SAHARA HOTNIGHTS at the Roxy, March 19
Yeah, they're from Sweden, and yes, they're young chicks with guitars, but the Hotnights have about as much in common with the Hives as they do with the Donnas (next to zilch). That hasn't stopped just about everyone from making comparisons, but as their two sold-out shows at the Roxy last week made abrasively clear, there's nothing campy or even cutesy about 'em. Channeling Suzi Quatro as Leather Tuscadero, all tough, shaggy-tressed and denim-doctored, the quartet's revved-up rock may be raw and decidedly retro-flavored, but it's also well-written, with an unyielding formula of catchy hooks, mammoth choruses and a sophisticated vocal pop flair that recalls the sass of bands like Elastica and Republica just as much as the Runaways.
Too bad the aloof cool that makes them more than a kitschy girl group also keeps them from really getting under the skin. Lead vocalist/guitarist Maria Andersson obviously gives it her all, but her all while as vigorous and reckless as it should be for this kind of spank 'n' grind is somewhat detached, with no real eye contact or acknowledgement of the adoringly convulsing crowd. Even when the flush-faced singer did speak, you couldn't understand a damn thing she said, which seemed to perplex many of the girl-band-groupie nerds and skinny Joan Jett-garbed look-alikes who packed the Sunset Strip club.
But Andersson's sultry croons and shrill shrieks, sisters Jennie and Johanna Asplund on guitar and bass, and relentless drummer Josephine Forsman were not only comprehensible but commandingly clear on harmony-rich anthems like "Top of the World" and "Alright Alright (Here's My Fist, Where's the Fight?)," from their U.S. debut album, Jennie Bomb. With an unpolished style and whip-snapping spunk that's uniquely their own, Sahara is sizzling right now, even if they've yet to learn how to really heat up a stage.
HENRY GRIMES ENSEMBLE at the World Stage, March 21
The limelight may have seemed a bit pale to Henry Grimes as he twisted through his abstractionist bass improvisations in public for the first time in some 30 years. Well, the audience for this music has never been huge, and a combined 80 or so enthusiastic attendees did fill Leimert Village's tiny World Stage for two sets on the first of two nights following a bang-up boost from Lynell George in the L.A. Times. More to come? We'll see.
The sounds were all you expect from above-average free improv: many strong individual efforts occasionally coalescing into a communal totality, counterbalanced by instances of overplaying and failure to listen. The ratio was well in plus territory despite the short get-acquainted time available to Grimes and Alex Cline (drums), Nels Cline (guitar), George Harper (alto and soprano sax), Dan Clucas (trumpet), Chris Heenan (alto sax and bass clarinet), Joey Dosik (alto) and Nick Rosen (bass), the last, a high school senior, being substantially responsible for goading Grimes back onstage. The best stuff was a lot of fun. Teammates Clucas and Heenan often brought diffusions into celestial focus with their sustained harmonies. Clucas and N-Cline each launched a spectacular post-bop solo, and N-Cline spread watercolor bridges throughout. Harper carved a well-considered statement through tasteful overblowing and alternate fingerings. A-Cline acted as conductor, gently indicating a pulse where needed and whipping the fast sections like a stagecoach driver. Rosen inspired smiles when he turned his bass into a hand-percussion instrument, and his co-bowing turn with Grimes produced wonderful tactile densities, especially when N-Cline plunged in to bow his guitar with a screen-door spring; generally, though, Rosen couldn't complement Grimes without muddying the waters.
Grimes, short and pluglike, cheek bent to bass neck, seemed to be in another world, but his fingers were right there, darting elegantly among the vines and thickets, or bowing deep, resiny foundations, just as they were with Ayler and Taylor and Rollins and Shepp. He must have been remembering why he once dedicated his life to this music, and also why he bowed out. (Greg Burk)
HELIO SEQUENCE, MAGIC MAGICIANS at the AlterKnit Lounge, March 21
When two unknown kids who called themselves the Helio Sequence arrived in Austin, Texas, just in time to play the 1999 South by Southwest Music Festival, after driving some 2,300 miles nonstop from their hometown of Beaverton, Oregon, you had to laugh. When they concluded their 45-minute set with a cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" that was so explosive that Fastball's Miles Zuniga then riding high on his band's hit record, All the Pain Money Can Buy asked them for their autograph, you had to applaud. And when they packed up their gear immediately after the gig and drove straight home for another engagement, you just knew they were destined for big things.
So it was exciting, if a bit frustrating, to see the dynamic duo play the tight confines of the AlterKnit Lounge last Friday. As in 1999, they created an impressive aural landscape with only drums and effects-laden guitar over a backing track of synth swirls and stoney bass loops. And like their techno-friendly contemporaries, The Music, drummer Ben Weikel and singer/guitarist Brandon Summers always managed to find the soul of the ghost in their machine. Summers' voice always more Sean Lennon than John Lennon never sounded so fantastically jagged as it did on their anti-war treatise, "[square] Bubbles," and the part-Oasis, part-Battlestar Galactica blues of the unreleased "Harmonica Song" indicated that their best work is on the horizon. Yet their continued reliance on pre-recorded music had a limiting effect on their performance that makes you wonder if they'll ever get there.