NEWS- Cold shoulder: Martinesque frontman breaks Merle

They were crowned Next Big Thing (or at least the Next Big Red Light Thing) and rewarded with a three-week Starr Hill residency about a year ago. But as of last week, Blue Merle was about to be demoted to a fuzzy memory for all but its most ardent supporters.

Mandolin player Beau Stapleton announced the band's breakup with a message posted on their website on April 12: "This will be the last Blue Merle show. We remain close as friends and will still be collaborating on some levels, but we feel the time is right for us to pursue individual paths in music and life."

Frontman and multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds' dissatisfaction with the music they were making is one of the primary reasons for the split. Since he was the band's main songwriter, his detachment pretty much spelled disaster for the project.

"I wasn't satisfied with our sound," says Reynolds. "I didn't want to feel like we were married to a sound. I needed to really feel like there was an open platform to just experiment."

Oddly enough, he found that platform on the high seas. Blue Merle played on the 2006 Rock Boat cruise in January without drummer William Ellis, but it was the following month, on another musical cruise, when Reynolds really developed a taste for playing without the band.

"I didn't have a very good time playing on the Rock Boat," he says. "At that point, the band had already been speaking of moving on."

Reynolds says that the Dave Matthews and Friends Cruise, in February, clarified his vision. "So many people were sitting in, and for the first time I felt like part of a peer group," he says.

His mates on the $1,199+ three-day tour to the Bahamas included members of Ozomatli and the North Mississippi Allstars, who performed with Reynolds during his solo performances.

"It was so much fun, because I was able to call shots on the fly," he says. "All sorts of other parts of me started coming out, and I started feeling like, 'This should be happening in my own band.'"

That's when he decided to drop the bomb. It didn't go over too well with the other band members.

"They were really hurt," says Reynolds. "They were so used to me being the optimist that they were kind of scared when I said that things weren't right.

"It's one of the most intense things I've ever done. It's hard to look your friends in the eye and tell them that you think it could be creatively stronger.

"It's all good now, we're friends, but we're all still overcoming a lot– I had a couple of freak-out breakdowns that put me in counseling.

All this, of course, explains the solo tour dates Reynolds has booked, including a late-April gig at Starr Hill Music Hall in Charlottesville.

"My concept for this tour was to bring my own studio out on the road," he says. "I just want to pull from the catalog and adapt to the night," he says. "One night I'll probably play 'Burning In The Sun' on a pedal steel with a bunch of electronica going in the background, and the next night I'll play it with my thumb and an acoustic guitar, sitting on the edge of the stage with no microphone."

Reynolds just finished mastering his debut solo recording last week, a six-track EP on which he plays all the instruments. "I just wanted something really raw and stripped back," he says. "It's how I hear the first steps of a new band getting fleshed out."

Surprisingly, Red Light is still on board.

"The rest of the Blue Merle team is standing behind Lucas," says manager Randy Reed. "In a less formal way, we're looking after the other guys as long as they're still doing musical stuff, but another few months down the line it'll probably be just Lucas who's left."

This could be an interesting development, especially given the fact that Blue Merle was often slammed by critics because of Reynolds' eerie resemblance to Coldplay vocalist Chris Martin. But Reynolds says that his music isn't infused with that aesthetic anymore.

"F*ck Coldplay, man," he sighs. "I'll be really thankful when all that goes away."

If things go well, maybe Coldplay's Martin will be too scared to do a solo project of his own.

Blue Merle's frontman, right, says tensions had been rising for months