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Exit Sandman 

A decade after their frontman's death, Morphine are back on the road

Sometimes giants must sleep before we can understand their size and scope. Massachusetts power trio Morphine was a colossus in the '90s. But it was a band that languished too soon when frontman Mark Sandman tragically died onstage from a heart attack in 1999.

Under the moniker "Members of Morphine and Jeremy Lyons," original bandmates Dana Colley and Jerome Deupree will be joined by New Orleans Delta-blues troubadour Jeremy Lyons onstage to recreate Morphine's atmospheric fusion of nostalgic '90s alt-rock. From 1992's Good to 2000's The Night, Morphine released five albums as the ambassadors of "low rock" before Sandman passed away, building their music around an unconventional trio of drums, saxophone, and two-string slide bass (guitars were rarely used).

It was a moody and bohemian baritone stew, with Colley's murky sax harmonizing perfectly with Sandman's sonorous slide bass and deep, dreamy vocals, half-singing, half-sermonizing songs like "Cure for Pain," "A Head With Wings," "Buena," and anything about girls ("Candy," "Lisa," "Claire," "Sheila"). The band's surreal moods and colors were throwbacks to Gang of Four, the Lounge Lizards — even the Numbers Band 15-60-75, but its sound was distinctly its own.

Morphine's tall, imposing presence was centered on Sandman, a hypnotic and larger-than-life musical spirit who was in his mid-30s when he helped found the trio (he played with Boston bluesmakers Treat Her Right before that). He fashioned his own bizarre instruments (creating his two-string bass) and founded a recording studio and label (which Colley still helps run today), and his stage presence was similar to a pulp-fiction protagonist's: as cool as Kerouac, as sly as Casanova. These are definitely big shoes to fill for Lyons, who sings and plays two-string bass onstage.

"It's occasionally a bit of a head trip," says Lyons. "Generally, people are just really happy to hear the music being played live. It's only in Boston that I've occasionally gotten questionable feedback. They're like, 'Well, the thing you gotta know about Sandman is ...' Then they start talking about his personality and how he was magnetic onstage. And I'm like, Well, I'm not trying to be Sandman. I'm just me."

For the two surviving members of Morphine, it's not a complete revival — it's more like a homage that's come a long way. After Sandman died onstage at a music festival in Italy at the age of 46, friends toured for a year as the nine-piece Orchestra Morphine, playing the posthumously released The Night. Ten years later, Colley and Deupree returned to the very same festival as a trio with Lyons, playing under the name Members of Morphine.

"The passing [of time] made it a little more appealing and this tour a little more appropriate," says Colley. "But having done so, we're sort of recreating songs to fit our own configuration."

Things are definitely different. Colley, for starters, sometimes runs his 1930 Conn baritone saxophone through an amplifier, flipping effects pedals and making his horn sound like a guitar. Deupree played on most of the Morphine records, but rarely toured with the band (Billy Conway usually stepped in for live dates). Lyons brings his own Delta-blues flavor to the lead role, singing mostly the Morphine catalog, but also a few tunes he wrote.

Combined, they give the old material a new spirit, awakening old fans and maybe inspiring a few new ones.

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