Sound Checks

Willie Nelson
Thursday, Feb. 18; Blue Note
(Columbia, Mo.)

Is there a figure in popular music as mercurial as Willie Nelson? A country-music legend who first conquered Nashville on its own terms in the 1950s and '60s by writing timeless classics such as "Night Life," "Crazy," "Hello Walls" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," then defied Music City by moving back to Texas in 1970 and creating the outlaw persona that made him a superstar, Nelson is a unique presence in American culture, seemingly comfortable in almost any context, no matter how incongruous. He sings and plays guitar with a jazzman's phrasing that seems utterly natural -- check out his quirky but brilliant performance on Stardust, his 1978 album of pop standards, which stands alongside the country classic Red-Headed Stranger and the rock-influenced Across the Borderline as his finest works. Nelson is a terrific actor, too, having starred in films such as Honeysuckle Rose, The Songwriter and the must-rent Barbarosa. The only place Nelson has any trouble, of course, is offstage, where his personal life has been chaotic (and the less said about his financial troubles, the better).

Nelson's most recent album, Teatro (Island), is another one for the ages, featuring extraordinarily simpatico production from Daniel Lanois (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris) and a batch of despairing songs, many of which Nelson wrote in the '60s, but renews here with a vengeance. Hard to say how this artistic triumph will affect his road show, which stays pretty much the same regardless of how Nelson fares on record from year to year. No matter: It's worth the inconvenience of a drive to Columbia to see this enduring American icon. (DD)

Roomful of Blues
Sunday, Feb. 21; Generations

Roomful of Blues first formed in 1968, and over the past three decades musicians like Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl have graduated from the band to work as leaders of their own groups. But Roomful of Blues keeps going strong, churning out a hybrid mix of jump blues, swing, R&B and jazz that attracts dedicated music fans throughout the U.S. and around the world. The band was nominated this year for a W.C. Handy Award as Blues Band of the Year -- and has also won the Down Beat Critics' Poll as Blues Group of the Year two of the past three years.

The current edition of Roomful of Blues pays a long-overdue visit to the St. Louis area. And this time around, the band will feature a strong local connection -- John Wolf as a member of the band's horn section. Wolf's excellent trombone playing was a highlight of many St. Louis groups before he decided to join Roomful of Blues more than a year ago. His strong jazz roots and ability to play in the R&B horn tradition fit right into the eclectic Roomful of Blues approach. Just how successful is Roomful of Blues at blending styles like jazz, blues and R&B? Take a look at the tunes included on the band's latest recording, There Goes the Neighborhood, on Bullseye Blues & Jazz. In addition to several strong originals, you can hear covers of tunes by the likes of Percy Mayfield, Duke Ellington, Memphis Slim and the Cate Brothers. Tickets for the performance at Generations are $12 in advance and $14 at the door, and the music begins around 7:30 p.m. (TP)

Lauryn Hill and the OutKast
Monday, Feb. 22; Fox Theatre

Quick! Name the last three songs on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Got that? Now recite one line from each of them. Stumped? Next time you see a music critic who named the record as one of his or her faves of 1998, ask him (or her) that question. Chances are his eyes will go blank and he'll stutter like a bumbling wannabe and rationalize his cluelessness by saying something about "the gestalt of the record" being important.

Being a lemming, I really tried with that damn record, wanting to believe my peers that it truly was a landmark, but call me stupid -- I just don't hear it. What I hear are fantastic songs that stand alone as gems (the two times I was struck by songs were on the DJ Needles mix tape mentioned in "Local Time" below; and while shopping at Left Bank books) that quickly vanish inside the vastness of the disc's lumbering 78-minute length. Jeez, Lauryn, pace yourself -- I would have dug it were it a 45-minute CD.

Anyway, the Queen of the Good Fight performs at the Fox on Monday; the requisite glowing review will follow in the Post, along with a fanbase, God bless 'em, lapping up every shiny pearl of wisdom from her photogenic mouth. And well they should, because as a role model and a thinker, she's on it -- but Missy Elliot's got more funk in her pinky than Hill's got in her entire booty.

The real party will already be over, because the OutKast will have opened. Their Aquemini (LaFace) truly was one of the smartest, funkiest plates to come out last year, a record that perfectly balanced the beats and the butter, providing just enough juice to fill the cracks without overflowing. Their grooves roll like mid-'70s P-Funk jams, and their brains back it up: The Wild Oats crowd is nowhere near as eloquent as the OutKast on "Synthesizer":

Synthesizer, microwave me, give me a drug so I can make seven babies
Pump my breast up, can you suck the fat up,
Please make my life appear like ain't no such thing as bad luck
My nose ain't right, think I need a new one
Just take your pick of a yellow, red or black or a blue one
Virtual reality, virtual bullshit
Synthesizer preacher can reach you up in the pulpit
Who a bitch? Give me my gat so I can smoke this nigga
Tell his mama not to cry because they can clone him
Quicker than it took his daddy to make him

Get there early for the OutKast. Stick around for Lauryn Hill; I will, hoping that her music will finally click for me in the way it has for so many others. Maybe it's just me. Or maybe the empress has no clothes. (RR)

Contributors: Daniel Durchholz, Terry Perkins, Randall Roberts

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