All Hail the Halflings 

That's right. It's Hobbitmania. So does that mean bands like Jethro Tull are gonna be cool again?

Geeks are the new hipsters. You missed it. It's not your fault. This seismic cultural shift played out slowly and deliberately, a zeitgeist continental drift unfolding over centuries, eras, eons.

Specifically, it happened while you were watching Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The film, an 85-hour emporium of orc-infested dweebness, has ushered in a bold new era wherein the wedgie-ees have become the wedgie-ers. Return of the King's bombastic dominance of this year's Oscar fiesta cements nerd culture as mainstream culture. The trilogy, which in book form once enraptured and soothed society's outcasts, has now enraptured society itself.

The exact same thing might now happen with prog rock. So meet your new arbiters of cool: Avalon Rising, the Bay Area's finest Celtic-prog band.

Cofounder Margaret Davis calls it "fantasy rock."

Cofounder Kristoph Klover, Margaret's husband, simply calls it "rock."

And soon, so will you.

Avalon Rising spent Oscar Sunday in Los Angeles -- New Line Cinema's official Lord of the Rings Fan Club invited the band to perform at its official party. The ceremony was broadcast onto a big-screen TV, and after Return of the King pranced off with Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Excuse to Piss into a Sprite Cup, the quintet rocked out during the undoubtedly beer-soaked, orgiastic revelry that followed.

This wasn't a celebrity schmoozefest. "There were no big shots whatsoever," bassist Mark Ungar admits ruefully, "although Kristoph was mistaken for Peter Jackson, though he's a third of the size of Peter Jackson."

Do shows like this get, uh, rowdy?

"For extremely introverted, polite people, yes, they did get rowdy. There was some jerking on the dancefloor, even."

Mark, who at 49 is Avalon Rising's elder statesman, conservatively estimates he has read the Tolkien trilogy forty times; he recognizes the significance of the film version walking off with rafts of mainstream culture's most revered and respected awards. "One thing I noticed about our audience at the party -- it was a lot of older people, and I'm sure several had been reading the books as long as I had," he says. "And I did feel from them a sense of vindication: 'This is our moment of glory. '"

What really sealed it, though, was all the screaming. "There were a lot of women there," Mark recalls, "and any time Elijah Wood or anyone from the movie was onscreen, they just screamed. It was the third-loudest sound I ever heard in my life."

(Second-loudest: Mark's Sears-Craftsman hair-clipper, which he uses to trim his beard. First-loudest: a friend's African Grey parrot, which can imitate the sound of a smoke-alarm test.)

Chicks screaming for hobbits? "It kind of reminds me of the Beatles, that kind of reaction," Mark says.

Avalon Rising violinist Cat Taylor was not among this lusty throng. "No, I was the one with my hands involuntarily over my ears," she says. "I was very pleased to see them, but the guy next to me was standing up and yelling like he was at a football game."

So hobbits are the new Beatles, and Tolkien is the new NFL. So is prog the new rock? Avalon Rising plays bright, bouncy Celtic pop -- lotsa tunes about shires and maidens and chimney sweeps -- with a dark undercurrent of technically precise trickiness, as though the Jethro Tull dudes had been sneaking into rehearsals cloaked in the Ring's invisibility.

The chops and the songwriting on the band's latest, Storming Heaven, are stellar indeed, but acquired tastes don't get much sharper -- aural black licorice, either adored or loathed. Avalon Rising will either transport you magically back to Middle Earth or make you want to punch someone.

"In a lot of ways it's really silly music," Mark admits. "It can be sort of pompous and pretentious and airy-fairy, but the thing is, why not do it? We're just doin' this to have fun. That's what being in a rock band is all about. Who's to say what pretentiousness is better than what other pretentiousness?"

Verily, indie rock's pretentiousness is beyond compare, but even those snooty circles are slowly warming to the prog rock they once reviled -- mesh-trucker-hat dudes are snatching up Yes reissues by the crateful. Meanwhile, badass metalheads -- with Tool at the forefront, touring with King Crimson and whatnot -- have long admitted the debts owed to, say, the Alan Parsons Project. Avalon Rising is nowhere near as high- concept, specializing in the sort of feel-good, vaguely Irish party fare you'd expect to hear if you visited the Shire's own Stork Club. But even after a decade of plugging away, the band's tastes will never be more aligned with the mainstream's than they are right now.

That's not necessarily fantastic news. "I think some people become fans of Lord of the Rings because it's kind of a solitary thing, where they don't need other people's approval to do it," Mark says. "There's a certain attraction to it not being something that everyone knows about."

Now that every chump you see on BART is stumbling through The Two Towers, Tolkien fever has steamrolled into the sort of bandwagon pile-on that eventually destroys anything worthwhile.

It's highly unlikely Jethro Tull fans will befall the same fate. But if it's ever gonna happen, it's gonna happen now, in our brave new era of Hobbitmania. Avalon Rising will never headline the Fillmore, but if this Oscar business scores the band a few gigs, God bless it. The irony of folks using the Tolkien epic during childhood to avoid the cool kids and using it in adulthood to be the cool kids is too rich to not savor.

Ask Kristoph, another Tolkien-phile back in his youth. "Well, I'm sure I was an escapist at the time," he admits, laughing nervously. "I liked the fantasy. I wanted to be in the books. I wanted to be in the stories."

Mission accomplished.

"I never actually wanted to be Frodo, though," he adds. "I always liked Sam better. I just thought Sam was way more heroic. Frodo just kind of had his quest and dealt with things, whereas Sam didn't have to go along, and did anyway."

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