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All Gates Open

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

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.

Tilbrook seemed to delight in the unplugged, solo format, playing the most obscure Squeeze songs any joker in the audience requested, crowd-pleasers like "Tempted" and "Up the Junction," and a few new tunes like "This Is Where You Ain't" and "Parallel World," which didn't sound egregiously out of place between the old standards. Mocking his dinosaur status before launching into another '80s sing-along, he joked, "Every 10 years I've moved up a channel . . . started off on MTV, then moved over to VH1 . . . now I'm on VH1 Classic . . . 30 years, it'll be 'VH1's Isn't He Dead Yet?'" Thirty years from now, maybe, but not just yet. (Liam Gowing)

BUCK OWENS at the Crystal Palace, December 14

Holding forth every weekend at this ornate, low-cover shrine to self, Country Music Hall of Famer Buck Owens runs his shows with an almost disastrously casual attitude, but the fact that such a renowned performer (and one at the advanced age of 72) allows fans such ready access is nothing short of remarkable. Taking the stage with a deafening technological thunder-and-lightning introduction, Owens launched into his classic "Together Again" with all the authority and bite one would expect from the brash and occasionally bizarre showman. Bakersfield's Crystal Palace has become the ultimate sit-down gig (as hillbilly parlance has it), but Owens works the stage with an almost hectic fervor, switching from red-white-and-blue Fender to mandolin, even banging on a fiddle, as he performs a mix of whatever he wants and the numerous requests passed up to the bandstand.

Owens, like James Brown and Bob Dylan, has achieved that peculiar status of incomprehensible mumbler, and his lengthy mush-mouthed discourses have an almost disconcerting effect (Is he that drunk? Did he have a stroke?) made all the stranger by the fact that these shows are carried live on his KUZZ radio station. Tonight, though, he tore through every single number with clear, precise delivery and no small degree of right-here, right-now involvement. Despite frequent intrusions by a pair of wooden-toned girl singers, Owens still easily holds your attention, with fine straight-ahead country tunes like "Hello Trouble" and an intensely emotional "Cryin' Time," but when he dug into a pair of extraordinary and ambitious country-pop songs, "Big in Vegas" and "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," one realizes that Owens was also at one point in the late '60s a sort of hard-country Burt Bacharach, dealing in the same sort of complex and evocative musicality as Jimmy Webb and Mickey Newbury. So stow all the lame gags about Hee Haw and trek up to the Palace; it's a complete gas, up to and including the artificial secondhand smoke, seriously, that gets thicker as the evening passes. (Jonny Whiteside)

PETER GABRIEL at Staples Center, December 11

A quarter-century ago, in the days of Genesis, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd and David Bowie — the architects of rock & roll performance theater — 10 bucks bought you whatever wicked and wonderful live experience was on the touring docket. When you bought that seat for that show, you knew you were going to get more than riffs and melodies; you were going to get theater.

Back then, Peter Gabriel fronted the progressive institution Genesis, leaving the band to Phil Collins' suspect instincts when he departed on the highest conceptual note of its day, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, in 1974. That tour was the most expansive and groundbreaking visual feast of its time. When Peter Gabriel last played Los Angeles, there was no Staples Center, and Kobe Bryant was still in high school. But on the heels of Up, his deep and sonically profound first true studio release in almost a decade, Gabriel returned to town with production designer Robert Lepage — who collaborated on Gabriel's globally successful Secret World tour — with the goal of creating some technologically advanced eye candy.

The staging of the show is vertical, props emerging from openings in the roof and holes in the "theater in the round" platform. The hanging cloth moon provides a powerful motif, and Gabriel explains the context to his tribe of faithful followers: "Up is symbolized by the moon," he says, "which has a huge influence on the tides, the menstrual cycle and, probably, human behavior." We are sucked into the metaphor, carried up and down from sky to Earth, life to death, the human condition articulated in two hours and 20 minutes by one of popular music's master storytellers.

During a set of classic songs that included stalwarts "Solsbury Hill," "Digging in the Dirt," "Family Snapshot," "Red Rain," "Secret World," "Mercy Street," "Sledgehammer" and "In Your Eyes," Gabriel presented his new material with visual accompaniment that played on each song's theme. Most astounding was the giant plastic Zorb ball he rolled around in for "Growing Up," traversing the stage, appearing at times to almost fly over the side into the crowd, which the near-capacity house half-expected given Gabriel's past penchant for letting the audience pass him around the arena like a floating prophet. A mesmerizing moment came during "Downside-Up" from Ovo, the 2000 album released only overseas. As the song entered its elevating final mantralike chorus, Gabriel and his daughter Melanie, who sang backup vocals, harnessed themselves to the bottom of a ceiling rig and walked upside down, to the rapturous roars of the crowd. Father and daughter, two kids at play, and 15,000 neighborhood onlookers, soaring back in time to their innocent, youthful days, courtesy of ringmaster Gabriel's mythical, musical merry-go-round.

Beyond all previous Gabriel tours, this one makes the audience truly feel like part of the play. His four-piece band includes two old friends and collaborators, guitarist David Rhodes and bassist Tony Levin. When he brings support act the Blind Boys of Alabama and Tanzanian musicians Hukwe and Charles Zawose onstage, you're taken by the pure warmth and celebration. Peter Gabriel lives for music and connection; he feels it, his troupe feels it, and most of all, we the fans feel it. (Lonn Friend)

AUF DER MAR, STELLASTARR at the Derby, December 15

With a crowd rich in über-stylish, overly scarved hipsters and 50-something-year-old industry businessmen (big gold pinky rings attached), the stage was set for lithe fashionista Melissa Auf der Mar's eponymous band's second show. It was the kind of night that makes you want to drink heavily for some reason; maybe it was the disconcerting scent of "industry showcase" hanging in the air. Nonetheless, there were titillating highlights.

If you were looking for the missing link between Robert Smith and good fashion, it'd be opener Stellastarr's front man Shawn Christensen. The New York band is an eclectic mix of '80s pop sensibility, '90s indie-rock guitar style and forceful vocals that include three-part harmonies. It was good to hear songs that actually have a buildup that builds up to something. Stellastarr sound nothing like the current post-punk hype coming out of NYC. In fact, in what seemed to be a gibe at the recent New York garage trend, the band's male drummer played shirtless, with a black masking-tape star over one nipple and heinous silver Elvis sunglasses. It was enough to make you want to stuff some dollar bills in his snare.

The thing about bands featuring members of other well-known bands is that they naturally draw a buzz that may overstate their actual appeal. If one looked at Auf der Maur and replaced ex-Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa with a lesser-known rock auteur, it would come off as a slightly metal, slightly hard-rock indie band fronted by a vocalist with excellent stage presence and musicianship but somewhat thin vocals and lyrics. Melissa's well-coifed preening and posing (and lack of bra) slightly detracted from the other members of the band and their otherwise solid wall of sound. It's easy to see why Auf der Mar has also formed a Black Sabbath cover band, and surprising that tonight's show wasn't a bit more engaging. (Tatiana Simonian)

MARY HANSEN, 1966-2002

When Mary Hansen was struck dead in a bicycle accident two weeks ago in London, we all lost the mellow voice that sang the meandering melodies in Stereolab's best orchestrations. Hansen was referred to as the "second voice" in "the groop," but for those who grooved on the 'Lab's flawlessly incorporated, easy-on-the-ears "ba ba ba"s or "dum da dum"s, it was Hansen who held the prize. In 1993, during their first U.S. tour, I happened upon their show in some banquet hall on the UC Irvine campus. I had no idea who they were; all I knew was that the pure fuzz they were emitting, the synth and organ and melodies at deafening volume, was about the most elating mix of sounds my ears had ever heard. And there stood Mary Hansen, calmly swiveling and strumming her Jazzmaster, harmonizing to Laetitia Sadier's melt-away French lyrics.

As the Sadier-Tim Gane songwriting team moved into expansive, Bacharachian multi-instrumentation (and original members left), Hansen transformed with them and remained front-and-center at the shows, even singing lead occasionally, most notably on "Come and Play in the Milky Night" from 1999's Cobra and Phases. Always coolly deadpan onstage, Hansen was a stoically stylish co-front woman, waving the tambourine and shyly smiling every so often. Once, Hansen asked the audience for a lyric, and when some clown yelled out, "Ba ba ba ba," she replied, "That could be any of them!"

In her hometown of Maryborough, Australia, there is a museum of famous Marys who've come from there (Mary Poppins author Pamela Lyndon Travers being one of them). Surely now they'll make a space for Mary Hansen — the loveliest vocal melody maker in a prolific band that will never be the same without her.

—Wendy Gilmartin