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World's Finest plays Brickroom in Ashland

Southern Oregon is a second home to Portland band World's Finest.

"I played there a lot with Outpost, a reggae band I was in," says Chris Couch, acoustic guitarist for World's Finest. "We hooked up with Nate York of T-Club early on. Nate played with Outpost when he moved to Portland. He introduced me to the music scene in Southern Oregon, opening doors to bands like Indubious, Monk, Synrgy, and Buckle Rash. We must've played Alex's 100 times, the Applegate Lodge, and we did Apple Jam and the Hemp Expo.

"When I came back to Southern Oregon with World's Finest, everyone knew me and was into what I was doing," he says.

World's Finest performs at 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 8, at Brickroom, 35 N. Main St., Ashland. The cover is $8.

Couch, along with Rose City's Evan Malfer of funk band Soft Policy and Dan Hurley of Off the Grid, were scratching out a few new tunes when Hurley picked up the banjo for the first time.

"We thought, 'Hey, this is what we need,' " Couch says. "Oscar Matallana played drums for us before he left to join Buckle Rash, then make the move to New York City."

The four-piece unit recorded a debut album of ska and reggae, "Pattern," in 2012. The same year, Matallana was replaced by Outpost drummer Mike Apodaca, and sax player Sean McLean joined World's Finest after sitting in at one of its shows.

The new lineup recorded "33" in a friend's studio in southeast Portland.

"It was jumbled," Couch says. "We had some funky tracks, we had some reggae tracks, we had some ska, bluegrass and country. When we got ready to record 'Headwaters' this year, we wanted a more cohesive sound. Something a lot more focused."

The new album was recorded at Cloud City Sound in Portland with engineer Justin Phelps (Cake, Galactic, The Mars Volta) and released in April at the Aladdin Theater.

"It worked out pretty well," Couch says. "It's an upbeat mix of ska and Americana. Sean's sax playing has taken our sound up a notch. It really comes out on 'Headwaters.' It's given the music more life, more melody."

Hurley plays an electric/acoustic Meteor built by Nechville Banjos of Minnesota. It's dual pickup and cut-away circular body says "banjo" in a unique and stylish way, and it's made from hardwoods and carved to proper depth and weight balance. The resulting tone is unmistakably "banjo," yet it contains the woody warmth and depth of an acoustic/electric.

Nechville's Meteor was developed in conjunction with banjo afficionado Bela Fleck.

As for the band members, they're playing together a lot more now. With 100 shows to its credit last year, World's Finest is getting around the Northwest with shows in Portland, Ashland, Bend, Lake Tahoe, and July 16-19 at the Northwest String Summit at Horning's Hideout in North Plains.

"We've performed in some capacity at the String Summit for a lot of years now," Couch says. "We started out with a 15-minute slot, and this year we have a show on one of the festival's side stages."

The band will perform alongside headliner Yonder Mountain String Band, the Del McCoury Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, David Grisman, Fruition, The California Honeydrops, Darol Anger and many others. Local groups Eight Dollar Mountain and Alice DiMicele also will play at the festival.

"A lot of people wondered what Yonder would sound like without mandolin player and singer Jeff Austin," Couch says. "When he left the band last year, Yonder added two phenomenal musicians to the group — fiddler Allie Kral and mandolin player Jake Joliff — and I feel their music has been a lot tighter. It's on a whole new level."

World's Finest albums and songs can be found at CD Baby, iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud and Bandcamp.

Left to right: Dan Hurley, Chris Couch, Sean McLean, Evan Malfer and Mike Apodaca are World's Finest. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Running - Photo courtesy of Jeremy Running