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Originally published Friday, June 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch

The Maldives: How country rock looks and sounds in Seattle right now

Sully's Snow Goose is a tiny Bavarian lodge-style tavern at 60th and Phinney in Phinney Ridge. Within the 100-year-old A-frame, the bar's...

Special to The Seattle Times

Sully's Snow Goose is a tiny Bavarian lodge-style tavern at 60th and Phinney in Phinney Ridge. Within the 100-year-old A-frame, the bar's taxidermied namesake hangs above a pair of wooden skis on the far wall; a stone hearth occupies the opposite end of the room. A gas fire pulses silently. Outside it's 50-some degrees and the wind is so violent it topples an umbrellaed picnic table in the beer garden. In a few hours it will be snowing at Snoqualmie Pass.

Jason Dodson and Jesse Bonn — bandleader and rhythm guitarist of country-rock collective the Maldives, respectively — sit at an antique wooden table near the fireplace, soaking up warmth.

"This is why they call it Juneuary," Bonn says.

Cozy and communal, it's an appropriate spot on a dreary, dull silver evening, literally around the corner from the house Dodson shares with Bonn and his wife. We're three Guinnesses into a several-Guinness conversation when I ask the money question.

"Is Seattle a country town?" Dodson repeats. "That's like saying is whiskey a country drink. I would say that whiskey is a great beverage. Drinking is country. If you drink tequila it's country, if you drink whiskey it's country. Seattle is a music town, so absolutely it's a country town."

From their appearance, you wouldn't peg these 30-something dudes as members of the most country country-rock band in Seattle. Dodson sports a lumberjack's black beard, a wallet chain and tattooed forearms. Bonn has the blue eyes and slick, shoulder-length blond hair of a SoCal surfer, plus more tattoos.

The fact is, this is how country looks in this town right now, and the Maldives — who play Nectar on Saturday (9 p.m.), as part of the Noise for the Needy multi-nightclub fundraiser — is how it sounds.

Unlike much of the crop of alt-country, country-rock and Americana acts currently flourishing in Seattle, Dodson grew up with the music in his blood. ("Country has always been, as far as I can remember, going way back to my mom, what I listened to," he says. "Yes, I was in a punk band, but I wasn't good at it.") When he talks about his influences, classic country forefathers like Bob Wills and Charlie Rich come up as often as no-brainers like Neil Young and the Band.

Dodson was born in Virginia but moved around a lot thanks to his dad, a chain-saw salesman who took the family wherever the work was: the Carolinas, Oregon, Sacramento, Alaska and, finally, Vancouver, Wash. From there he followed a girlfriend to the University of Washington and eventually got a job at Scarecrow Video. That's where he befriended Bonn and later Seth Warren, the Maldives' fiddler. The band came together in the early 2000s, quickly plowing through members ("The running number is 32," Bonn says) while accumulating a regular lap steel player, drummer, bassist, percussionist and lead guitarist.

The final piece of the puzzle was prodigiously bearded hobo-about-town Kevin Barrans, who plays banjo, accordion and mandolin. He joined up last year after his band played a double bill with the Maldives. Between the nine members, eight full-time bands are represented.

After a lot of hard gigging and harder drinking, the past year has found the Maldives living up to their potential. Unsigned, with only a 2-year-old, self-released CD behind them, they regularly sell out the Tractor Tavern. Their performances are part rock 'n' roll grit, part gently swooning folk, all country. Lap steel, banjo and fiddle take lead over electric and acoustic guitars; despite so many members onstage, the sound is finely woven, never crowded or rushed. Dodson's voice is at once longing and satisfied, the voice of a man who's figured out a few modest goals in life and is on his way to achieving them. While his songs often seem deeply personal, he says they're mostly inspired by dreams and alcohol.

"There's a difference between what's real and what's literal," he says. "People confuse those two terms. I write in the real."

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It all adds up to the sort of band that could unify the nations: There's something here for cranky country traditionalists, mainstream country soccer moms and alt-country scenesters. Bereft of irony or fashion, the Maldives offer nothing but the heart on nine passionate sleeves. For Dodson, it's a matter of finally finding the right people and the right setting to create.

"It's really important to have a sense of place and family, to be close to something," he says. "My family moved around so much that any sense of home was — to quote Tom Waits, any place I lay my head is home. But what we had was a family within ourselves. What we had was each other. That carries over to where I'm at now. Your family is your friends."

Other must-see shows this week:

Today

It's an AV Clubber's dream: San Diego dream merchants/Sub Pop darlings the Album Leaf play a live, composed soundtrack to "Sunrise," a 1927 German silent film, at the Triple Door. Many glamorous, important publications have deemed "Sunrise" a glamorous, important movie. (7 and 9:30 p.m., $22).

Saturday

Like Jaguar Love, Past Lives is the fallout of the Blood Brothers breakup. Unlike Jaguar Love, Past Lives sound just like the Blood Brothers (with Partman Parthorse at the Comet, 9 p.m., Saturday).

Sunday

Few performers rock as hard by playing as softly as Tiny Vipers. Jesse Fortino's solo acoustic whisper-folk is quiet as a graveyard and just as haunting. (Nectar, 8 p.m., $8).

Jonathan Zwickel: zwickelicious@gmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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