The Gift of Music


Playing from the heart, Colby trio trades Foss stage for Northwest spotlight

By David Treadwell

Zöe Kaplan's life is all about music and art and warmth. Musical instruments fill her wood-paneled Portland, Ore., bungalow: three guitars, two mandolins, conga drums, a banjo, a cello and a vintage piano. Photographs and artworks by local artists adorn the walls. Olive, a friendly shepherd/collie mutt rescued from Montana, eagerly greets all who enter the house. It's a soothing, restorative place, reflective of the woman herself.

"To me, music is about healing, even if I'm singing in the smokiest bar to the drunkest people," said Kaplan '97, a lead singer for Cross-eyed Rosie, a hot new Portland-based (and Colby laden) bluegrass band.

Kaplan does not lightly link music with healing. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001, a life turn that, she now reflects, "propelled me on an exciting adventure." She attended a school for spiritual healing and began to share her learning and experience with others. "I went from a place of deep despair to joining this band to starting a healing practice. And I'm exploring ways to get my music into hospitals and hospices."

The six-member group was launched in the summer of 2002, the brainchild of Jon Ostrom '94, who plays guitar in addition to serving as manager and promoter. James Loveland '96 writes half the band's original songs.

Kaplan's deep friendship with Loveland, a psychologist for Portland public schools and the husband of Jen Vogt Loveland '97, led James Loveland to write "Rosalie," a song on the band's CD Lookin' Up, as a tribute to the way Kaplan redefined herself during her struggle with multiple sclerosis.

"I cried when I first heard 'Rosalie,'" Kaplan said. "I even learned about myself while listening. James's writing is so deep, so touching, so close to the soul."

Loveland claims less of a role in the creative process, saying he simply starts with a bit of musical inspiration. "And then the words fall into the cracks of the music," he said. "Sometimes I just wake up with an idea; sometimes, I really have to labor. But it's always wonderful to bring an idea to the band and create together and see and hear the magic happen."

Magic happens often, according to bandmates, fans and music critics. "James writes great tunes. He's awesome, amazing!" said Ostrom.

In just over a year, the band has risen from performing in Portland-area coffee shops and pubs with names like The Ugly Mug to major music festivals in the Northwest. Cross-eyed Rosie's very first gig in Seattle, at the Conor-Byrne pub, was a sellout, the audience sprinkled with other Colby graduates, attracted by the grapevine reports of the band's great sounds. This February Cross-eyed Rosie was to play at Wintergrass, an internationally renowned bluegrass festival staged in Tacoma, Wash. (Also performing was bluegrass star Tim O'Brien '76.)

Cross-eyed Rosie's consistent rave reviews have helped create the buzz and fuel the rise. "They are a bit like the dorky wallflower in high school who turns out to be really hot at the reunion: you need to look past the surface to get it. . . . Check it out, wallow in the three-part harmonies, take in some completely original tunes, and leave your overalls at home," said a critic in The Portland Mercury.

"Like our lives, these songs are woven with threads sometimes hopeful or reckless, joyous or bittersweet, yet always beautiful for all its variations. . . . They seem to smile out at you and say, 'Hey, I'm nobody special. Wanna hear some good music? Hear, come listen.' . . . Real people doing real music," said a writer for The Music Liberation Project.

Real enough to recall their musical roots-in the case of the Colby trio, stints in electric bands like Kaplan's Groove, Meddling Kids and Rhythm Cattle.

Ostrom says Mayflower Hill was a very positive musical influence. "We were in different classes, but each of us played in bands every year we were at Colby," Ostrom said. "The music scene at the College helped drive our enthusiasm for our art wherever we played, whether it was at Foss Dining Hall or at Winslow or in Waterville."

They've traded the Foss stage for national festivals, with tours of California and possibly the Southeast looming. "It's wonderful to be able to touch people through music," Kaplan said, "and it feels like we're doing that. Deep down, we all need music in our lives for our peace and soul. It's a gift for us to give, just as it is for others to hear."