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In face of adversity, alaska! finds its peak

CAMBRIDGE -- The band alaska! will never forget this tour. The group's van recently hit some black ice in Wyoming and flipped over, skidding along a ditch. They escaped unharmed but had to wait an hour in the cold for help.

"The accident really brought us together," says singer Imaad Wasif, whose group played with an almost surreal passion at the Middle East Upstairs on Wednesday.

The near-tragedy lent a deeper impact to the band's already sweeping, psycho-damaged songs that at times evoked the power of Neil Young's Crazy Horse and the trippy, psychedelic side of Love With Arthur Lee. After the show, Wasif quickly owned up to those influences, which help make alaska! a modern-rock band with discernibly proud roots.

The group's name suggests wide-open spaces and freedom, which were evident in the band's extended jams. Wasif exuded charisma with a dazzling array of cosmic wordplay and incendiary guitar solos. Bassist Russell Pollard, formerly of Sebadoh, added a steely underpinning, and drummer Lesley Ishino, formerly of Red Aunts, completed the picture with powerhouse playing that riveted the crowd. This lineup has been together for two years and has really started to peak.

The dream-rock side of Young was apparent in "Fury of Trees," while the acid-rock twist of Love was heard in "Real Is Your Control." But it was a bunch of new, still-to-be-recorded songs that really took off, including "Surrender" (which sounded like an instant radio single), "Kiss You" (which started out like Filter's "Hey Man, Nice Shot," then grew into a hallucinogenic, Doors-like crescendo), and the delicately poetic "Through the Years." Wasif also jumped into the crowd to play some head-snapping riffs. Just as surprisingly, at one point the group did an a cappella number. The music was so advanced, it was hard to believe this was a relatively new band,

Afterward, alaska!, whose finances have been thrown out of whack by the accident, had the option of starting the drive to the next gig in Philadelphia in its newly rented van or staying in Boston with some generous fans who offered free lodging. In a true rock moment, alaska! trusted the fans, and off they went.

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