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An Echo worth hearing again

Sometimes it seems like everyone in Portland is in a band Ñ usually a quartet that dreams of playing the Paris Theater while churning out three-chord sludge in a damp basement.

That's why the birth of Echo Helstrom is a blessing. In fact, until you hear this group, it's easy to think of its members as a bunch of soft-spoken music students.

In the recording studio, singer-songwriter Ross Seligman listens closely as his violin player, Annemarie Hoffman, lays down a track for the band's debut CD. Hoffman plays the way her classical training has taught her to, with supreme control, producing a rich, lush sound.

In a glass-fronted closet, Will Amend bows an upright bass. As the song 'Floor 104' comes to an end, however, Hoffman and the bassist's tunes descend into a two-minute outro of ugly chaos.

It's a take. Seligman loves it.

After the deluge of weak art produced in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Seligman says Floor 104 'is a joy, a beautiful, passionate piece that roots the listener to the spot.'

It's not really a Sept. 11 song, he's quick to point out: 'It's a tribute to my stepbrother.'

Cantor Fitzgerald employee Laurence Polatsch, 32, did not escape the 104th floor of the World Trade Center in New York the day the twin towers fell. Seligman says the death of his fun-loving relative and friend left him feeling like a zombie for four months.

Eventually, 'Floor 104' emerged.

'It wasn't for anyone else to hear,' he says. 'It was just to get it out and move on.'

Seligman's songs are poetic without lapsing into obscurity, which is partly the influence of such heroes as Neil Finn, Jeff Buckley and Bob Dylan. The band sounds like early REM but with more passion, or like Coldplay with an orchestra.

On 'Math of God,' you can feel the emotion rising in Seligman as a nagging violin tries to keep up. And on 'I'm Changing,' a foot-stomper 'about being 25 in a crumbling world, petrified of my own government,' this bunch of students in glasses sound like they have stadium anthem potential.

For years Seligman played in other people's bands (such as local bossa nova outfit Blanket Music), too self-conscious to play or sing the dozens of songs that were piling up in his notebooks.

He arrived in Portland from his native New Jersey to study music at Portland State University. On the way he lived in a tiny trailer in someone's driveway in Ireland's Aran Islands while studying Celtic music and jamming with heroes such as Donal Lunny.

In 2002 he took the plunge and put together his dream rock band, with classically trained musicians who were willing to take his ideas and run with them.

'I wanted a violin,' he says, 'but not like the Dave Matthews Band. I wanted it to be symphonic, beautiful. It was uncanny: In just three weeks, I found everyone.'

Even the name seemed to find him. He was idly flipping though a book about Bob Dylan. Echo Helstrom was Dylan's girlfriend when he was 15 and allegedly the inspiration for much of the album 'Blonde on Blonde.'

More good luck came when he met Thalia Allen Harrison, whose father, Michael, is Portland's Kenny G of piano. She offered her dad's studio in the Lawrence Gallery and her services as engineer, gratis. The group has just finished its demo CD and is playing small gigs around town.

'It's so rare to find great musicians who you have a chemistry with and who actually show up for gigs,' says Seligman, who pays the rent by teaching guitar at Apple Music and playing on Portland Spirit dinner cruises. 'These are people I can do a freaky version of Schubert's 'Ave Maria' with if we want.'