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Out of the Woods: music with charm


Fame, for the most part, is a relative thing. Although there are some celebrities everyone knows -- Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Madonna -- most famous folk are really only known within a specific frame of reference. Move outside that circle, and they're as anonymous as the next guy.

Kind of the way the Greenberry Woods are in Baltimore.

In the music business, the quartet's name is golden. Even though their debut album, "Rapple Dapple" (Sire), isn't due out until Tuesday, the band is already being hailed for its irresistible melodies, sterling harmonies and infectious charm, a combination that in concert the New York Times likened to "an early Beatles revival."

Squeeze front man Glenn Tilbrook is a fan, as are members of Crowded House and the Smithereens. And industry people are still talking about the fact that Seymour Stein -- the record company boss who brought us Madonna, Talking Heads and k.d. lang -- signed the Greenberry Woods on the strength of a single show.

Meanwhile, in their home town, the band remains almost unknown.

Granted, the Greenberry Woods don't exactly look like incipient rock stars. As the four of them sit in a tiny Tuxedo Park apartment on a frigid January afternoon, they look like four guys in their mid-20s whose lives haven't changed significantly since they left college. Apart from the Beatles paraphernalia and a few guitar cases stacked in a back room, you'd never know they were professional musicians.

But then, as drummer Miles Rosen puts it, "Nobody who's not a band member knows who we are."

"Well, a couple people around the scene knew who we are," corrects guitarist Matt Huseman with a chuckle. "I remember agents used to not touch us because we did all originals, and we weren't great musicians or something."

Our neighbor works for a music magazine in Baltimore," adds Huseman's twin brother, Brandt, the band's bassist. "He saw us going out to our cars once to practice with our guitars, and he said, 'So, you guys in a band?'

" 'Yeah.'

" 'What band?'

" 'The Greenberry Woods.'

" 'Hmm. Haven't heard of you guys.'

"This is like a month ago."

"Sometimes it makes me wonder what's happening here, why we didn't get any bigger," muses guitarist Ira Katz. "Here we are about to release this album to the world, internationally. But it makes you sit back and think, 'Well, with all the time we've been playing around here, how come there wasn't bigger excitement?'

"Maybe we didn't market ourselves well," offers Matt Huseman, and the other three laugh.

No, marketing was never much of a priority for these guys. In fact, about the only solid plan these guys ever had was to see if they could make a living playing music. "We wanted to become professional musicians, and we gave ourselves a time limit of two years when we graduated from college to do it," says Brandt.

The band's roots go back to 1987, when Matt Huseman and Ira Katz met as freshmen at the University of Maryland, and began playing guitar together. "We had plenty of free time in college, as you do when you don't go to class," says Matt. Brandt, who had been playing bass in a Top-40 band, joined a year later, followed by Rosen, whom Katz knew from high school.

What drew the group together wasn't ambition, but vocal ability. "We don't consider ourselves instrumentalists," says Brandt. "We consider ourselves singers first, singer-songwriters. We've been doing it all our lives. Matt and I have always been harmonizing, since we were kids. 'Cause we didn't get out of the house much. So we'd just sit around and sing, kind of like the little von Trapps."

"Yeah, we always sang, all the time," agrees Brandt. "We never really took any formal training. And we just got lucky, because Katz had a voice, too. When Ira and I first started singing, we always used to just sit on the steps. I would play guitar, and we would both sing, like, Beatles numbers."

The Beatles, by the way, are something of a constant in the Greenberry Woods' musical world. Given the band's sound, it's not hard to understand why, since the Woods' album is full of Beatlesque touches like the backing vocals on "Sentimental Role" or the bittersweet verse and inventive harmonies on "Oh Christine." Even so, it's obvious the band feels a little embarrassed by the constant comparisons.

"As much as we love the Beatles, we try to shy away from too many Beatle references," admits Brandt. "But everyone buys this Beatles stuff and leaves pictures on our doorstep."

Still, it's hard to shake the resemblance. Like the Beatles, the Greenberry Woods have three songwriters as well as three great singers. ("We want Miles to sing," Matt says. "Maybe one day when I learn," answers the drummer.)

But the greatest similarity between the two bands is their musical philosophy. "We've always concentrated on melodies," says Matt. "That's a big emphasis for us. And then obviously the harmonies. But when you write a song, we always look for that little hook, that one cool little something that gets you."

"We were really into songwriting," adds Brandt. "When we first started off, we were good songwriters."

Tellingly, that's a strength that comes from unity, not individual genius. Even though the songs start out as solo efforts, they get their finish by going through what Katz calls "the Greenberry Woods machine."

"It's not like when Matt steps up to the mike to sing lead on his particular song, it's 'Matt with the Greenberry Woods,' " he says.

"It becomes what we want to do," agrees Matt. "Like 'Oh, Christine.' It was Ira who came up with the chords and had maybe about half of what the melody is now. I said, 'Hey, can I take that? I want to work with that melody a little bit,' and I put the middle eight into it."

"It always changes," adds Brandt. "I could have a song and I know exactly what I want in my head, and inevitably it's going to be different by the time they get through with it."

"So basically, where he may bring his differences to a song that starts my way, it all ends up sounding like the Greenberry Woods," concludes Katz. "And that's a cool thing."


You've met the Beatles; now meet Baltimore's Greenberry Woods. To hear excerpts from their debut album, "Rapple Dapple," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6152 after you hear the greeting.

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