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Saintly Pop-Rock

Chris Holiman may have traded bar-hopping for a family, but his music is better than ever.

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Stood on a bar stool
Thought I knew it all
I've got shots of tequila
They'll break my fall

--Chris Holiman, "Lucky Charm"

The weekend quickly is becoming a memory as Chris Holiman takes a break from setting up a Christmas tree for his family at the Barrio Hollywood home they share.

The Sunday afternoon sun drops below the house and fences during our conversion in the backyard. Darkness replaces sunlight, and we draw sweaters against a brisk, sudden chill as the smells of Mexican cooking waft over the westside neighborhood.

Once a hard partier, near-constant barfly and Tucson rock 'n' roll enfant terrible, singer-songwriter Holiman is now a husband and a father. His family includes wife, Connie, and daughters Alexandra, 2, and 2-month-old Aiden. He works a day job at Musicland Sheet Music.

But since the age of 14, he has never stopped playing music. "It's like I'm a scientist in a way," the 38-year-old Holiman muses. "I'm always curious, wanting to see what the next song will turn out like."

Since he was a teenager patronizing the North Fourth Avenue punk-rock haven Tumbleweeds in the early 1980s, Holiman has performed in some of Tucson's best-known and most influential bands: Les Seldoms, River Roses, Vegas Kids and 35 Summers.

Holiman still writes and performs beguiling and incessantly melodic pop-rock songs in faux-naïve high tenor, usually releasing his material on his own label, Monsoon Recordings, but he has tempered his pace somewhat since the rampaging '80s.

He recently released So I Won't Forget, his second brilliant CD of tunes under the name Downtown Saints, a project he began about five years ago, after the demise of the alternative-rockin' 35 Summers.

He's also preparing the release of Ten Years Wood, a CD celebrating the best of the Wooden Ball, a recurring all-acoustic concert by local musicians that Holiman has organized since the late 1980s. It has been going strong, though, on a semi-annual basis since 1994.

The 2004 Wooden Ball is scheduled for Jan. 24 at Plush nightclub, 340 E. Sixth St. The line-up will include Greyhound Soul, Al Perry, the Nick Luca Trio, Truck, Maggie Golston and, of course, Chris Holiman and the Downtown Saints.

"The Downtown Saints isn't a band per se, at least not in the sense of band meetings and stuff," he explains. "It's a loose configuration of friends who know how to play my songs."

That bunch of friends includes keyboardist Nick Luca, drummer Todd Pearson, bassist Jon Murphy and, in something of a reunion, former Drakes guitarist Gene Ruley, who also once upon a time was a founding member of the River Roses.

"Gene has always been pretty generous about showing up to play with me on certain occasions, but this is the first time we have made a whole album together for years." It's been 13 years, in fact, since Ruley and Holiman last played together on the River Roses' final album, When We Fall.

Although Ruley can play explosive, stinging and melodic leads, Holiman most appreciates his old friend's taste and restraint. "With Gene, it's almost what he doesn't play. When he puts down his parts, especially the rhythm parts, the sound just sounds fuller."

Holiman and the Downtown Saints recorded the basic tracks for So I Won't Forget in one night last year at Wavelab Studios. Luca, one of the CD's engineers, also played all his Hammond B3 organ parts in one night.

Holiman's more satisfied with the music on his new album than he has been with most of his work throughout the years, even those scintillating indie folk-pop records by River Roses.

"I don't think the River Roses ever made a record that ever approached being as good as we were live," Holiman says.

You'd be likely to agree, too, if you ever witnessed the happy, dancing crowd at a Roses gig--where scenesters and fellow musicians alike would bounce off each other like intoxicated cue balls to now-classic material such as "Phoenix 99."

"The songwriting (on So I Won't Forget) is nothing I would have done in River Roses or 35 Summers," he says. "It's more direct."

And as infectious as ever. Holiman has re-recorded two of his old tunes, "Lucky Charm" and "Our Hearts Collide," that bubble over with rock energy and pop smarts. His "Bye, Bye, Bye" features accordion playing by Luca that gives the song an otherworldly flavor equally informed by carnivals and the Middle East.

Raising a family has played a part in calming and focusing Holiman, he says. "I think that it's changed my attitude towards my music, among other things. When you have kids, you realize how little the other things mean. And it makes you take yourself less seriously."

He's realized that music is never going make him rich. "If I was doing it for the money, I would have stopped a long time ago."

Expanding his musical horizons means reaching out beyond, but never forgetting, the insular Tucson music community on which he cut his teeth. "You have to spread your net a little wider--the Internet, community radio, touring theaters instead of bars."

Although he occasionally still plays bars, Holiman doesn't haunt them, as he once did.

"The nightclub scene is a young man's game," he says. "You can't just depend on your friends to show up at gigs anymore--they have jobs now and families. É In all fairness to the bar owners, they're in business to sell booze. And at a certain point, to me, music became not about selling booze anymore."

Holiman speaks of an unsettled young adulthood and early career, including brushes with getting signed to record labels and endless starry-eyed van tours.

"When I was in my 20s, it was this burning ambition, uncontrollable, to get signed, to become the best band in America, all that. Then I realized, it's not sports; it's not a competition."

He's now satisfied simply to be able to make the music he does. "I have control over my music. I get to do what I want with my music. I break even on my CDs. That's success."

Holiman has always had a philosophical bent. Today, he ponders the nature of artistic efforts with a Zen-like koan:

"The only thing that can stop you (from) playing in this town is to stop playing. The only thing that limits your creativity is if you stop being creative."

And what about the shots of tequila mentioned in the song snippet above?

"I haven't had a drink in, like, five years. It gets in the way of the creativity, you know?"

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