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Blue October on rebound

On eve of tour to help mental health hot line, Justin Furstenfeld had breakdown that forced cancellation of all but two Austin shows.

Michael Corcoran

It was a stroke of irony befitting the band's dramatic lyricism. On Oct. 20, the day before platinum-selling San Marcos group Blue October was to launch the mental health-themed Pick Up the Phone Tour, the band's singer, Justin Furstenfeld, had a breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric ward.

The monthlong tour, co-sponsored by the 1-800-SUICIDE hot line, was canceled except for the final dates this past weekend at Stubb's.

Minutes before he was to take the stage Friday for the first time since being hospitalized, the 33-year-old Furstenfeld stood off by himself in a hooded sweatshirt, calming his nerves in the cool drizzle. Just don't forget the lyrics, he told himself. During rehearsal the day before, he had flubbed lines from songs he'd sung hundreds of times.

"I'm not used to my new medication," he said Thursday. The antipsychotic drug Geodon made him lightheaded and unfocused, he said.

He was the last of the band's five members onstage, and when he put on his guitar, he stared at the floor. "Committed at twenty two/ Just to get over you," he sang in a somber voice on the opening number, "HRSA," which, like most of Furstenfeld's songs, is autobiographical. His body was hunched over, his eyes darting. Too soon?

But as the set continued, a transformation took place. "Dirt Room" found him bouncing around like a boxer entering the ring. "Life is a crazy, crazy thing," he said midset. "I believe that there's a reason for every negative thing in the world. I can't wait to find out what the reason was for what happened a month ago."

Furstenfeld attributes the incident in the Minneapolis airport that reduced an 18-city tour to a two-night stand to "a bunch of stuff that's been going on in my life," including a painful separation from his 2 3/8½-year-old daughter, whose name is tattooed on his neck. The singer, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had just visited his daughter in Nebraska and was changing planes in Minneapolis when, he said, he blacked out.

"My brain just shut down, and I don't remember anything," he said, adding that he wasn't on drugs or alcohol. "They tell me I was in the airport with my arms raised, yelling, 'Police! Police! Police!' I must've felt really unsafe."

He was headed to Washington to address Congress the next morning on such issues as funding creative writing and art therapy programs as alternatives for mental health treatment. Then he was to kick off Pick Up the Phone, designed to help remove the stigma of reaching out for help in times of mental crisis, with a solo acoustic set on Capitol Hill.

Instead, Furstenfeld sought help himself. After a couple of days of observation at Tennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, he was admitted to the Laurel Ridge Treatment Center in San Antonio, where he spent two weeks before being released. It was while spending a month in Laurel Ridge at age 22 that Furstenfeld came up with the name Blue October. He said he grew up thinking his deeply sad thoughts were normal. "I saw the world as a dark place and thought everyone felt the same way I did," he said. When he was 14, his parents took him to a psychiatrist, who prescribed Paxil.

Furstenfeld's lifelong struggle with paranoia and depression is well-known to his loyal fans, many of whom flew to Austin to show support last weekend.

Mike Oshel, 37, and Courtney Gustafson, 34, of Salt Lake City were undeterred by Friday's rain, which started in the morning when they were among the first in line and didn't let up until about three-fourths of the way through the band's set. "When it comes to Blue October, we don't waver," Gustafson said. They estimated that they spent more than $1,000 on airfare and a hotel to see their favorite band.

Florida couple Jaime and Michael Taylor drove 17 hours from St. Augustine and got in line outside Stubb's at 7:30 a.m. Friday. There were eight fans already there. "We had tickets to all four Florida shows," Jaime Taylor, 39, said of the canceled Pick Up the Phone dates. She also drove up to Washington for the Furstenfeld solo set that never happened. "When he sings, even in a big crowd, it feels like Justin's singing just to you."

Furstenfeld needn't have worried about forgetting lyrics; the crowd sang every one back to him, turning such loneliness odes as "Hate Me," "Into the Ocean" and new single "Should Be Loved" into unlikely anthems. The Stubb's shows resembled religious revivals for the outpouring of emotion.

"The past few years have been the fastest, wildest roller-coaster ride I've ever been on," Furstenfeld said Thursday. Houston natives Justin and Jeremy Furstenfeld, the band's drummer, formed Blue October in 1996 while students at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos (now Texas State). It took 10 years of constant touring and recording before the band broke nationally with "Foiled," which sold 1.2 million copies in the U.S.

This year's "Approaching Normal" debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard album sales chart, despite being ignored by critics, who've tagged the band as emo or overly dramatic. When "Twilight" series author Stephenie Meyer cited the band as one of her faves and took Furstenfeld and his guitar out on a book promotion tour last year, Blue October didn't need any help from the rock press.

Furstenfeld recalls his recent stint at Laurel Ridge to describe his band's appeal. "There were some soldiers from Iraq that I bonded with," he said. "They were talking about hearing voices, and I felt like I'd finally found someone who understood what I was going through. I think our music connects with some people like that. They identify with the lyrics. It's like 'finally someone understands.' "

mcorcoran@statesman.com 445-3652