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By Tom Murphy
Several years ago, Cary Morin--a soft-spoken father of three who's also the songwriter, guitarist and vocalist for the Fort Collins-based trio the Atoll--traded substance and alcohol use for a trip down self-discovery lane. Now this 32-year-old Crow Indian hopes his band, which combines reggae, rock and worldbeat, can exert a positive influence on kids like his.
"I like to write encouraging songs for Indian youth," Morin says. "The point of all these songs is to put a bug in people's heads about Native American awareness. It's nothing heavy. I'm just saying, `Take a look at your neighbors and get to know them, whoever they are.'"
But Morin doesn't stop there. In addition to making music with his band, which includes bassist Wes Heilman and percussionist Ron Plewacki, he's recruiting performers to participate in a project he's developed to help youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club of Larimer County. The idea, he notes, is to get at-risk youth into songwriting and other artistic ventures and out of drugs, violence and liquor. To that end, he's trying to convince area merchants to fund "a CD that will have songs written by the kids and recorded with local musicians," he says. "One hundred percent of the sales will go back into the program, and the kids will be able to hear themselves on the radio. What could be better than that?"
For Morin, music like this has allowed him to get in touch with his ancestry. An Air Force brat whose family moved frequently during his formative years, Morin was raised mainly in white communities, where he was susceptible to all-too-typical temptations: He says he was first offered drugs at age ten. It wasn't until the late Eighties that he decided to learn about his Crow heritage. Today, he says, "I write about life from the perspective of an urban Indian trying to get back to where his family came from."
Morin's current musical outlet was formed in 1991, when he and Plewacki, who'd known each other for a decade (and had previously played in a group called the Island), were asked by a local bar owner to put together a group for a gig. Heilman came aboard the next year, and since then the threesome has developed a sound that's based on reggae-fueled rhythm guitar, Latin-based percussion and jazz-fusion-inspired bass, and informed by Morin's intriguing messages.
The Atoll's hugely danceable tunes are driven by Plewacki's monster drum set. Plewacki, who describes himself as a former executive who ditched his career in favor of becoming a drummer, partially built the 52-piece kit, which includes timbales, timbalinas, bongos and congas. Morin modestly claims that the rhythm section of Plewacki and Heilman is so good that anyone could fill the group's guitar spot.
Perhaps, but probably not this well. The typical Atoll song starts with a slow, dreamy guitar passage; as it builds, Morin might throw in a bit of grunge before sliding into a Latin-tinged reggae groove. As for the singer's vocals, they're smooth and strong. His style works to its best advantage on "Harmony," one of the songs on the Atoll's impressive live CD, Dream Marquee, which was recorded at Linden's nightclub in Fort Collins.
Morin gets a tad defensive when people ask why his band mixes versions of other popular songs with its own compositions. "We play covers because we like those songs," he says. "For someone to think that the music they write is the only valid music is wrong." Fortunately, the group's arrangements are so radical that some of its versions of popular tunes are initially unrecognizable. One such example is "Tears of a Clown," to which the Atoll gives an original shine.
For Unity, the Atoll's second CD (due out in late November), Morin is combining his arranging skill with his interest in indigenous music--a group of kids from an Indian youth camp in Montana wrote the disc's title track. Morin also has developed several programs for children above and beyond his Boys and Girls Club effort, and he promotes Indian musicians and other artists through his Crow Talent Agency. He's currently producing a collection of songs he wrote for one of his clients, Christina Rasch, a Native American vocalist based in Rapid City, South Dakota.
The Atoll is known for performing benefits; the proceeds from an October 28 show at Fort Collins's University Park Holiday Inn Ballroom (also featuring Lazy Bones and Gumbo) are earmarked for the Northern Colorado Inter-Tribal Powwow Association. In the meantime, Morin is trying to do something about what he says are the first rumblings of gang-banging to strike Fort Collins, a community usually seen as too sleepily suburban for such problems.
"I met with a local organization that tracks the activity of dropouts, because I wanted to find out what was up with gang activity here," he says. "And I wanted to find out how to make this a nicer place to live."
The music he's making is a good place to start.