After the painful breakup of his first serious band in the fall of 1997, Adam Busch was sure about one thing: he didn’t want to start another one. His new project, Manishevitz, would be a name for him to perform and record under, backed by whatever other players he could get to help him out. But despite his best efforts, the group that will join Busch onstage at the Hideout Saturday to celebrate the release of the third Manishevitz record has evolved into something more than a collection of old friends and hired hands.

What finally did it was a five-week stretch of touring in Europe at the beginning of last year–the sort of trip that’s broken up more than one band. It was the longest the group had ever been out. “There was a camaraderie that developed from traveling around together and playing every night,” says Busch, 30. “It happened so gradually that it seemed really natural.” In the process, the sound he was going for transformed as well. The first Manishevitz album, Grammar Bell and the All Fall Down (Jagjaguwar, 1999), was full of standard down-in-the-mouth indie-rock strumming and mumbling, but the brand-new City Life–whose title and tunes alike pay tribute to early Roxy Music–has a distinctly extroverted, hard-rocking feel.

Busch had formed the Curious Digit, an avant-pop combo, with some roommates in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1995. They put out two records but fell apart just after the release of the second. “The band dynamic was weird,” he says. “We were all superclose friends, but we weren’t very good at making decisions together, and it was really hard for us to move ahead. Everyone had a different conception of how much money to spend on the band and how much we should tour.” A particularly nasty falling-out with one member of the group led Busch to finally pull the plug. “After having such a bad experience it was really tempting to do a singer-songwriter project and not have a band. I wanted it to be just my thing.”

He recruited guitarist Via Nuon of the folky Richmond band Drunk to help him record a demo, and by the spring of 1998 Darius Van Arman had agreed to put out a Manishevitz album on Jagjaguwar, which had released records by the Curious Digit and Drunk. Van Arman was in the process of moving from Charlottesville to Bloomington, Indiana, to share space and resources with the Secretly Canadian imprint. That fall Busch brought in a local bassist and drummer to make Grammar Bell, and following its release in the spring of 1999 the foursome played a few east-coast gigs. But no one saw much of a future for this lineup: the rhythm section had other bands to play with, and Busch wasn’t looking for a permanent group anyway.

He was, however, looking to get out of Charlottesville, and that October he and Nuon moved to Chicago. Busch figured they’d return to Virginia to make the next record, but then Chris Swanson from Secretly Canadian introduced him to Michael Krassner, house producer and guitarist at Truckstop–the recording studio that was the nexus for a crowd of versatile musicians playing in groups like Boxhead Ensemble, Lofty Pillars, and Pinetop Seven. “I had seen Boxhead once,” Busch says, “and after I met [Krassner] he gave me some CDs he’d done, but I think I was mostly excited about working with a guy who was well respected and knew lots of great musicians.”

For the second Manishevitz album, 2000’s Rollover, Krassner rounded up a band including bassist Ryan Hembrey and drummer Jason Adasiewicz to record the basic tracks with Busch and Nuon, then brought in cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm to write string and horn parts. Saxophonist Nate Lepine came on board as well. “I was listening to a lot of orchestral pop at the time,” Busch says, “and talking to Michael I realized we could make a record like that.”

The record doesn’t exactly sound like a lost Beach Boys session, but Busch’s shy singing (his phrasing reminds me at times of Sam Prekop’s) benefits from the lush, lethargic arrangements. Unfortunately, it proved hard to replicate live, especially with an unsteady lineup–the horn section personnel changed constantly, and the busy Lonberg-Holm was often unavailable for shows.

Manishevitz didn’t play out much in support of Rollover: a few gigs around town, ten days out east. But about a year after the release date, a European promoter called offering those five weeks of shows overseas in early 2002. Busch couldn’t afford to bring a full horn section, so he stripped the group down to a five-piece, with Nuon, Hembrey, Adasiewicz, and Lepine. (Once again, Lonberg-Holm was already booked.) Lepine began to chug along with the guitar riffs on baritone sax, and Busch had to work on his vocals. “I realized that I couldn’t sing like I had when I wrote the songs because no one could hear me,” he says. “I wasn’t projecting at all. The vibe of the band changed, pulling off the songs as a rock band instead of a weird folk thing.”

The other players’ enthusiasm got to Lonberg-Holm too when they all went back into the studio, and the feel-good vibe is audible on that summer’s Private Lines EP, an unmistakable step away from the moody art folk of Rollover and toward the shiny rock of City Life. Busch’s singing shows some of the aggressiveness he picked up on the road, and Lepine’s extended saxophone squalls are reminiscent of Andy Mackay’s playing in Roxy Music; in fact the group makes its growing interest in Roxy Music explicit with a cover of “2 H.B.”

Shortly after making the EP Adasiewicz moved to Madison; Joe Adamik, percussionist with Califone and another figure in the Truckstop circle, stepped in, and his playing on City Life pushes the sound still further in a rock direction. Nuon’s crystalline guitar and Lepine’s reeds crisscross elegantly over the tight rhythms, while Busch does an endearingly deficient Bryan Ferry impression, replacing Ferry’s outsize vibrato with eccentric upward swoops into an unsteady falsetto. It may irritate as many listeners as it charms, but he’s come a long way from the uncommitted murmur of a few years ago.

Though Busch is excited by the prospect of having a steady band now, he’s also stuck with the financial difficulties of leading one–Manishevitz’s recordings have broken even, but its tours have not. He’s been working three jobs to save money before hitting the road behind City Life: the band (minus Adamik, who’s busy with Califone; Gerald Dowd is taking over) will play shows in North America through November and then head to Europe for a few weeks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.