates ("this is not a band that's going to tour the world," says Tim Sullivan), "Come On In" will introduce many folks to the growing cult of RHS fans.

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.