Mike Ireland and Holler

Thursday, March 9; Off Broadway

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Mike Ireland has made only one record, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop), but it's one of the most emotionally demanding and giving country albums of the '90s. It's no surprise that Sub Pop was clueless when it came to promotion. Old-school countrypolitan and timeless vulnerability have a hip factor of minus-12. In the last year Ireland has left the label, just in time for his longtime lead guitarist and drummer to leave him. He's since found a home on Bloodshot Records, an insurgent-country label that raises a whole new set of marketing problems. The raison d' ê tre of Ireland's alt-country, the wisdom born of heartbreak, isn't exactly Bloodshot's stock and trade.

A new version of Holler returns to Off Broadway this week. Dan Mesh remains on rhythm guitar and harmony vocals, and now two of St. Louis's finest roots musicians, Spencer Marquart (formerly of One Fell Swoop) and John Horton (formerly of the New Patrons and currently of the Rock House Ramblers) have signed up. Thursday's show will be Marquart and Horton's debut with Holler, recalling (but not resembling) their earliest days performing together around Washington, Mo., in the stoner high-school party band the Sleestacks. Let's just say they've grown musically.

"Things are coming together more quickly than I expected," Ireland says of the new Holler. "That might be the pessimist in me, but I tend to expect a meeting of the minds, getting an aesthetic in people's heads. But both John and Spencer knew the band. The most interesting new version to me is "Cry,' that cover on the first record. John Horton, being the excellent guitar player that he is, is adding 50,000 passing chords, and so it has the same basic rhythmic feel, but it sounds like a cross between "Cry' and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song.' It has this jazzy vibe. He's pushed it in different directions."

Last August, Ireland was asked to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and then he was asked to return four months later, a final confirmation of, yes, the greatness of his country music. "If you had told me two years ago, five years ago, I was going to play the Opry, I would have said you were insane. We're nobody; they don't know us; we're just someone who initially had a favor done. We did my song "Worst of All,' and we're up there with three guitars, piano, steel guitar, fiddle and backup singers. We rolled into the chorus and those backup singers would swoop down, and it just goosed everything up two notches. It was glorious."

Some performers are hard to describe. Not Ireland. He's a singer whose voice fills the fine, true sails of his lyrics, whose voice can build and build like those great country tenors who would make him blush by comparison but compare you will: Ray Price, Jack Greene, Gene Watson. That's his voice, the voice of a singer with his heart on the line, and hearing him again -- and, surely, his new band -- will be unforgettable.

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