July 9, 2009

Mars or the Moon bring sweetness, grit to Festival Hall Friday

(From left to right) Joe Hart, Lenen Nicola and Lani Williams of the group Mars or the Moon. Hart and Williams formed the Indianapolis-based group and are scheduled to play Friday at Racine's "Music for the Halibut," sponsored by Miller Lite, at Festival Park, 5 Fifth St. in Racine. Gates open at 4 p.m. Show starts at 5 p.m. Admission is FREE.

When you hear acoustic duo, you probably think folk music or at least something with a softer sound.

Throw out that idea before hearing Mars or the Moon, the Indianapolis band that's playing "Music for the Halibut" on Friday at Festival Hall.

The "acoustic duo" of Lani Williams and Joe Hart is really a rock group minus the electric guitars. Their original songs, collected on their first album, "The Price of Love," feature Williams' gorgeous vocals backed by Hart's skillful riffs. And their three-hour show Friday will feature songs by Led Zepplin, the Beatles, the Black Crowes, Tori Amos and possibly Guns N Roses.

"We definitely rock a lot harder than most folk bands," Hart said in an interview this week.

He credited Williams' singing as the key to Mars or the Moon's sound.

"Her voice is the treat," Hart said, noting people have compared Williams to Sarah McLachlan. "She has a beautiful tone and accurate pitch."

"Lani really, really connects with audiences. When she's singing songs she's really digging deep, she tries to take you home. I'm very, very humbled by her singing."

Hart said his role is to bring an edge to the group.

"I'll be there to add grit to her sweetness," he said.

Mars or the Moon formed about five years ago when Williams came to Hart seeking guitar lessons. But at the first lesson she played three songs she'd already written.

"I told her, 'You're already an artist. I'm going to help you make a record,'" Hart recalled.

The two started writing and playing songs together and a musical bond formed. They started playing out and then brought on a percussionist. When it came time to record an album, they wanted a full sound so they hired studio musicians to play along. (Those studio musicians happened to be John Mellancamp's bassist and drummer; both are touring with Mellancamp this summer.)

Along the way, Hart and Williams discovered more than a musical bond. The two began dating about four years ago and recently celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary. Hart said having a musician wife helps deal with the rigors of a performer's life.

"It makes things so much easier," Hart said. "When you're playing music, you don't keep normal business hours. You run a later shift kind of job, so it really is a joy to play and travel together."

The band's title comes from a story Hart shares about growing up in rural northwestern Indiana. He drove an hour to the nearest record store just to order albums he'd read about in magazines. When the albums came in, he described getting them as receiving "transmissions from Mars or the Moon." When Williams heard the story she seized on the phrase for the band's title.

The group has already had regional and national success. They play throughout the Midwest opening for bands like Todd Snider and Jonatha Brooks. They've also traveled a few times to California for "mini-tours" of shows and radio appearances.

Williams and Hart landed the Racine gig through their label, Indie500 Records, which had a connection with Rik Edgar, who heads Racine's Civic Centre. Edgar has brought in a handful of bands off the label, and Mars or the Moon is playing their second show in Racine. Their first was June 19 during a torrential rain. They still drew about 30 people for the show and they're looking for a bigger crowd tomorrow with the free admission and the growing awareness of the "Music for the Halibut" concerts.

Listening to their songs, it's no surprise people are taking notice. One striking track is "Ray," described by the band as a tribute to Ray LaMontagne and Aslan the Lion. The sweet ballad opens with the line, "Look out here comes a ray of sunshine" and floats on from there. Another is the title track, which is a menacingly cool rocker that grabs you from the intro. (Hear both at: www.myspace.com/marsorthemoon)

Hart said he and Williams have big hopes for the band. All of Mars or the Moon's members – which ranges from two to six depending on the show and who's available – have day jobs to support their music careers, at least for now.

"Slowly we're trying to build up to where the day job becomes obsolete," Hart said, though adding the band is about more than money. "Our main goal of playing music is sharing joy with people."

Mars or the Moon play Friday at Racine's "Music for the Halibut," sponsored by Miller Lite, at Festival Park, 5 Fifth St. in Racine. Gates open at 4 p.m. Show starts at 5 p.m. Admission is FREE.


  1. I wanted to go last time but it rained like hell - I'm planning on getting down there this time but it looks like big rain is in the forecast AGAIN!

  2. All Music for the Halibut shows are rain or shine. The show last month was great!

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