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A Bore No More 

Thursday, Oct 14 2004
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Photo by Clay Patrick

NORAH JONES
at the Hollywood Bowl, October 9

Gone is the diffident Norah Jones who once struggled shyly through rote concerts chained to her Wurlitzer, the one whose show The New York Times once called a “crashing bore.” After two years of wild acclaim and frenetic touring, the down-home diva beloved by Orange County smooth-jazz fascists and East L.A. ranchera fans alike has allowed a personality to emerge that’s as delicate as her piano technique and as irresistible as her effortless, honeyed sound on “Sunrise,” the sweet hit she wrote with her bassist-boyfriend, Lee Alexander. More Dolly Parton than Diana Krall, this is an unaffectedly sexy but egoless Jones who gets out from behind the piano, builds on a tradition of great side musicians and weaves herself into their sound.

It’s a feel-good sound of the highest order. As Jones surrenders the stage to Robbie McIntosh’s slide guitar, or drummer Andrew Borger’s articulate solo on Adam Levy’s “In the Morning,” she makes you think she’s just invited all these cool people to her private hootenanny. Yet for all the adulation heaped upon her since 2002’s Come Away With Me crawled to the top of the charts (this year’s Feels Like Home shot up and stayed there), Jones has remained remarkably true to herself, her band and her music. Original guitarist Levy still plays all raw pain and passion on the Jesse Harris smoker “I’ve Got To See You Again,” Alexander still stands silent and smiling, and Jones herself still declines to ever force the inherent beauty of a song. The new tunes are better, the old ones sound better (and seem to mean more), and hackneyed standards like “The Nearness of You” get a whole new life when Jones breathes her generous sound into them.

PEPPER
at the Troubadour, September 25

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Year-round spring-break MCs Pepper deliver their beach-jock reggae-rock to a Troubadour crammed for two nights with chiefly female fans. Amid their Sublime-lite fare and cover-tune snippets, the Hawaiian trio load constant beer and sex references, onstage bikini girls, arms-aloft sing-alongs and tireless crowd cajoling for the sake of a live DVD being shot. Yet there’s substance to Pepper’s shtick. The beats are economical and atmospheric, spiced with rimshots and snare flurries; the bass lines lope and languish with few wasted notes, and although both guitarist Kaleo Wassman and bassist Bret Bollinger struggle with their upper registers, their vocal tradeoffs hold interest, Bollinger’s pseudo-Caribbean inflections particularly endearing.

Considering Pepper’s mostly college-age crowd, the band’s obsession with the ’80s and ’90s (their new album is titled In With the Old, and they repeatedly lament about “back when shit used to be good”) seems incongruous. Still, when they blast snippets of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” RATM’s “Bulls on Parade” and even GN’R’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” each igniting an instant mosh pit among the pretties, they make their point. On their own material, Pepper show a pensive, sensitive side on songs like “7 Weeks,” the shirtless Bollinger briefly a thinking beefcake. “Back Home,” a crossroads of Pepper’s grunge and groove influences, channels the now SoCal-based group’s unmissable Hawaiian pride. Though virtues abound, critical comparisons to the Police are a stretch, as Pepper never approach the musicality and majesty of Sting and Co.: The progressions and melodies are too obvious, the guitar too rudimentary, the drumming too restrained.

As Sublime and 311 have shown, the commercial potential of seemingly flippant bands like this can’t be underestimated, and when the stage is overwhelmed by gals at set’s end, it’s clear that Pepper are connecting — like, big-time, dude.

—Paul Rogers

THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND, ESPERS
at McCabe’s, October 8

“We’ve been waiting around a long time for a tribute group — we thought we’d just do it ourselves,” chuckled Mike Heron, the guileless 61-year-old Scottish co-founder of the Incredible String Band, before launching into another song from the ISB’s heydaze, that sparkling period of 1967 through ’69 when they released six albums of boldly expansionist, fantastically charming psychedelic folk music to fair commercial success and open awe from other musicians (including the Stones, Hendrix, the Who, the Beatles and soon-to-be members of Led Zeppelin).

While some bands from that period were so far ahead of their time that it took years for their accomplishments to be fully appreciated — the Velvet Underground, the MC5, etc. — the ISB seemed to stand outside time altogether, in that non-electric utopia of communal exploration that always exists but is rarely well-documented. Multi-instrumentalists all, they had different channels open, and their songs still work an intoxicating, timeless magic.

Tonight, after a lovely set of chamber folk by the Philadelphia six-piece Espers that wowed a sold-out audience that included Will Oldham, we got all the stuff that made ISB so incredible, though from an incomplete lineup. (Co-founder Robin Williamson is currently doing solo work; the trio now includes banjoist Clive Palmer, a co-founder who departed after the very first album, and an up-for-it Lawson Dando doing yeoman’s service.) The potion: pan-cultural instrumentation, sweet music-hall/folk ditties (especially Heron’s “The Hedgehog Song” and “Painting Box”), Palmer’s wry blues-folk country rambles, and the 12-minute reality survey that is “A Very Cellular Song.” On the last, Heron sang, “Oh ah ee oo there’s absolutely no strife/living the timeless life,” with a smile that seemed a simple expression of joy — the joy of singing something that was still so fundamentally true.

—Jay Babcock

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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