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Songs from the Edge

Nancy LeVan & Jeremy Lutes
Overpass Present and Future: Chanteuse for the '90s Nancy LeVan teams with musical arranger for the ages Jeremy Lutes for a concert Saturday night featuring hypnotic tunes from their new CD.

Dresden magically weaves showbiz savvy and soul-probing psychodrama on stage and now on a dazzling new CD, 'Blue Bottle'

By Christina Waters

IT'S POSSIBLE THAT Nancy LeVan sings about something like forgiveness as she sculpts the edges of Dresden's intimate performance climate. Forgiveness and a free-floating sexual aura both seem to envelope her astonishing stage presence and uncannily direct vocal delivery.

For several years, the underground has grown to swell and throb around Dresden, the musical cadre composed of statuesque chanteuse LeVan, her musical collaborator, keyboardist Jeremy Lutes, and a satellite of gifted sidemen. The release of the group's first CD, Blue Bottle, has only sharpened and catalyzed this cult following, extending its reach out into the greater world of consumers who will each come to feel that the music was created just for them.

The magical realism of LeVan's startling word pictures spring from a deeper well than just our coastal luxe et volupté. She has skated ahead of us, already been to the edge of the millennium and looked out across its mysterious divide. And she's returned with a few rune-like snapshots that only her voice and magnetic body language can decipher.

If the immediate impact of the six-foot redhead with infinite cheekbones seems somehow familiar to local audiences, it might be that LeVan has been a fixture of the performance scene since she arrived here from Ohio, by way of Berkeley, some 15 years ago. An interpreter of avant garde movement with Bones in Motion, LeVan was working on a performance when she first met Lutes.

"He was doing light and sound design," she recalls, her eyes huge with memory. "It started with a show about hobos, called Black Tears. We spent nine months, meeting every week, getting that show together. That was about three years ago." LeVan and Lutes hit it off. "We found that we were really comfortable working together."

Already a veteran of the folk/rock scene in Berkeley, LeVan had hung out with songwriters, and even studied some classical voice--a taste she decided not to acquire--all the while "writing incessantly," when she and Lutes teamed up.

Lutes' expertise in plucking melodic themes out of thin air and synthesizing them into spun sorcery gave LeVan's words their launch vehicle. And on Blue Bottle, the results are a collection of indelible word images, powered by visceral chord changes that defy artiness.

Part Patti Smith-meets-Kate Bush, part Alice in Wonderland, Dresden refuses firm categorization, grazing instead from past to future. In O'Kenya, Lutes' foundation of undulating rhythms flirts with the Philip Glass of Koyaanisquatsi, propelling us along a landscape that we've met in dreams. Then the mood switches to the smoke-filled back rooms of '20s Berlin. Kurt Weil haunts the margins of Temperance, just as Anais Nin and her omnivorous sexuality materializes in Washington Street, a tone poem that Joni Mitchell would be proud to own.

But Dresden definitely can rock. A recent show at Kuumbwa opened with the group's seductive take on the rolling, bon temps vibes of Les Negresses Vertes' gypsy waltz, and suddenly we're groovin' in some all-night party in Marseilles. The current performance menu ranges from soul-searing cabaret--in Madeline, LeVan relives a day of time-tripping and orgasmic moisture--to irresistibly romantic. Both Pillars and Temperance embroider opera, slice-of-life daydreams and edgy chord progressions into impressions of an enthralling place. A place so very familiar, but it just doesn't have a name.

"It's always an internal story," LeVan admits. "I find out first what the story is, and then Jeremy just starts throwing out some sounds. Then we just keep working with that, and it keeps evolving until it's right. There really is no category for this, and sometimes I worry that it's too personal. I don't know if there's a space for that, but I keep sensing it's something people need."

In performance, Dresden seems most apt at materializing moments of our fractured spirits. The music contains a healing magic, the elegant, wayward words a stairway toward an inner landscape. Mining past pain, LeVan applies her creative touch to what she calls "these broken stories." And in telling them, "in just hearing them, people seem to share it."

There are no pat, pop answers in these lyrics, in the eclectic pastiche of this musical style. But the questions raised by LeVan's outstretched hands and caressing voice tend to bind listeners to a more shimmering universe of possibilities. To be in Dresden is to come home and find it as different as you'd hoped it would be.


Dresden performs on Saturday (8:30pm) at So Say We, 418 Front St., SC. Admission is $10. For more information, call 454-9547.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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