As the Shu Flies

There's a gaggle of underage girls gawking at the band on the far side of Finnegan's 2 on Saturday night: blond, late teens, ponytails. The doorman might keep them from setting foot inside, but they don't mind catching what they can from Lincoln Road, leaning against one another for support for the duration of the show. Someday, they are thinking, Shufly will play in stadiums, and they will never get this close to the stage then.

Inside this Irish-style pub, a couple of dozen more-fortunate fans in their twenties and thirties squeeze together at the foot of the tiny stage, mouthing the words with singer Scott Smith. Even the weekend pool sharks cueing up off to the side and the couples canoodling at the tables near the door sing along. This could be a frat party in Smith's native New Hampshire or a college-town bar in Pennsylvania, where lead guitarist Mike Sharpe tooled around before lighting out for the Sunshine State, selling hemp jewelry at rest stops along the way. Miami may be a Caribbean city but Shufly's pop rock is a spring-break soundtrack meant to be blared from the boomboxes of sunburnt undergraduates and then belted out in giddy chorus while speeding back home up I-95.

Chiseled cheeks framed by matching shag haircuts in bottle blond and chestnut brown, 29-year-old Smith and 25-year-old Sharpe give Shufly its handsome face and songwriting core. According to what is already Shufly legend, the founding heartthrobs found each other three years ago on a pier in Cocoa Beach when the singer, who went south after a bad break up, came across the guitarist strumming for food, weed, and whatever else tourists would toss him for a song. The pair wrote their first tune on the spot and kept right on writing after Sharpe and another friend moved for three months into Smith's '78 conversion van, often parked behind the Navigator's Café in Cooper City, where the fledgling band scored its first gigs.

Sitting at an outdoor table before the weekly Finnegan's show, the now six-member Shufly tells tall tales. "Tell her about your double bass," demands Ecuadorian percussionist Mario Palacios in Spanish to drummer Paul Voteller, who refuses. "Tell her how you made your own drum set in Colombia," he tries and fails again.

Bassist Matthew Coogan has better luck, commanding Sharpe: "Tell her the trailer-park story." The guitarist/composer obliges the classically trained bassist who, before joining Shufly, made a living off straight-ahead jazz in the Grove when such a thing was possible and then did time in a Grateful Dead tribute band. "There were these guys who had a Christian pawnshop in a trailer park who used to take care of us," Sharpe recounts. "They used to say that if Scott and I stayed together, we would be able to write songs without even having to see each other. And they were right: Now I'll be working on a melody by myself, and then I'll meet Scott and find out that the lyrics he's been working on fit perfectly."

"It was the Nostradamus Pawnshop," laughs Coogan.

Indeed since that trailer-park prediction, Sharpe and Smith's careful song construction has earned Shufly regular rotation on South Florida's English-language rock circuit and repeat appearances on Buzz 103.1 (WPBZ-FM) and Zeta (WZTA-FM 94.9). As Sharpe -- whose nickname is Crash -- brags, he's been smashing guitars and toppling amplifiers at clubs from Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room to Miami's new übervenue, Billboardlive. But his bad-boy theatrics have little to do with the Shufly sound. In a town whose schizophrenic reputation is built on DJs, hardcore metal, and all things tropical, Shufly's breezy lyrics and light grooves invite comparison to campus favorites from the U.S. mainland. Smith shares Dave Matthews's nasal delivery (Shufly opened for DMB at MARS Music Amphitheatre), Hootie's relaxed phrasing, and the feel-good, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth choruses of every Blues Traveler/Sugar Ray/Goo Goo Dolls song to top the charts.

The 2001 Shufly release (the group's 1999 release also was self-titled) showcases Smith's vocals in an easy dialogue with Sharpe's bright guitar playing. The rest of the players accent the discussion, and while Sharpe does indulge in a solo, it is restrained. "We're pretty good at keeping ourselves in check," observes Coogan. The result on the most recent Shufly is five highly polished tracks, each with a hook that lodges in the brain and won't come out. Every song is built on the repetition and then release of short, repeated bursts of melody, a trick that makes "Wonderful" and "No One's Home" particularly contagious. This is easy-access English-language pop -- a sound as commonly heard in Miami as Siberian throat-singing.

Eager to get their fill, starved pop-rock fans have kept Finnegan's 2 at capacity every Saturday night for the past year. So fervent is their appreciation that thirteen fans have formed the auxiliary Shufly Street Team, meeting every weekend at Einstein Bros Bagels like some rock-star Junior League. There's Laura in charge of publicity; Ashley on distribution; David on merchandising; Brian who puts out the 32-page songbook; and Crazy Glen, who stutter-steps through the pub like a boxer, passing out the e-mailing list and slapping high fives. "The street team makes us work harder," says Smith. "No one wants to work for you if they see that you're not working yourself."

Even more encouraging for the band's prospects is the involvement of well-connected manager Max Borges, formerly of MARS Music's foundling record label and before that of the National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences. "Max has a fire under his ass, and I don't want it to ever go out," says Smith. "We're ready to eat marshmallows." To prove the point, Borges announces gravely that a major label is financing a Shufly demo, and others have shown interest.

Deflating Borges's solemnity, Coogan yells, "Here come the crack and the hookers!"

Sharpe leaps up and pulls off his leather jacket to display a "Shufly" tattoo across his upper back.

"Now watch us break up tomorrow," worries rhythm guitarist Mandy Rua, adjusting his Grumpy the Dwarf baseball cap.

"This is a band that is not going to go away, record company or no record company," insists Sharpe, shaking his jacket back onto his shoulders.

"We will work our asses off," pledges Smith in mock seriousness. "Mine is almost completely off."

Worried that the interview is getting out of hand, Rua interjects, "Everyone can relate to Scott's lyrics." Then he recites: "“I feel, I feel, I feel wonderful/I fall, I fall, I fall everyday.' Everyone feels like that."

"It's all about turning yourself inside out," explains Smith in true seriousness.

But Coogan doesn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. "We're not here to educate anybody, to teach anybody or cure the ills of the world," he clarifies. "We just want people to come in and have fun. No confusion. No thinking allowed."

In rapture out on the Lincoln Road sidewalk later that night, the teenage girls are happy to comply.