Sound Checks

Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen
Friday, March 26; Focal Point

"Where the Walker runs down into the Carson Valley plain/There lived a maiden, Darcy Farrow was her name.... " The year was 1966, and Steve Gillette was studying at UCLA and playing banjo and guitar in the local folk clubs. He met Tom Campbell, who was also studying music, and legend has it the two wrote "Darcy Farrow" to fulfill an assignment for a traditional-music course. Such is the folk process, the weird creaky engine of what we call tradition. As Gillette continued performing that simple, timeless song of a beautiful girl who died young, fallen from a horse, recording it a year later on his Vanguard debut, the song slowly crept into the American tradition -- and beyond. You'll hear it frequently at bluegrass and old-time festivals; Irish bands play it, as did Townes Van Zandt. Some may have heard of the author, but most assume it's just an anonymous folksong, part of the public domain like "In the Pines" or "Down in the Valley." And indeed it is -- "Darcy Farrow" is a perfect folk song.

Gillette has been writing terse, elegant and utterly time-defying story-songs for three decades. If you don't know him, you're missing one of the masters, a writer and performer every bit the equal of his better-known contemporaries Guy Clark and Tom Paxton. He has such an intuitive grasp of the mythic element of folk music -- the images of death, birth, nature, travel and time that we hearken to to make sense of our lives -- that he builds and pushes the American tradition of storytelling in song as if he were anonymous, as if he had no personal history and was instead telling the deep and collective biography of everyone in his songs. And indeed he does. Gillette hasn't played St. Louis in years, and his appearance with his wife, Cindy Mangsen -- an exquisite singer, clawhammer banjoist and songwriter herself -- continues a killer run of singer/songwriter dates at the Focal Point. Here's to more of the same. (RK)

Imperial Teen
Saturday, March 27; Side Door

I defy any fan of the modern guitar-pop song to spin the opening cut on Imperial Teen's recent What Is Not to Love? (Slash), "Open Season." Like all great pop songs, the melody is simple and sticky, the hooks both surprising and inevitable, and the entirety as solid and complete as one clay brick. In fact, most of this, the band's second critically acclaimed, publicly ignored (at least for the time being -- I've got a good feeling, though) album contains these wonderful songs, replete with lots of backing shoop-shoops and ba-ba-badas, a cheesy organ here and there and an overall good vibration. When singer Roddy Bottum (great rock-star name) sings, "Why you gotta be so proud? I'm the one with lipstick on" -- a song probably about Courtney Love, or at least about celebrity -- you wanna stumble over chairs and step on feet just to get close enough to the stage to touch him.

Imperial Teen seems to have it all -- the hooks and the looks, the androgyny and the philosophy -- that makes geeks like me giddy. You like 'em on the surface and you like 'em under scrutiny; you like 'em as you bounce around the apartment and you like 'em as you strike your best rock-star pose in front of the mirror.

Of course, too much of everything, like a finished Rubik's Cube, is at times quite boring. Why else would multimillionaires want to fly around the world in a balloon? For the adventure of it, of course, and herein lies my only complaint with Imperial Teen: The music they make is quite safe, almost too uniformly palatable -- where's the adventure? Not here. But if I want some ice cream, I sure as hell ain't gonna ask for pepper-flavored. I'll ask for mint chocolate chip, just like when I want some sugary guitar pop, I'll have some Imperial Teen. (RR)

Bobby Conn
Monday, March 29; Rocket Bar

The unfortunate truth about The Rock Opera as a viable creative outlet: The only artists with gumption enough to play with the rock-opera format are those famous few, hot-air-balloon-sized heads and all, who actually believe they have something very important, something -- God forbid -- literary to say with rock music. History tells us that they're (deaf, dumb and) blind, that if you have something important to say, you need to write a book, make a movie or, er, be a music critic. If you want to shake your ass and sing about copulating, play rock. The general formula is as follows: big head + famous rock star = rock opera. The only true mystery is how come Bono hasn't written one yet.

Bobby Conn actually believes he has something important to say -- about Armageddon, no less -- and he's got the requisite big head. But he's not famous, and he doesn't need a smack upside said head. Maybe it's because he's deluded and thinks he's a famous rock star, maybe he's just practicing for the time when he actually is one, or maybe he's just gettin' all postmodern on our asses. Whichever, his recent album Rise Up! (Atavistic) is a freak-show performance on which Conn, who's from Chicago, constructs a genuine rock opus out of titles like "Twilight of the Empire," "Axis '67 pt. 2," "United Nations" and "Rise Up, Now!" The result is truly baffling in a wonderful way, which is more than I can say about Tommy, which is truly baffling in an embarrassing way.

Apparently Conn is a madman onstage -- does the hardworking James Brown sweating thing and actually pours his soul into the music. Should be a blast. I'll be there, front-and-center. (RR)

Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band
Wed. March 31; Mississippi Nights

Here's what you're likely to see: Six men, dressed as if for a winter funeral, moving around a single microphone in a balletic bob-and-weave, each raising his instrument for a whip-crack solo, then ducking back, then leaning forward to offer mathematically exact harmony before the whole dance starts again. Witnessing the ritual of old-time bluegrass onstage, the mind-blowing, in-the-pocket playing, is a heady experience. Del McCoury has been making bluegrass this way for four decades, developing his style under the wing of Bill Monroe during the '50s and '60s and then, as a leader, looking to sons Ronnie and Rob to keep the material fresh -- the band has brilliantly covered Tom Petty and Robert Cray -- and the arrangements risky.

With his surly independence and trenchant anti-institutionalism (not to mention his leftist politics and lyrical obsession with Lucifer), Steve Earle will never really fit into the bluegrass world. Likewise, it's a rare (bordering on heretical) thing for a musician, even one of Earle's caliber, to turn, willy-nilly, to bluegrass. Like jazz or classical music, bluegrass requires a long apprenticeship, usually starting in childhood, and leaders only emerge after decades of dues. And so Earle's recent collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, one of the most significant and tradition-conscious ensembles in the biz, works both ways. Earle draws on the incipient radicalism of bluegrass -- the way it rejects fads, fashion and lazy liberalism and instead celebrates, much as the blues does, the stories of rural working people -- while the McCourys draw on Earle's thirst for musical change and the pleasure of unpolished edges. The album they've made together, The Mountain, bristles with that push-and-pull of maverick emotion and intensely focused musicianship. Now, it's not clear whether the acoustics and crowd noise of Mississippi Nights will allow this dynamic to take off onstage, but I bet you'll want to find out for yourself. (RK)

Contributors: Roy Kasten, Randall Roberts

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