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Things are looking up for Natural Causes

The six members of Natural Causes, their manager Keith Schantz, and a two-man photo crew are parading down the long hallway of a Lincoln Road building, toward the back, where the musicians will pose for portraiture in their rehearsal studio. A glass door swings open and Washington Square music director Doc Wiley pokes his head out. He and Schantz step inside the Sync Studios office, and word in the hallway spreads: Phish has been tentatively scheduled for a January 17 show at the Square. The members of Natural Causes are immediately disappointed. They'll be performing at an AIDS benefit in Atlanta on January 16, and would really like to see the Phish concert.

Wiley wants even more -- he's willing to book the Causes as Phish's opening act, if the show becomes confirmed. As he and Schantz talk inside, the frowns outside turn to some hard figuring. "If we drove back right after..." and "It's about twelve hours..." and "We might be able to..." and a few moments later it's decided that Natural Causes will open the planned Phish show after all.

Natural Causes stand as one of the more organized and efficiently run local bands, but their knack for stumbling into opportunity is almost as consistent as their ability to churn out solid-as-an-oak-coffin rock songs.

Singer/songwriter/pianist Arlan Feiles left his native Los Angeles about four years ago to attend the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Feiles was put off by the instruction, being told from the get-go that his singing sounded good, but it wasn't correct. He says he never went to class after that. Guitarist Joel Schantz (manager Keith's cousin, and formerly with the Miami band Four Peace) was also at Berklee, and he says he attended class religiously. Somehow both walked away with A's.

Feiles and Schantz formed a band -- named the E-Z Walkers, the moniker a target of much ridicule -- and played the area clubs before Schantz came home to Miami. In Boston he had been standing in line at Tower Records for tickets to a Prince concert when a car smashed into the crowd. Schantz was hospitalized for six weeks in Boston, and laid up here for another five months. He returned to Boston, came back, and later enticed his colleague Feiles to head south by promising "lots of gigs," as the guitarist puts it. "The band in Boston wanted to stay there," Feiles explains. "They talked about moving, but when the time came, they got cold feet." Once here, the duo recruited three members of Ragamuffin Soldier, and for the past year Feiles, Schantz, second guitarist Sean Edelson, bassist Matt Coogan, singer/keyboardist Karen Friedman (ex-Blue Trixie), and drummer Jim Wall have solidified into one of Miami's top groups.

That solidification is about to shoot to the moon courtesy of the Causes' debut album, Bomb in the Shelter, to be released this week. Calling this record accomplished is like saying Barry Bonds is overpaid. Calling it compelling is equally understated. And calling it Southern rock is just plain wrong. Nonetheless, Joel Schantz notes, "We'll pull out our four hottest tunes, and someone still yells for `Freebird.' It even happened at a college show, at FIU North."

The mistake is easy to make. There is a certain Allman Brothers feel to some of the songs, though there's just as much Grateful Dead, just as much the Band, just as much room for lots of other handy comparisons. There's also the dual guitar lineup. And the less-known fact that revered producer Tom Dowd, who's worked with the Allmans plenty, is a fan of Natural Causes. (Although, Feiles says, "I don't care about that, I admire him because he worked with Coltrane.") While recording Bomb in the Shelter at Criteria, Dowd stopped by to inform the band that their guitars were out of tune. As Edelson and Schantz both readily admit, to have someone of Dowd's stature even bother to correct you is flattering.

At least part of Bomb's explosive grace is attributable to the contributions of Andrew Roshberg, who coproduced with Joel Schantz and engineered. Roshberg, senior boardman at Criteria with four years there, has recently knobbed artists such as R.E.M., the Allmans, and Miami Sound Machine. "I don't think it's fair to call it Southern rock," he offers. "The dual-harmony guitars are reminiscent of the Allmans, but what they're singing about is not Southern. It's more in a popular vein, but who to compare them to that's contemporary? I don't know. There's a Zeppelin aspect, the Dead, of course, and the Dead is not exactly Southern-fried. What's on this tape shows what they're capable of -- it represents them as a band."

Actually it does even more, it gets inside you like a great novel or a deep crush, insinuates itself until you can hear it even when it's not playing. When the band asks for an opinion and is told that the record is "good," more than one member quickly responds, "You should hear the new stuff!" So much for laurels.

Natural Causes have enough original material to play four solid sets without repeating themselves, but certainly this album, these ten songs, will prove to be a calling card, if not their big break. Miami boasts enough hard-core music fans to appreciate, say, the title track, even if the majors and radio might find it too long, too involved. Though recorded live in the studio, the cut is this band's equivalent to Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland." Jim Wall backbones it with a militaristic drum pattern that falls off, then repeats when necessary -- during one long bridge he adds an old-fashioned solo, a la John Bonham, that fades away just before Feiles's vocals, backed by the church-sweet croons of Karen Friedman, return for a penetrating delivery of this lyric: "Pledge allegiance to no flag/That can't put an end to this/All the power for which it stands/Can't contain a state of bliss." The guitars of Schantz and Edelson slither and scream and blend like coffee and cream throughout, Matt Coogan's bass smooth as Chivas, Feiles's piano riffs intoxicating. This singular composition is not so much a song as it is a place to be.

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