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Pop Music: Stirring up a Strange Brew

Singer and guitarist find their roots in the blues

Friday, April 21, 2000

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Fran Rifugiato took a trip around the musical map before coming back around to the blues. The Penn Hills guitarist grew up on the fiery blues-rock of Cream and Hendrix. But by the time he was old enough to play in bands, the punk rock invasion had arrived, so the only meaningful thing to do was head off to New York where he played in a pair of bands inspired by the Ramones and New York Dolls.

He also went through rockabilly, pop and "tongue-in-cheek experimental music" (with the Sicilian Vespers) before meeting Marcy Eustice, a singer from Clarion with deep musical roots in her family. Eustice's father was a rockabilly singer, her grandmother played in bands and her nephew is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet -- Christopher Kirkpatrick of 'N Sync.

When they met, working on a project for Children's Hospital, Eustice's own personal interest was bluegrass and gospel. "That was a little far for me to go," Rifugiato says, "so we met in the middle."

Eustice dropped her voice down from a soprano to a more bluesy growl and they formed Strange Brew, named after a Cream song, in the mid-'90s. When they ventured into the studio to make a blues CD they came out with "Peace of Mind," more of an alternative rock record with some blues guitar elements.

With the second record, Rifugiato says, "we wanted to do blues rock and hit the labels that specialize in blues. It finally fitted in a slot, one of the first times I was able to do that."

"Lost and Broken Hearted," a more traditional bar-band record showcasing Eustice's throaty vocals and Rifugiato's sharp blues licks, came out a few months ago on Adelphi/Genes Records, out of Maryland. It's been generating airplay on WYEP and WDVE and on stations as far away as Alaska and California. It's also due to get some play on the syndicated "Dan Aykroyd's House of Blues Radio Show."

Rifugiato thinks part of the attraction is that the material is all original.

"I wrote most of the new material and Marcy and I collaborated on four of the them. That's something the blues companies took note of. They get a lot of reworks of standards. When they get new material like this, they take notice."

Rifugiato says the project is going in the right direction, but "not quite as fast as I hoped." Part of the problem has been breaking into the city's hotter blues venues. "It's very hard to get people to listen," Eustice says. So, Strange Brew has been circling Pittsburgh a lot, playing in suburbs like Beaver and Cranberry, and making occasional trips to Cleveland.

Eustice isn't asking for the world -- just a fraction of the success of her nephew's group.

"He can't even walk around freely anymore," she says. "He came down last year and I took him to the malls -- he has to put on a disguise to get around."

The band's next local shows will be May 6 at Bluefella's in Cranberry; and May 13 at the Redstone Tavern in Crafton.

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