Sound Checks

Truman's Water with 13 After and Ring, Cicada
Thursday, April 29; Cicero's

Truman's Water has always been a goddamn mess of a band, part improv guitar noise, part indie-rock songsters, part chicken-minus-head punks, fully spastic all the time. And that word -- spastic -- gets tossed around a lot in discussions of the band, because it's true: Truman's Water goes crazy with the guitars, drums and vocals, especially with Nos. 1 and 3. Songs start with a cling-clang guitar and a fully stretched throat competing against each other, manic and immediate, and the two elements usually don't quit until they run out of steam or into a brick wall. It's usually quite a din the band makes, and they've been doing so prolifically since the early '90s.

When they stretch out and improvise, however, the tension and the din are often monochromatic, and as a result the music gets old quick; Truman's Water lacks the dynamics of sometime kindred the Sun City Girls and can't retain your interest over the course of an eight-minute jam. And though it's obvious they lose themselves in the musical moment, often they do it at the expense of listener engagement. They're more exciting when they harness said spasticity and turn it loose in quick bursts of unbridled glee, when they cram all that energy into three-minute bricks. At these times, Truman's Water is indie skree at its finest; at others, it's indie wank at its most self-indulgent.

Opening the show will be two of St. Louis' best guitar bands, Thirteen After and Ring, Cicada. (RR)

R.L. Burnside
Friday, April 30; Blue Note (Columbia, Mo.)

For alcohol-fueled, down-and-dirty blues, it doesn't get much better than R.L. Burnside. The Mississippi hill-country native has been toiling away in relative obscurity since the '50s, releasing precious few recordings for the Arhoolie and Vogue blues labels. After being discovered in the '60s by bluesologist George Mitchell, Burnside made sporadic festival appearances but devoted most of his time to farming and the occasional gig at Junior Kimbrough's Holly Springs juke joint. The '90s has seen the 72-year-old bluesman discovered yet again. He recorded A Ass Pocket of Whiskey with Jon Spencer for the hip Matador label; he has toured extensively; and he even worked with Beck's mixmaster, Tom Rothrock, on 1998's hit-and-miss experimentation with blues remixing, Come On In (Fat Possum).

Despite the forays into neo-blues and techno, there's no mistaking a Burnside tune. They're raunchy and raw, but what really makes them stand out are the deeply hypnotic and haunting grooves Burnside can dig with just a few plucks on his six-string and a bellowing howl from deep down in his ample gut. It won't take you long to hear that Burnside learned how to mine one chord for all its emotion from Mississippi Fred McDowell, one of the genre's masters. Just listen to 1994's rip-roaring Too Bad Jim -- the most ass-kickin' blues album to come out of Mississippi in a long time -- to see what I'm talking about. This gritty work, along with its predecessor, 1991's Bad Luck City, places Burnside on a par with other greats such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, to whom Burnside owes a great debt. Backing Burnside is his family band, Sound Machine, featuring his son Dwayne on bass and son-in-law Calvin Jackson on drums. Fuel up your car, fill up your ass pocket and make the drive to Columbia to see one of the finest purveyors of deep-fried blues strut his down-home stuff. (MH)

Cliff Eberhardt
Sunday, May 2; Generations

Here's what good folk songs do: they tell stories that stand the test of time because they're fashioned from the raw, irresistible stuff of time. Perhaps that's what separates them from pop music. For all their pleasures, pop songs are mostly in the here-and-now, mostly unconcerned with the precise, detailed stories of people and places that, through the singer's voice and the writer's language, can become larger than life, live beyond time: Guthrie's deportee, Bill Monroe's Uncle Pen, Springsteen's Nebraska, Dylan's Hurricane Carter and Isis. That's why we call a good pop song "catchy": It grabs you right now, before the two minutes and thirty seconds are up. Folk songs work the other way: They seep in slowly, they linger in your memory and they demand patience, concentration, and time to work their magic.

Cliff Eberhardt has written a few such songs, and for a new new-folkie who came of age during the '90s' acoustic boom, he's a refreshingly gutty singer -- sort of a sweeter Randy Newman -- and a tough-minded navigator of heart and history. At their best, his songs buck the sentimental, perhaps because gospel and blues traditions percolate through his melodies. His newest album, Borders (Red House), is his grittiest and wisest, and it offers at least one masterpiece: Over piano and fiddle, Eberhardt declaims the story of a man swept blindly into war, the images accumulating with a painful weight. Like Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" or Newman's "Sail Away," "The Wrong Side of the Line" has sweep and grace.

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