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70 Lewis turn life experiences into a cathartic debut

Pop's unifying message is often a personal one. Just ask the four friends in Lakewood's 70 Lewis. Since 2007, they've channeled big dreams and broken hearts into their well-crafted radio rock. Sardined into a booth at the Boneyard in Broadview Heights on a cold January night, the four mates drink root beer, water and coffee while debating the merits of Nickelodeon and other random topics. The one thing they agree on is the emotional connection to their full-length debut East Coast Sunday Morning.

"We migrated toward the idea of picking the most personal songs," says guitarist Scott Young. "Lyrically, the majority of the writing is about relationships and life. These are very introspective songs about our experiences."

The band quickly notes that it speaks in two languages — lyrically with emotive pop tales about life's highs and lows, and subtly with musicianship: complex, harmonious, piano-fronted rock. They hope the latter will impress the most detailed listener. The former will undoubtedly melt your heart.

"We pride ourselves on having such technical thought as to make songs that wouldn't be described as technical," says singer-pianist Mike Gray. "A lot of times you over-think stuff, and it comes out as over-thought. This is pop, but it's respectable because musicians, people who know music, can tell a lot of thought went into it. But as much as it is our stream-of-conscious music and lyrics, we definitely know we want to play something listenable and radio-worthy."

While you were smoking pot and playing air guitar to Dark Side of the Moon, these kids were in their bedrooms learning how to play the album. All four grew up schooled in guitar, piano, drums or all three (they switch from trumpet, bass and guitar onstage). They attended Lakewood High School where they played in the school band, and most were part of the Lakewood Project, a rotating ensemble featuring some 30 instrumentalists picked from the school system, who mix classical music with classic rock in the vein of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

"My dad was a traveling musician with country bands — locally and nationally," says Kenny Kerns III, the band's utility player on piano, synth, trumpet, melodica and bass. "He played piano and trumpet like I do. I've played piano since I could sit on a piano bench. I'd say I didn't have a say in the matter and maybe at the time I didn't, but it was all I ever wanted to do."

Of course, it's not the mechanics that make 70 Lewis a success; it's the band's sentimental personality. A song like "Underwater & Divided" may be a synth-sized rocker that sounds like Spiritualized, but behind its piano power ballad is the story of a guy struggling with life decisions about college, music, family and success. Gray shares lyrical duties with drummer Chris Hoffman, who writes the album's most pining pop tunes like "Hurricane," "Rocker" and "Songs for Someone," songs about bad relationships and breakups. Live, it all has a hypnotic energy, as lonesome pianos battle uptempo guitars to connect with the crowd — sounding like a cross between Fastball and Ben Folds Five. And Hoffman actually stands in front of his drum kit, pounding away.

"My first drum set came without a throne or a high hat," he says. "I was five years old and I was just so excited to have a drum set — a real drum set — I was like, I don't need a seat."

The band's energy has good karma. East Coast Sunday Morning was recorded during two months in 2009 at Lava Room Recording after the band had won $3,000 of studio time at a Columbia Station battle of the bands last June. At this weekend's CD- release show, the ticket price will include a copy of the album and food. 70 Lewis even plan on drinking with the crowd after their set, while Tricky Dick and the Cover Ups tone it down and play a few covers during an afterparty celebration.

"It's like a family vibe at every show," says Kerns. "It's a real energy. Chris stands up and we all dance. I dance till I can't breathe. Everyone feels close and happy. It's all got this real warm feeling."

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More by Keith Gribbins

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