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Columnist Garrett Wheeler on local musicians who keep it real.

By Garrett Wheeler

American Idol is in its seventh season, and there's at least one Santa Cruzan who couldn't care less. Nicholas Emmert sings and spends his weekend nights playing for donations in local coffee shops. And there's definitely no doubt about it: this guy has no intention of becoming the next American Idol. Listen to him play and you'll understand why I draw this conclusion. You'll hear for yourself the stories of a guy comfortable with small-town life and know that Hollywood just isn't part of this picture. You'll hear an evocative singer/songwriter who doesn't pride himself in sounding like the next Jack Johnson, or Bob Dylan, for that matter. No, Emmert doesn't dream of rising to glory in today's pop-encrusted music industry.

There'll be no selling his soul to some fat bald guy with an even fatter record contract. Emmert believes in music, and all he needs is for you to believe with him.

"Nobody cares if you're straight or gay at the old Ugly Mug Cafe," Emmert sings to a delighted crowd at the Mug. He's billed as Misty Mountain, but aside from Emmert and his guitar, all that the rest of his band seems to be is a buddy with some forks in a cup, occasionally rattling to the beat for added percussion. It's an interesting effect, but not remarkable. In fact, despite his impressive fingerpicking dexterity, there's really nothing unusually jaw-dropping about Emmert's skill set. His voice is OK; it's on key most of the time. His melodies are good, though some of the folkie stuff is a bit generic. But his words are striking, and so his songs are extraordinary.

Emmert is part guitar player, part philosopher, part poet. He mixes sharp wit with the kind of wonderful carelessness and laid-back attitude that thrives in this part of the universe. His themes are mostly existential—humorous, ironic, detached.

You can tell that the few dozen audience members are considering every word he sings, turning them over in their minds, weighing them out. It's as if Emmert's stories about life in Santa Cruz County are stories they themselves have helped write. They are themes that penetrate us all, because, like him, we have chosen to live here, in this place where overcrowded highways weave through towering redwoods.

Later that night, I found myself at the Catalyst Atrium, listening to yet another group of musicians with little concern for pop stardom. Though there's no doubt Gilroy's Tri-Plex is capable of drawing a large and diverse fan base, commercial viability for a reggae band with Latin and hip-hop undertones is less than huge. But like Emmert, you can tell by watching this group perform that they're onstage because they love it.

They want you to hear their music and their message—whether or not you buy a CD is less important than taking their words to heart. And listening to the Tri-Plex collective, you'd have a hard time not absorbing lyrics that advocate tolerance, love and social justice. Led by guest vocalist Margie Star, who sounds something like reggae's version of Aretha Franklin, Tri-Plex's mission is clear: Make great music, have fun doing it and reach out to the world.

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