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It was a night of new beginnings, old friends, and stirring music for the members of 10,000 Maniacs on Thursday in the Marquee at the Tralf.

This was the first Buffalo appearance for the Maniacs since Natalie Merchant left the band last August for a solo career. Dennis Drew, Steve Gustafson, Rob Buck and Jerry Augustyniak were joined on stage by Mary Ramsey and John Lombardo. Together, they played with a relaxed, joyous, unburdened style.

Ramsey was absolutely captivating on vocals. Lombardo, a founding member of the Maniacs who left the band in 1986, played guitar and romped on stage with the energy of a frisky, young colt.

The Maniacs' usual glossy pop sound, which has pushed their past two albums to sales over 1 million copies each, had a tougher, harder edge Thursday night.

Lead guitarist Buck was chief beneficiary of the new alignment. He played with a newfound sense of freedom and passion, his guitar riffs adding punch to the band throughout the evening.

This was a night of musical transformation for this group of people. Ramsey rose to the occasion in defining her own vocal style, Lombardo proved he could go home again, and the rest of the Maniacs seemed to discover that music was fun once more.

The band opened with a slow rocker, "Chromatic Walkdown," and Ramsey sang with strength and confidence. She seemed composed and in control. Ramsey began the next number, "Azalea Festival," with a long, lilting viola solo. Augustyniak then ripped into a drum solo to kick the song into high gear while Buck's guitar work soared.

Before the show began, there was some concern about comparisons between Merchant and Ramsey. It never happened because Ramsey stamped her original style on the music and fit in perfectly with the band. Her voice was strong and resonant, but she never dominated the spotlight. In other words, these Maniacs were a team and not depending on one individual to overshadow the group effort.

The set had an experimental feel to it. Lombardo and Ramsey have been rehearsing with the band for about a month. "You might consider this a work in progress," Drew said. That was evident on a couple rough spots in some songs and an occasionally squeaky sound system.

Nothing, however, could detract from the exhilarating energy and freedom the group displayed. A soft, slow, dreamy number like "Rainbow" showcased just how alluring the sound could be from this band.

Lombardo and Ramsey then played some numbers from their last album, joined by the band. The two songs, "Cemetery Ridge" and "Angels of Stone," had a much richer, deeper sound. "I guess the Maniacs are the perfect rhythm section for John and Mary," Joanne Sheridan, who has worked with both groups, said with a laugh.

They seemed to complement one other. The new sound was reminiscent of Lombardo's work with the Maniacs on the album "Wishing Chair." Ramsey, in addition to her vocals, brought a sense of musicianship with her work on viola.

The biggest difference, though, was attitude. Merchant was such a dominating presence and cult figure that the music sometimes was overshadowed by her stage personality. On this night, Drew's work on keyboards, Gustafson's bass and Augustyniak's drums all seemed more in tune with each other.

That sense of liberation was evident on a number called "Mersey Tune," a rollicking rocker that brought the sell-out crowd to its feet.

More than anything else, what was different on this night about the Maniacs was the chemistry of the band. It seemed to flow, and the good vibes were everywhere.

The Maniacs more than lived up to their expectations, but the opening act, Sixpence None the Richer, also was outstanding. This young band from Texas, featuring 17-year-old lead singer Leigh Bingham, was mesmerizing.

Bingham has remarkable vocal range. She sounds at times, ironically, like a young Merchant. The band is produced by Armand John Petri, a local producer, and featured a natural, invigorating style.

"We were a little nervous tonight, but after a while I felt right at home," Bingham said. Apparently, the crowd felt the same way because at the end of the opening set, the band received a huge, well-deserved ovation.

John & Mary
The duo combines with former members of the 10,000 Maniacs, Dennis, Rob, Steve and Jerry.

Thursday night in the Marquee at the Tralf, 100 Theater Place.

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