It's a Sunday morning and Hello Stranger is off the road for a change. Lead singer/keytar player Juliette Commagere is supposed to be finishing up a new song for band practice that afternoon, but, admitting she's a procrastinator, she's more than willing to put the task off to chat. She's at home in West L.A. - "like two minutes from where I grew up" - which is OK with her since "with touring you get to see everything and you're never home."
I point out that we are not total strangers. We're MySpace friends. "Cool," she says chuckling. I friended them months ago after downloading the Hello Stranger song "We Used To Talk" at some random MP3 blog. The tune from their eponymous album is catchy as hell and made me want to hear more. Thus, I became one of their 10,693 "friends."
"I'm the laziest MySpacer of the band aside from doing the tour blog, which I enjoy. It's definitely easier than dealing with a website. And when we book our tours we use it to contact bands in other cities to see if they want to play shows."
And, I point out, where else would I get to see the contents of Juliette's purse, shown in a photo on the site? The vulnerable girl searching for her keys in a parking garage stands in stark contrast to the Barbarella figure in the group's press photo.
"I like to have fun in the photo shoots," she says. "So much of the time you're trying to look like you, but cool. Instead we decided to get as out there as we could."
The roots of the band stretch back to Juliette and drummer Joachim Cooder's high school days in Los Angeles. "Joachim always had different bands and he'd have me come and sing with them once in a while. Then when we were like 17 we started a proper band, but I just sang and didn't play anything."
Then multi-instrumentalist Jared Smith came along. "When the three of us were coming up with this band, I said I'd play keyboards. It was kind of intimidating for me to play keyboards at first; I knew I could do it, but I didn't want to be stuck behind a keyboard. They were like, `We could get you a keytar!' There weren't any bands I knew that had one, so it was kind of a crazy idea. I bought a Moog Liberation, which is kind of a beast, really heavy and difficult to use. Then I ended up getting a Midi-controller, but now I'm back to the Moog."
For the completely uninformed, a keytar is basically just a synthesizer designed so you can hold it more or less like a guitar. It's an  sort of thing: Devo had one and various hair metal bands used them. Rest assured, Hello Stranger sounds like neither. While synthesizers are featured, they somehow take on a more organic feel than your typical electro-band.
It's not easy to define or pigeonhole, which can sometimes be a problem. Record company execs don't know what to make of them. None of that was a problem for their producer - Joachim's dad, Ry Cooder.
That song she's supposed to be working on? "It's supposed to be half in Spanish, half in English. This old song we had, `Frontera,' was like a border love story. I started reworking that, but now it's its own song. Joachim is reading this book, The Devil's Highway, about this area in Arizona in the 1600s - the Native Americans who lived there would see visions of Catholic gods like the Virgin Mary and shoot arrows into her. They were haunted by these visions. It sounds kind of insane, but that's what the song is about. It's really dark and I probably shouldn't talk about it because it may not make sense."
Curious? The plan is to play the song when Hello Stranger comes to Arcata Saturday for a show at the Jambalaya. I'll be there. Maybe I'll see you too. Local alt. rockers Strix Vega open. They have a busy night planned. Earlier they're in Eureka at 321 Coffee with Sarahfae and Shane Brinton, part of the entertainment for an Arts Alive! concert photo show by K-Slug's Monica Topping, who BTW just landed a new job as scene columnist for the T-S' Northern Lights.
Around the corner from 321, Accident Gallery has paintings by Roland Wu for Arts Alive! with DJ Kinetic-Kutz spinning. Later, it's the displaced monthly Synapsis Cabaret.
Music for Arts Alive! at the Graves Museum comes from the Berel Alexander Sextet. You may recall my earlier confusion, not having heard of Berel and guessing that it was a jazz band. It turns out I know Berel, but as Bernie Steinberg. (Berel is his given name.) Did I guess right on the jazz angle? "We have some jazz influence, but no," says Bernie/Berel. "I'd say it's a blend of jazz, reggae, soul, R&B, kind of cross-genres. We have a cello and violin and that adds a lot, and we have drums, electric and standup bass; I play rhythm guitar and J.M. from RBS Syndrome [Bernie's old band] plays lead electric guitar."
Elsewhere in Eureka that night: Shredding guitarist Tim Reynolds, a Dave Matthews Band associate, plays at Red Fox. Local rock vets Widdershins are at Ramone's Old Town.
Meanwhile, back in Arcata, Tim Randles' new "acoustic trance movement" The Gardeners play Muddy's Hot Cup. I caught part of their first show New Year's Eve, and really dug their sound. I even YouTubed part of a song. (Do a search for humblog, you'll find it.)
Portland four-piece Benjamin Franklin Freeman is on its way south, "bringing tidings of joy and presents to all the little boys and girls," as explained in a recent e-missive. "We have an new album called killyourselfishness and are in the process of making another to be released on Love Harder Records."
What's next? "Electric, flying, vibrating, pleasure, tour buses that clean the air and feed the hungry. Everyone gets one free and they all come equipped with Benjamin Franklin Freeman music."
When will you be here? With who? "2.03.07 @ The Alibi. I'm not sure what other performers will be gracing the stage." As you know there's no stage at the Alibi, but the pool table corner will be shared by Henpecker, described on their MySpace as "anti-folk war punk from Manila." What's that? Bassman Jimmy explains, "We've already been billed as `anti-war folk punk' so, being the comedians we are, we thought mixing it up a bit would be funny/confusing or hopefully offensive to someone."
In the hinterlands Saturday: Scandinavian/Celtic rockers Tempest blow into the Red Radish. I-Chele and the Circle of Light, a reggae band from Eugene with a white dread chick singer, hit Six Rivers. Earlier in the day you're invited to celebrate metalmeister Candyman's b-day with BBQ at the grand opening of Emerald Triangle Tattoos at Sutter and Central in McKinleyville.
Jumping back a few days, Thursday, Feb. 1, brings the bluesy singer/songwriter Jackie Greene back to Mazzotti's for a Passion Presents show.
Same night at the Logger Bar it's a "Blue Lake Freakout" with psyche-rockers Orange Sunshine from the Netherlands, Genghis Khan from S.F. and The Ravens from hereabouts.
Friday, Feb. 2, while Kenny sings at the A-Center, The Pearl plays host to four neo-old timey bands from the great Northwest: Clampitt, Gaddis and Buck, The Mighty Ghosts of Heaven, Feed and Seed and The Juanita Family and Friends, all of them on their way to some bluegrassy fest south of here.
Friday at the Red Fox it's Nucleus plus the SoHum hip hop crew Subliminal Sabotage -- one Nuke set, one with the Sub/Sab rappers.
How about a taste of punk-rock vibraphone? That's the specialty of Mike Dillon's GoGo Jungle, a band playing Monday, Feb. 5, at Humboldt Brews, led by vibesman Dillon, formerly of Billy Goat and Hairy Apes BMX. The band's debit disc, Butterfly Milk, is totally funky, sometimes political and sounds damn good. Recommended.
Feb. 6 is Bob Marley's birthday, or would have been, so reggae is in order. Selecta Truth spins roots reggae and more at Humboldt Brews that night. At the Red Fox it's Bambu Station, one of many reggae bands from St. Croix in the Virgin I&Islands.
OK, we're talking reggae, so I guess we have to talk about Reggae, which has kind of become like a wreck on the highway you can't help looking at. I'm going to give up on calling for unity and peace down SoHum way; it's too late for that.
Late last week the warring factions each fired salvos. The Mateel Board released the audit of Reggae 2005, with CPA Deborah K. Brooks noting "material weaknesses," which as I understand it means she could not reconcile the figures, but her inconclusiveness seemed to stem mostly from the fact that she did not have access to all the pertinent data. The Mateel honed in on discrepancies between the number of wristbands and the number of paid admissions, but I'm not sure how far you can take that. I typically wear as many as four wristbands that give me access to various areas, and I'm not the only one.
That same day the owners of Dimmick Ranch notified the Mateel that "due to a material breach of the lease contract, the Dimmick Ranch was terminating the lease of the property for the purposes of Reggae on the River." Furthermore, "It is our and People Productions' plan to host a world-class reggae music festival and community fundraiser on the first weekend of August 2007 at the Dimmick Ranch and French's Camp."
The Mateel countered by reiterating that the nonprofit "holds a valid contract with Mr. Dimmick," suggesting that, "Mr. Dimmick apparently hasn't been adequately advised of his obligations under the contract ... The Mateel fully expects to prevail in this unfortunate situation."
Translation: We're talking Mexican standoff, one that's likely to be decided in a courtroom by some judge. Unfortunate indeed. There's more going on, but I'm out of space. Have an irie B. Marley b-day. One love. I'm out.