Ringleader of a Cast of Clowns

For someone who leads a band that Eugene Weekly once described as a "jam band supergroup," Craig Wright seems slightly out of place if only because he hasn't toured with the likes of the Jerry Garcia Band — like keyboardist Marvin Seals — or Bonnie Raitt's band — like bass player Hutch Hutchinson.

"How the hell did I manage that? Yeah, I don't know," said Wright, a creative writing professor at Southern Oregon University. "I just kind of got to know these guys separately. Some reason or another they called me up about coming out and singing and filling in for some bands here and there, and I managed to sneak in some original songs."

"I think they like the original songs," Wright said. "I think they like the idea of that, and it not being just another cover band of sorts."

Wright stopped by the Tidings Café to perform some of those original songs at the eve of a Cast of Clowns tour that kicks off Wednesday at Stillwater, and to give Tidings Café fans — and his band — a glimpse of what they'll play.

"I may even be using the Tidings Café to let these guys hear their material before they make their journey to Oregon," Wright said. "Half of them are all over the country, and so we kind of convene here before we start this little tour." He added that he has shared them with drummer Greg Anton.

"We've got three (band members) coming from the Bay Area, one from Portland and one me," Wright said.

Wright said he tends to travel just enough to make himself available to the other band members. He considers his drummer to be a strong creative partner, and although Anton lives in the Bay Area, his son recently started at SOU.

Wright's partnership with Anton seems to mesh with his strong approaches to rhythm guitar.

"In this band I do a lot of rhythm playing, which has almost become a lost art," Wright said. "I like to think of myself as a second drum at times."

Wright's rhythm approach is best demonstrated during his Tidings Café performance of "One by One." There is a percussive quality in the way he strums and shakes the guitar while laying down bluesy vocals with his warm and gravely voice.

But it's his songwriting that has earned him the respect of world-class musicians. "Everyone's a Superstar" is a love song that avoids clichés, and even the word "love."

His songwriting is also the reason he's a musician.

"I got started writing lyrics for friends, and the next thing I know, they were pushing me on stage to sing 'em," Wright wrote in an e-mail reminiscing about his early days in a South Carolina power pop band.

Later he was turned on to the Grateful Dead and music with an improvisational quality to it. He added in the message, "I noticed songwriting was largely taking a backseat with some of the newer jambands and I believe strongly in songs, so I stuck it out and that has opened a lot of doors for me. "¦ Songwriting is as important to me as short story writing in that I just want to make something beautiful (and) say something kind of true."

While he was developing his songwriting, he bought a guitar and learned some licks after the lead guitarist quit in that South Carolina power pop band. It was in that band that he first developed a volume swell sound that he uses often, and a style that he later brought to jambands.

"I do feel like I'm starting to hit upon a little bit more of an original style," Wright said. "I've always been real hard on myself and felt like a lot of my material felt real derivative. To me that sounds like this or that sounds like that. I feel like I'm starting to hit on some material that doesn't sound like anything but, you know, but me."

Check out Wright's performance at Tidings Café at dailytidings.com or join the Tidings Café group on connectashland.com.

See him play live every Wednesday, when he hosts the open mic event at Alex's.

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