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ROAD TESTED. A month ago, the band members of Fruit --half-way through their North American tour--discovered that all their gear had been stolen. Gone, save for Susie Keynes' two guitars.

Through the scrambling of staff at Guitar Center in Boston and the Martin Guitar factory in Bethlehem, Pa., they were outfitted with instruments and sound effects gear within a day. But, says Keynes, one of three lead vocalists, making music is more than just playing a guitar.

"To a musician, an instrument is like a best friend. You can't just pick one up in five minutes. It's a relationship that builds over time."

Keynes says that Fruit's first concert with the new gear was weird. "We just had to put on a fake smile and carry on through."

She doubts the audience knew what was going on, or that its other lead singer and horn player, Mel Watson, was blasting on a "new" trumpet she had just gotten at a pawnshop.

This is the tenor of a band that's used to making do. They're on the road much of the year. The 8-year-old band is finishing a mini three-month tour, swinging through Tucson this week. The ensemble features the female vocalists Keynes, Watson and Sam Koh, who are backed up by the two men in the band, vocalists Brian Ruiz on base and Yanya Boston on drums.

Fruit hails from Australia. A powerhouse quintet, their sound travels up and down the musical spectrum--from funk to jazz and reggae to just plain folksy ballads and rock tunes. All three women write the songs. Their harmonizing and energy are sweltering. Despite personnel changes over the years, their sound is consistent: fiery, bawdy, optimistic, reminiscent of the Indigo Girls or Ani DiFranco. Or, maybe, just Fruit.

They've got six albums under their belt--pretty amazing for a band that travels so much. Two of the last four CDs are recorded live. There's a reason for this decidedly out-of-studio approach, explains Keynes when we talk on the phone somewhere between gigs.

"We're a live band. Studio recording is wonderful. But we've built our reputation as a live band. We haven't got producers jamming us with money. Plus we haven't had a lot of time to go in the studio.

"Basically, we road test our new songs in front of the audience."

They produce their own CDs as well under their independent label, Fruit Music (www.fruitmusic.com.au). That accounts for their eclectic sound.

"Our band makes music that moves us. But we write and sing in a very organic way. I think our greatest strength is our biggest hurdle. This diversity of ours was never premeditated. The industry loathes diversity. They go for the bankable stuff, the homogenous sound. But our audiences--they love it," adds Keynes.

So they go it alone, but certainly not struggling to be heard. They've done 13 international tours on every inhabited continent but Africa. That one's still a dream. They don't discount marrying up with another, larger indie label to increase their spread across the globe.

Keynes says there's a reason their songs touch so many people. "They're anthems. It's the sound, but it's also the message. In 'Sunsets and Hurricanes,' it's an anthem about peace. When Mel belts out 'Mamma, Mamma,' it's just pure, primal and raw.

"I wrote 'Cherish' for a friend who'd just died from breast cancer. When I perform it, I feel like I have a Molotov cocktail in my hands. Kapow!"

Keynes explains there are other things Fruit's music accomplishes. "There's more jamming elements these days. It shows our ability to grow, to move, as a band. Five years ago, we wouldn't have been as flexible. We'd play tight sets. Now, we can see how the audience gets excited as we move into this uncharted territory."

With all this meticulous attention paid to what moves Fruit members and what jazzes their audiences, Keynes notes she was surprised at reactions to their band mates shifting around.

"When we started, we were focused, like we are now, on making fiery, passionate music. We didn't set out in 1995 to be all women. But it just happened to be who we gathered to play in Adelaide at the time. It was never an issue of gender.

"Yet that did give us some headaches when we added Yanya and then Brian this year. We got hate mail from our adoring fans. Can you believe it? They all thought we were this staunchly separatist group. It was crazy. So I wrote the song, 'Shift,' just so I could get it out of my system."

The lyrics go something like this: "The ground is shifting/I don't believe it matters/I don't believe I care É Some things never change/but don't bet on a sure thing."

Things do shift. Fruit has been traveling amidst massive global change since Sept. 11 and the subsequent U.S.-led military operations.

"When we went home at the end of five months touring North America in November 2002, I felt we had to come back. I sensed that we'd been playing to a shocked and mournful group of people, especially in this last year. People who come to hear music are longing for connections.

"I reckon that all we want to do is just hold hands. There's a role that music plays in facilitating that," Keynes adds.

On Saturday, Sept. 6, at 8 p.m., Fruit performs in the Plaza Palomino courtyard concert series at Swan and Fort Lowell roads. The Laura Love duo--featuring the funk bassist/singer along with vocalist/guitarist Jen Todd--opens the show. Tickets cost $12 in advance at Antigone Books, Brew & Vine, CD City, Enchanted Earthworks and online at www.dotucson.com or by calling Rhythm & Roots at 297-9133. At the door, they'll cost you $15.

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