Brian Lillie and the Squirrel Mountain Orchestra have taken the other way around to folk-pop grace. In 1995, Ann Arbor, Mich., native Lillie left his "weird rock" band the Maitries, started a do-it-yourself label, made a solo record called Waking Up in Traffic (Thursday Records) and then reunited with Maitries mates Rich Griffith and Brian and Al Smith, stuck acoustic instruments in their hands and surrounded them with Matt Comb's bluegrassy fiddle and Abby Alwin's just-shy-of-classical cello work. On the brand-new Rowboats, Lillie's sonic transformation is remarkable: As the name suggests, the Squirrel Mountain Orchestra has a shuffling, leaping but lush Americana feel, as danceable as swing, as meditative as a prayer.
A month ago, I was lucky enough to hear Lillie play all but solo (One Fell Swoop instrumentalist Andy Ploof chimed in on mandolin and fiddle). His songs struck me for their freshness, the swaddled warmth and openness-to-life of a young Alex Chilton or Matthew Sweet, Beatle-pop-based in their melodies but often extending into redolent autobiographical narratives. "Hazel's Last Christmas" may be the sweetest and wisest seasonal song I've heard since John Prine's "Christmas in Prison." "It was Hazel's last Christmas," Lille sings. "And everyone was there/Her two strongest grandsons carried her down the stairs to the tree/And she said, 'That's the prettiest tree I've ever seen.'" Lillie shares Prine's collisions of heartbreak and humor, as well as his voracious accentuation of everyday details, his sly, inviting phrasing.
Paired with One Fell Swoop, just back from their CMJ showcase debut and armed with some new songs, Brian Lillie and the Squirrel Mountain Orchestra's lush, quietly bubbling sound should find an ideal setting at Off Broadway. Those who've been captivated by Alejandro Escovedo's orchestral movements should not miss these two imaginative bands. (RK)
Flat Duo Jets, opening for Reverend Horton Heat and the Amazing CrownsSaturday, Nov. 28; Mississippi Nights
"Major-label debut" is a phrase that seldom comes into play in discussions of a band that has suffered the slings and arrows of indiedom for 14 years. Yet, after slogging it out for that long in alt-rock's minor leagues, the Flat Duo Jets at last have been called up to the bigs for their most recent album, Lucky Eye. The band's new label, Outpost, is distributed by Universal, soon to be part of the largest record conglomerate on the planet. But corporate affiliations are the furthest thing from guitarist Dexter Romweber's mind. Reminded of the make-or-break power they can bring to bear on a career -- even that of a primitivist act like the Duo Jets -- Romweber sounds as if he couldn't care less: "All I wanted was the ability to record our songs," he sniffs. "I don't care how that happens."
Still, it's hard not to be impressed with the Duo Jets on at least two counts: In the first place, they've made it this long with their original lineup -- Romweber and drummer Crow -- intact. "We don't spend much time with each other when we're off the road," Romweber explains. "Charlie Watts talked about how the Beatles had spent so much time together and the Stones really didn't, and that's how they were able to stay together as a band. So we take a break from each other when we're off and then go out and do it again." Then there's the fact that you can count on one hand the bands that have made what may be their best album -- Lucky Eye is darn near a revelation -- this deep into their careers. With its rockabilly-for-the-millennium sensibility and a fleshed-out sound featuring bass, horns and strings -- strings! -- on several tracks, the album should please longtime fans and newcomers alike. As for their live show, well, some things never change. Expect a very bumpy, but endlessly amusing ride. (DD)
Phillip Walker Blues Band
Saturday, Nov. 28; Off Broadway
Blues guitarist Phillip Walker has played with everyone from Clifton Chenier -- who gave him his start at the tender age of 17 -- to Etta James to Little Richard. Born in a small town near Lake Charles, La., in 1937, Walker got his musical start touring and recording with zydeco legend Chenier. After spending several years in El Paso working with Texas guitarist Long John Hunter, Walker headed for Los Angeles, where he blended his rough-hewn Texas guitar licks with the sophisticated California blues-swing sound. Over the past three decades, Walker has recorded a string of classic blues recordings, from his 1973 debut, Bottom of the Top (reissued on the Hightone label) to his 1995 Black Top session, Working Girl Blues. If you're looking for some top-notch entertainment on the Turkey Day weekend (usually a time when the chance of catching a touring act is pretty slim), the Phillip Walker Blues Band is an excellent choice. (TP)
Houston Person and Etta Jones
Wednesday, Dec. 2; Sheldon Concert Hall
Etta Jones and Houston Person first performed together in 1968, and since 1976 they've recorded and toured together often, an arrangement that works out well, considering that, in addition to performing together onstage, they're married. Of course, Person and Jones both had impressive jazz credentials before joining forces. He cut his teeth playing his R&B-tinged tenor sax while in the military, hooking up with both Eddie Harris and Cedar Walton while stationed in Germany. After returning, he worked with a string of funky organists: first with Johnny Hammond, then Charles Earland and St. Louisan Groove Holmes. Person's full-bodied tenor still reflects the R&B influences of those years.
Jones grew up in New York City and began her singing career at age 16 with the R&B band of pianist Buddy Johnson; she later worked with Earl Hines before finding success on the prominent Prestige label in the early '60s with hits like "Don't Go to Strangers." The combination of Person's soulful sax and Jones' vocal skill should make a deep, soulful evening of jazz with an R&B flavor. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door, and the music starts at 8 p.m. There's also a reception for Jones and Person in the Sheldon's ballroom after the show. By the way, if you can't make Wednesday's concert, Jones and Person will be playing at the Blue Note in Columbia, Mo., the next evening. (TP)
Contributors: Daniel Durchholz, Roy Kasten, Terry Perkins
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