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Other Voices is an acoustic quartet with Michelle Ott, Fagan Arouh, Dan Tampas, and Alan Hill that was formed in 2001.  They play music they call “folk and roll,” which sounds deceptively straightforward but is not.  The “roll” part might be described in some places as hard-hitting; one need only to listen to an intense guitar and bass faceoff between Fagan Arouh and Alan Hill on the original “You’ve What It Takes” to understand how Other Voices expands from folk into a grittier realm.

The band plays a mix of originals and classics on two acoustic guitars, bass, and a variety of percussive instruments.  From these come the whimsical lyrical mouthful that is “Chocolate,” the jivey “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” and the best cover of “Suite:  Judy Blue Eyes” that you are likely to hear.  That song is notoriously complex and its familiarity presents ample evidence that Other Voices contains incredible harmony singers as well as superb musicians.  Harmony is a tricky thing to navigate correctly; done right it is discreet.  Other Voices has mastered this technical challenge seamlessly. 

Over the Free Fridays season, I’ve noticed a few groups really step it up to concert-hall performance levels.  This is a synergistic thing that is hard to pin down and it comes from the interaction of various energies among band members and probably some kind of astrological hoodoo as well.  Things fall into place and you have a concert like Other Voices played on Friday night.  The band was tight and crisp from the first number right through to the closer (“Sending My Love”) with no dip in energy or loss of momentum at the set break.   They returned from the break and jumped into a set that included a masterfully arranged “Peace, Love and Understanding” and John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” as well as band originals that sounded as if they’d been plucked from a catalogue of radio hits and had not been more or less available only to those fortunate enough to live in the greater Gainesville area.

Often described as sounding like (take your pick), The Association, the Mamas and the Papas, or Peter, Paul and Mary, the band takes the folk tradition–or the vocal sound of the folk tradition–and runs it through enough paces that such references only hint at Other Voices’ real sound.  Michelle Ott has one of the prettiest folk voices I’ve heard and she easily stacks up alongside the female members of the aforementioned groups.  There is a good deal of Mamas and Papas-like interplay among male and female voices in the vocal arranging, but apart from this there is a divergence.  You wouldn’t find Alan Hill’s throbbing bass solo in the canyon rock tradition, and nor would you find in these traditions an acoustic guitar meeting up with the metal-inspired “shredding” that Fagan Arouh played to the point that his instrument might have sweated.  I may well make the argument that Dan Tampas’ and Fagan Arouh’s songwriting–and these will be fighting words–more than holds up against the standards and in some instances eclipse them.

I’m not sure what college kids listen to these days; I am of an age where a lot of music sounds hectic and overtly hostile.  There are moments when you turn the radio dial to something that sounds appealing, only to find a lamentable lyric or hugely processed voice.  Technological advancement has ruined as much as it has improved or made easier, but at the end of the day it can be a cheat.  This is what makes Other Voices stand out so much–there is no complex algorithm that determines pretty pitch that is secretly being controlled behind the scenes and there is no room room for anything but technical merit and excellence.  Realizing that makes something like Friday’s concert all the more special.  If you missed it, consider yourself lucky to get another chance to hear them in part as they join forces with other standout musicians as the Relics for the Woodstock tribute on October 8.

Visit Other Voices at their Web site.