SF Chronicle

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When a musician who has worn many hats throughout his career finally finds the right one, it can be an emotional experience. Chris Haugen, a talented lap steel guitarist with cobalt blue eyes, knows he's found it with his CD "Seahorse Rodeo," and when he tries to define the moment, his gaze falters a bit.

"The big thing for me exploring the idea that I wasn't a genre musician," Haugen says in a cafe near Ocean Beach. "I had to accept my own musical inclinations”.

He's not kidding. "Seahorse Rodeo," released in the fall, is a beguiling account of a creative process spun from Haugen's strings.

"I think the music is like a deep ocean current with a thin veneer of Oklahoma charm," says Haugen, who lives in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood. The 12 gently rolling songs can't be categorized. It could be a soundtrack album, but someone else will have to make the movie.

Haugen will perform the album Sunday night Ashkenaz with Michael Kang (String Cheese Incident), Dan Lebowitz (ALO), Mike Sugar and Matt Butler (co-founders Jambay).

Mark de Gli Antoni, the keyboardist-composer who was in Soul Coughing and is currently touring with David Byrne and Brian Eno, provides Mellotron samples on a few "Seahorse Rodeo" cuts.

Songs for Penn's film

Haugen got a shot at film scoring when Sean Penn invited him and their mutual friend Hannan to contribute a couple of numbers to Penn's film "Into the Wild."

Calling him "definitely an interesting and evolved person," Haugen says Penn gave him and Hannan a couple of scenes "and we worked together in a converted boathouse/recording studio on the water in Larkspur". 

Haugen says he hopes film scoring will be in his future, but for now he's dealing with the precedent of "Seahorse Rodeo," which sounds utterly fresh .

Ken Kesey became a fan

Kesey summoned Haugen to participate in another adventure, touring a play called "Where's Merlin" around England and Ireland, sponsored by the BBC. "We visited these hot spots like Stonehenge and Tintagel Castle and Giant's Causeway, places that have some sort of mystical history," Haugen says. "We interviewed local mystics, got them involved with the play and dove deeply into who Merlin was, what he did and whether those powers exist today. I think they do... in music. Music is a very powerful form of alchemy.”

With the jammy-flowy-groovy-trippy rituals behind him by 2000, Haugen got serious about the music business, and several hats were ready to be put on. He auditioned and won a long-term gig as guitarist in former Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist Melvin Seal's group, then started playing with New Orleans singer Theresa Andersson. He did dates with Bay Area artists Larkin GaylJerry Hannan and Steve Kimock. He worked with Taj MahalJ.J. CaleMaria MuldaurCharlie Musselwhite, Les Claypool and many others.

Obsessed with guitar

"What makes Chris an interesting musician to me is his natural blend between jam and song," Antoni says in an e-mail. "Many players fall on either side of the divide. Chris (integrates) both qualities in a real qualitative way. He's a craftsman, a kind of builder/shaper of music.”

Chris adds, “When I heard the Weissenborn, it had this open, woody sound, and I just loved it. I found my voice on it." The Weissenborn is one of the reasons "Seahorse Rodeo" sounds so haunting and otherworldly, like a time capsule from a lost kingdom, perhaps Atlantis.

- David Rubien/Chronicle Staff Writer