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Beat Street

Professional excitement fuels eclectic band


In the basement of a house on a quiet, unassuming suburban street in Charlotte, Keith Shamel and Melinda Hansen are unveiling a new song for their Delancey Street band mates. Shamel strums through the first few minor chord changes before drummer Rob Knox picks up the beat and adds a few well-placed fills. Bassist Bill Buck closes his eyes for the first few measures, imagining the song's backbone, and then adds a perfectly natural line behind the chords. In her rich, earthy baritone, Hansen begins singing of a couple's bittersweet, once-a-year affair. When the band reaches the end of the first chorus, Ivan Strunin coaxes a haunting, Eastern European-flavored solo from his candy-apple-red electric violin.

You can learn a lot about a band from the way they rehearse: Plugging in their instruments, some groups exhibit the fractures that will later result in "creative differences" and ugly separations; others fragment into half-assed, desultory affairs where nothing really ever gets done; still others resemble bacchanals more than practices.

But not Delancey Street. The overwhelming vibe at this rehearsal, and at their shows, is one of professional excitement. Considering the 80-odd years of previous band experience and live performances among the group, the professionalism comes as no surprise; the excitement is a different story.

"I haven't been this energized about playing music in a long time," says Strunin, 45, who parlayed his classical violin lessons into gigs with some of Chicago's premier blues players, including James Cotton, Koko Taylor and Son Seals.

"Frankly, I get depressed when they cancel rehearsal to write," says Buck, 41, a mainstay on the Charlotte music scene for 20 years, most notably with Tone-Deaf James. "It feels like we've been playing together for a long time; there's that kind of mutual respect and affection. And as far as musicianship, it's definitely at the highest level I've been associated with."

Most of the excitement stems from the group's original material. Like another local act, The Flyweb, Delancey Street's music borrows liberally from many genres without quite fitting into any of them. It also manages the rare feat of being both challenging and accessible.

"People ask, 'What kind of music do you play?' and we never know what to say," says Shamel, 42. "I think our uniqueness is our pull."

Delancey Street was born when Shamel and Hansen, landlocked in mind-numbingly banal retail jobs, played some open-mic nights together. Strunin was next to join, and the band performed as a trio until July, when Knox and Buck came aboard.

"I'd played with Keith in other bands for years," says Knox, 38, whose versatility comes, in part, from having played in nearly 20 different groups. "He's really grown as a songwriter, though, since he got together with Melinda."

Shamel and Hansen -- the former a quiet, gifted guitarist, the latter an extroverted and charismatic singer -- have found a common language in their songwriting. "We both listen to so many different types of music that it's just part of who we are and how we think and communicate musically," states Shamel.

Although the group employs everything from cabaret and jazz to reggae and rock in their originals, their first song, the middle-Eastern tinged tune "A Thousand Lies," has colored much of their writing since then.

"Ivan really loved that song," says Hansen, at 26 the youngest member of the group, "and it sounded so good that it pushed us to play and write some more in that style."

That middle-Eastern influence heavily informs the recently penned number, "Moroccan Sun," the centerpiece on the group's three-song demo CD. It's a hard-rocking, Kashmir-like song that seduces with an intoxicating mix of Hansen's siren-like call, Strunin's soaring violin lines and Knox's heavy, tabla-like percussion. The song has the hypnotic effect of transporting the listener to another time and place, as mysteriously as a Bedouin crossing the Sahara by night.

"We wanted to do something that had a middle-Eastern flair to it," admits Hansen of the day she and Shamel wrote "Moroccan Sun." I started humming it and what I like so much about working with Keith is that he said, 'Like this?' and I said, 'Yeah!' And there's the song."

But the song's exotic nature, like much of Delancey Street's material, begs the question: Is Charlotte ready for this?

"Well, in New York, we might be hard-pressed to be noticed," says Strunin, "but in Charlotte, we're unique."

"If we bust our asses and two years from now we're in the same place, yeah, I could see us moving," says Hansen. "But I know that this is good, and I think it's just a matter of time before it's something that people will be coming after."

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