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NIGHT LIFE

The Jellyfish Hook: Strong Vocals : Most bands are lucky to have a good singer; this pop-rock quartet has four.

July 15, 1993|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The singing Jellyfish--not the icky blob of goo that stings like Indiana Jones' whip--are coming to the venerable Ventura Theatre Tuesday night to fill that hallowed hall with heavenly four-part harmonies.

Jellyfish makes shimmering pop tunes with vocals that compare favorably with the Beatles, Queen, Badfinger or anyone else that anybody thinks can sing.

The harmonies are so sweet, your ears will have to go to the dentist. In fact, the saccharine quality of the music is made plain by the fact that the back cover of the first album, "Bellybutton," features a candy necklace. The new album, "Spilt Milk," has all the vital info spelled out in Alpha Bits on the back cover.

Most bands have no good singers, but Jellyfish has four good ones, with two great ones among them, drummer Andy Sturmer and keyboard player Roger Manning, the songwriters and brains behind it all. Eric Dover is the singing guitarist and Tim Smith the singing bass player.

"There's not too many singing drummers," said Manning during a recent phoner from Kansas City, Mo. "I remember in high school, (Sturmer) wanted to be the best drummer in the world. He's still comfortable enough to write a song on the guitar or piano. But what a voice!"

When the band made its Southern California debut at the Roxy in 1990, there was an audience-stopping a cappella rendition of "Come Sail Away" by Styx. Thus, "Bellybutton" became a hit. The band toured incessantly. Then, naturally, half the band bailed out. One of them was Manning's brother, Chris.

"My brother decided the road was not for him," said Manning. "Our old guitar player decided he wanted to do a solo thing in L. A. We hunted and hunted and hunted for replacements. We went through 150 guitar players before we found one who understood what we were doing. No one knew how to harmonize. Then we got lucky with the bass player--we took the second guy.

"Can the new guys sing? Oh yeah. That's why they're here. The vocals are even better than before."

This gig will be Jellyfish's debut in Ventura, but they played once in Isla Vista at the UC Santa Barbara campus bar in 1991, and a few months later in S. B. with the Black Crowes. On the surface, a double bill like that seems as strange as, say, Barbra Streisand and the Cramps.

"Actually, that tour was a lot of fun," recalled Manning. "It was a misunderstood bill, but the Black Crowes were also inspired by rock 'n' roll from the past. We made a lot of new fans playing with them. This tour we seem to be getting a lot of attention--we're just getting in people's faces. We have a hard-core audience who are very responsive. So far, all the shows have been packed or sold out."

Part of the lure of Jellyfish is the attraction of pop-rock itself--simple song structures with hooks, harmonies and choruses, in which a song sounds like a song.

"With the whole punk thing you didn't have to be a musician to play, and that's fine," said Manning. "But we don't have much to do with that or the grunge thing, either. We play very straightforward pop with melodic hooks, yet we're still lumped with the alternative bands. Our new one is more eclectic than before, with a lot of different styles."

And Jellyfish dresses to impress, particularly if you've just awakened from a 25-year nap. They look like a quartet of groovy flower children.

"We still dress up and everything is really colorful," said Manning. "Now we've got a set designer and everything is more stylish."

Also on the bill are Mammoth recording artist Antenna and a couple of cool Santa Barbara bands, Circus Frequency and Woodburning Project.

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