UPSILON ACRUX, CURTAINS, SACCHARINE TRUST, OPEN CITY at Mr. T's Bowl, December 14
Tonight was the birthday of 60-ish, seen-it-all proprietor Mr. T; how better to celebrate than with a jukebox sing-along, layer cake on napkins, and four bands for whom hype and, well, pop are non-issues? Openers Upsilon Acrux, once droning effects sculptors, have become full-on prog-rockers, each song a maze of time-signature shifts and precise fret tapping. Deerhoof offshoot Curtains were playfully minimal by comparison: trebly, dissonant chord-voicings, monophonic synth bloops, and Open City drummer Andrew Maxwell socking his kit as though accenting a bop line. Their sole non-instrumental ("Curtains Open and They Close") matched the stage's new décor red satin draperies, a welcome change from the old "T Zone" mural.
As for old-schoolers Saccharine Trust, I can't improve on a comment overheard in the bathroom: "Would you have believed 20 years ago they'd have vibes onstage? And it works!" This may be the strongest backing front man Jack Brewer has ever had, with longtime guitarist Joe Baiza coming off as a less-indulgent Greg Ginn, and a crisp, atmospheric rhythm section. With his Allen Ginsberg lisp and sudden pratfalls, Brewer is still a Beat-inspired holy fool, though his current material ruminates soberly on memory and perseverance. "No one here can teach you patience," went one refrain; Brewer must have learned it on his own.
Dedicated to minimum planning and maximum freedom, Open City turned their nap-inducing 12:45 a.m. slot into an eventful wake-up call. With guitarists Peter Kolovos and Doug Russell running through a dozen effects apiece, and Maxwell (again) emphasizing timbre over rhythm, the effect was abstruse and high-minded, but not without a witty, confrontational edge. Kolovos lobbed tiny firecrackers into the crowd as extra percussion; Maxwell matched their impact on his snare, while Russell looked on in deadpan annoyance. Inevitably, the duds got tossed back at the band. As Mom used to say, "Free improv is fun, until someone loses an eye."
Z-TRIP at El Rey, December 13
Imagine a clairvoyant DJ, a jock who read your mind, knew exactly which beats ruled your world, then proceeded to mangle your virtual jukebox one track at a time. Whether that's a dream or a nightmare, it's exactly how Arizona mashmeister Z-Trip rocks the party, giving as much pleasure as he's getting, and make no mistake, the kid's havin' a ball. "Y'all feeling this?" Trip screamed well after midnight from behind the crates, a portable 1,000-LP archive. "I could go on another five or six hours."
What's hard about a live mix? you say. Mash-ups require a Spartan degree of discipline and focus. Whereas other players in this emerging genre will slap anything and everything together just because they can, Z-Trip's monstrous song pairings Tool! New Order! Jane's Addiction! Black Sheep! AC/DC! Rage Against the Machine! go together in a way you never thought possible, as though he has found a new way of hearing pop classics, or what Belgian crew 2 Many DJs like to call "a third unseen." But Trip isn't saying "lookit me" with his postmodern (and very illegal) medleys. Live, at least, he gives the shine to his friends, like when unsung R&B heroine Mystic walked out onstage and together they ripped cuts from her debut; or how 'bout that artist doing chalk murals, somewhat pointlessly, throughout the set? But humility came to the fore when live clips of a recently departed Jam Master Jay flashed on the giant screen. "Gotta pay my respects to J," Trip said. "He's the whole reason I'm doing this."
Now that Z has signed with Hollywood Records (owned by Disney), he'll have a phalanx of overpaid lawyers working on sample clearance alone. But as far as Trip is concerned, that's entirely beside the point. "Thousands of people sample every fucking day," he explained. "I have to pay out a million dollars just to play this, but I'm doing it for you." (Andrew Lentz)
GLENN TILBROOK at the Viper Room, December 11
After suffering the loss of major-label backing, the breakup of a band, the departure of a lyricist partner and a painful divorce that left one's two children living on another continent, let's face it, a lot of musicians would more likely end up on the sidewalk outside the Viper Room than on its stage. But Glenn Tilbrook, Squeeze's former front man and principal songwriter, is a pretty cool cat. He quietly released his debut solo album, The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook, on his own Quixotic Records, bought a rundown RV and spent the last year driving from one American city to the next to see if anyone liked it.
Sounds trite, but midlife crisis just permeates Tilbrook's self-penned lyrics on Incomplete. So it was all the more impressive when he brought the house down Wednesday night, singing as if he were revealing secrets, attacking his guitar with 18-year-old exuberance, and digging into the songs like a man who was romantically involved with them. His playing a million chords in faultless sequence interlaced with brilliant jazz-inflected rockabilly solos showed no signs of decline, and his vocals rang out sweet despite an apparently nasty winter cold.