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Train moves at its own speed

Stewart Oksenhorn

The Train that Patrick Monahan and his buds are riding is going none too fast, but chugging along at a good steady pace. Just the way Monahan likes it.

Monahan is the lead singer and principal songwriter of Train, a San Francisco-based five-piece that does, indeed, seem bound for glory. The four-year-old band released its debut, self-titled CD early last year on the AWARE/Columbia label. The album hasn’t made any best-seller charts, but it has done just fine in the minds of Monahan and his mates – guitarists-vocalists Jimmy Stafford and Rob Hotchkiss, drummer Scott Underwood and bassist Charlie Colin.

“It’s done extremely well, relatively. Everything is relative,” said Monahan, who leads Train to the band’s first headlining appearance in Aspen tonight. Far Too Jones opens the show, at the Double Diamond. “The original goal was to see if we could sell 10,000, and we passed that quickly. ‘Free’ is one of the top ten rock tracks at stations around the country. We couldn’t ask for more, with our original goal being so small.”

The members of Train are not the only ones impressed with the CD. Columbia, the giant label that is the parent of the smaller AWARE, has decided to jump on board and take control of Train. Monahan said the band hopes that, with Columbia’s power behind it, the disc could become a hot item in 1999. But even if it doesn’t, Monahan at least seems well-prepared for a longer ride to bigger things.

“I gave up trying to be a genius in my early 20s,” said Monahan, who formed the backbone of Train with Hotchkiss, former lead singer of a Los Angeles band, the Apostles. “In this business, you’ve got a choice: You’re either a genius, or you’re a hard worker and you develop what you’ve got and stay with it. You develop relationships and you let those carry you. I’m not willing to self-destruct for the prize you get for being a genius.”

But many of those who have seen Monahan on stage claim that there is something of the genius lurking there. Train made its first appearance in Aspen last spring at the Double Diamond, as part of a package of five bands featured on the “AWARE: The Compilation” CD. Train was a smash, with Monahan’s stage presence drawing raves from those in attendance. Monahan says, if he has some kind of memorable stage aura, it is of the inadvertent variety.

“It’s probably more of the unusual, eccentric kind of charisma,” said Monahan, who comes off over the phone as forthright, balanced, and anything but eccentric. “I was the last of seven children in an Irish-Catholic family [in Erie, Penn.] I was raised around such great humor. But I’m not a novelty guy, cracking jokes.”

That Monahan is not a jokester on stage does not mean he doesn’t have a sense of humor. Humor, in fact, is one of the first things to come across on “Train.” The disc opens with the excellent “Meet Virginia,” which includes the lines: “She smokes a pack a day/Wait, that’s me.”

But the CD offers much more than laughs. Monahan’s voice is a great rock ‘n’ roll instrument, balancing power with a relaxed and intelligent air. Monahan’s ability to go from a whisper to a roar is matched by the instrumentation on the disc, which combines reverberating electric guitars with mandolins and harmonica. The sound reflects bits of ’60s San Francisco – Monahan said the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were early influences – but is more connected to modern rock along the lines of Counting Crowes. (The CD, produced by Train and Curtis Mathewson, was mixed by Counting Crows guitarist David Bryson.)

At the heart of the disc is some seriously accomplished songwriting. The songs have a way of getting their point across with repetition of phrases, and in way that, thanks to Monahan’s dynamic delivery, doesn’t grate on the nerves.

“I Am” stands outs as a naked expression of Monahan’s joys and desires. “It’s really, for me, it’s about trying to become what you’ve dreamt of being,” said Monahan. “Less about being a success story, and more about being what you’ve strived to be, being like your heroes. That’s a song I was challenged to write about me.”

Despite Monahan’s somewhat modest ambitions, Train does seem on the rail to success. And whether that comes with this debut CD, the next one, or after another five years on the road, it should suit Monahan and his bandmates fine.

“We’ve been the tortoise in this race so far, which is where we’d like to be,” said Monahan. “We’ve seen bands pass us by and get more money. But we’ll just truck along. And win in the end, I hope.”


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