Sound Checks

Don Walser
Thursday, March 4; St. Louis Brewery
Tap Room

Not for nothing is country singer Don Walser known as the "Pavarotti of the Plains." Walser's sonorous tenor voice is a wonder, especially when you consider how it's still in prime form despite the singer's age and health -- he's in his mid-60s and tips the scales at -- well, let's just say he really tips the scales.

Walser is also a terrific example of how dreams do come true in America. He started playing in bands when he was still in his teens but mostly laid aside his music career until he retired from his day job as an accountant with the Texas National Guard. Having grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and watching singing-cowboy movies, Walser remains determined to keep the music of his youth alive. He's fond of saying that the music he plays is "Top 40 -- from 40 years ago." Just so, he covers songs by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and the Sons of the Pioneers, mixing in his own original tunes, which stand up to the comparison. His own music's most distinctive feature, though, is Walser's astonishing yodel -- pretty much a lost art these days, but if anyone can bring it back into vogue, it's this ol' cowboy. Walser is a stickler for authenticity, and it is this attribute, perhaps, that has made him a hero in the Austin, Texas, alternative-music community, where he counts among his fans members of the Butthole Surfers, and he is one of the few nonrock acts who can hold his own on the stage of the punk- and hard-rock nightspot Emo's.

On his latest album, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In (Watermelon), Walser works his magic over the course of a dozen tunes, from such tear-in-your-beer standards as Hank Locklin's "Please Help Me I'm Falling" and Hank Snow's "Fool Such as I" to his quaintly politically incorrect (yet undeniably swinging) reading of Cindy Walker's "Cherokee Maiden." Walser revives the fervor of automobile enthusiasts of the '50s with his original tune "Hot Rod Mercury" and travels south of the border for "Ramon," a heartbreaking tale of a marvelous Mexican singer the world would never discover. The album's standout track, though, is a jaw-dropping version of the old Slim Whitman tune "Rose Marie," which Walser performs with the Kronos Quartet. As the strings swoop and swerve in the background, Walser's vocal soars high above, breaking into a gorgeous falsetto that most men half Walser's age couldn't match. Alas, he won't have Kronos with him when he takes the stage at the Tap Room (presented by the folks at the Focal Point), but Walser is enough of an attraction on his own. If he's taking requests, ask for "Danny Boy." Trust me on this one. (DD)

Dee Dee Bridgewater
Saturday, March 6; Sheldon Concert Hall

Jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald has had an influence on countless young singers ever since she first made her name in the late 1938 with the swinging hit "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." One of those singers was Dee Dee Bridgewater, who first heard Fitzgerald's innate sense of swing and peerless scatting while listening to recordings during her childhood in Michigan in the 1950s. Bridgewater went on to make her own name in jazz and on the stage -- first with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, then as a Tony Award-winning actress in the Broadway musical The Wiz. By the late '70s, Bridgewater had recorded a couple of ill-advised pop albums for the Elektra label that alienated her jazz fans and failed to gain her a larger audience.

After a move to France in the early '80s, Bridgewater rediscovered her jazz roots, and she's made a strong comeback in recent years, winning a Grammy for Dear Ella (Polygram), a lovingly rendered tribute to Fitzgerald featuring an all-star lineup of musicians -- including several who worked with Ella. Tickets for her Sheldon appearance are $30 and $25 for what promises to be one of the best jazz vocal concerts of the year. (TP)

Everlast, Sugar Ray and 2 Skinnee J's
Sunday, March 7; American Theatre

The world according to "What It's Like," paraphrased: Come, curious one, grab my hand; I'll lend you some wings, grant you the power to invisibly fly along with me, and we'll float through the city and witness the hard life of the downtrodden, those poor, poor souls whom you don't understand but judge negatively. We'll pass over beggars, pregnant mothers and crack-dealing fathers while I briefly explain the complexities of their situations and then move on to the next social problem.

In the simple, cliched world of Everlast's ubiquitous hit "What It's Like", he (Everlast is a guy) introduces us to the gray areas and then proceeds to checker them black-and-white. "God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes," he sings. "Then you really might know what it's like to sing the blues." His causes are just and his anger seems real, but he glances at these people with an unbearable, empty righteousness. And aside from the vapidness of the message, I just plain hate the song. If you've never heard it, you're lucky; God forbid you have to walk a mile in my shoes while the song's stuck in my head like a poppy seed in my teeth.

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