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Back in Black

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

PUBLIC ENEMY, DILATED PEOPLES, BLACKALICIOUS at House of Blues, October 7

Rhyming "at the speed of light," the Blackalicious crew got the night started with a brace of raucously ebullient tunes. By the end of their brief set, they were breaking words down into their smallest components, riffing on the letters of the alphabet with dizzying intensity. Local trio Dilated Peoples expanded on the evening's general theme -- that it's okay to party while making protest music -- with Iriscience and Evidence declaring, "War is how the rich control the poor," in the brief a cappella interlude before DJ Babu ripped open his Pandora's box of police-siren peals and junk-factory chaos. Like a morbidly efficient surgeon, Iriscience chanted, "I work the angles, sharp and precise."

It was a bit of a shock to see Public Enemy hit the stage without comic agitator Flavor Flav, currently in jail for driving with a suspended license, and minus Terminator X, now retired from live performances. Their absences led to stepped-up roles for Professor Griff -- wickedly caustic on the timely hard-rock anti-war rant "What Good Is a Bomb" -- and DJ Lord, who lowered the boom with a relentless barrage of inventively layered noise-terror. Hidden under the hood of his yellow track suit, Public Enemy capo Chuck D kicked off the set by warning, "You people in the front row ain't gonna last that long" when the music starts. It turned out to be his only false statement of the night, as the folks up front hung in there despite what might have been the most rambunctious pit yet seen at House of Blues. Inspired by rumors of war with Iraq, Chuck D seemed especially focused and passionate on the new "Son of a Bush" ("He's the son of a bad, bad man," Griff intoned icily), as a masked George W. clone pranced onstage to further incite the rabid mob.

There were respites from all that doom and destruction. Despite his righteous indignation about the war on terror and the whittling away of civil rights, Chuck D was in an amiable mood ("If you want comedy tonight, go across the street"), shouting out respect to "one of my teachers," LL Cool J, who was presiding over things from the balcony. Later, Mr. D invited chanteuse Medusa to climb up onstage for some spontaneous word-slinging, adding a welcome feminine vibe. He dissed Nelly and other safe-as-milk MTV rappers, but playfully saluted the Rolling Stones ("They're on the Lick Ass Tour") and various rock influences (his deft/def backup group kicked out some cool variations on "Whole Lotta Love" and "Back in Black"). Praising the opening bands, Chuck D said, "We're moving into the third tier of hip-hop respectability," the rap equivalent to jazz's John Coltrane and Miles Davis era. With such a rich flurry of words and heavy beats in the air, it was hard to disagree with him.

CLINIC, THE APPLES IN STEREO, KAITO
at the Palace, October 4

Clinic is inevitably compared to Radiohead -- a louder, punkier Radiohead, Radiohead sans shoe gazing, Radiohead for the jailbreak set. It's hard not to make the comparison -- Thom Yorke and Ade Blackburn both sound like kids with cancer, faces glowing. Both bands seem to be midconversation with horror we've only suspected, never encountered. Neither offers up beauty as an answer or even for beauty's sake; beauty is always an act of desperation.

But though similarities abound and aesthetic differences are readily summoned, the comparison is a disservice to both. Putting some spikes on Radiohead's outfit suggests that Clinic aren't responsible for their style, merely the volume of it. Simultaneously there's implicit criticism of Radiohead in designating them as the less rocking of the two: "Hey, haven't you stared at that empty room of yours long enough?" It's a way of shoving the skinny kid away from the water fountain. Radiohead's stasis is anything but -- it's an act of Lynchian bravery: staring at something horrible and knowing that it's horrible. Clinic's reaction to horror is frenzy -- the bass line pounds on doors, the guitar knows everything about emptiness, seeks to fill it while commenting upon it; there can never be enough reverb in this kitten's milk.

Live, Clinic's exultation and the hint of timidity behind it are even more clear -- the harmonium and warped organ, the backing vocals soft as wings rustling . . . our boy's snuck out of his room and broken into a church. Though it's tempting to read the band's surgical masks as political statement, the hint of contamination and the charms against it are remnants of childhood, very watch-out-for-black-cats, cross-your-fingers, don't-look-back. The only flaw in the show -- and on the new record -- is that the more brooding, narcotic tunes seem like unearned breaks; our boy's stoned, watching cartoons. Which no one begrudges but no one really wants to listen to either -- we want the boy scribbling, not the boy thinking.

 

The Apples in Stereo tracked some mud across their carefully tiled floor -- after a decade of housecleaning, they've finally stumbled into the garage; the maid's angry, rah-rah. A welcome change, but if anyone caught the bouquet it was Kaito -- as sweet as any girl you've ever seen three desks off, the music some seriously shark-infested sound. Think lager, think My Bloody Valentine, think of any mosaic intricately cracked. (Russel Swensen)

DARREN EMERSON
at Stereo at the Ivar, October 3

Though he's pleasantly had it up to here with questions regarding his former group, Darren Emerson still admits he's had the new Underworld song "Two Months Off" in his crate for two months on now. He thinks it's a great record. I sort of think it's out of this fuckin' world -- the dance song of the year -- and it's no small matter that it comes from the first Underworld album in 10 years that doesn't feature the contributions of Emerson.

"I taught them well -- that's all I have to say." Come on, what else do you have to say about them? "I think I helped create one of the best dance groups in the world. When I came in, the group didn't know what dance music was. But it was becoming like a marriage: Everyone was getting really moody and moaning, and I was like, 'Fuck this, I wanna have a good time again."

At the grand opening of the new club Stereo at Ivar, Emerson shows the good times he's been having these last three years; his boyishly fussy spunk behind the decks is a big part of his performance charm. From his London residency at The End to his Ibiza nights at Pacha, he genuinely loves club culture, loves that drop of libation at an arm's reach, loves getting shitfaced if he wants to, because he thinks he's having a bit of a night out as well. Like his new mix Episode 1 (with Underwater label mate Tim Deluxe), Emerson gets the music bangin', finding progressive heights I rarely find very appealing, but at least he's not taking us on long-minded journeys through every inch of the record. He keeps the selections on the move and on the fly. Have I not heard "Two Months Off" in the set yet, or was I smoking a joint out in the patio when the record dropped? Oh well, Underworld is coming to town later this month.

Notes on the new Ivar: Plush space, very London, though turn down the volume a bit, because you're drowning out the bottom end in those ceiling speakers. Also, dancers usually converge in the area where the DJ booth is facing. Last Thursday, the booth faced the busy pathway to the patio. Let's have the booth face the north wall and we'll be ready to rock it again. (Tommy Nguyen)

POLYPHONIC SPREE
at the Derby, October 4

When Tripping Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren overdosed in 1999, it seemed another talented team would never reach their full potential. But, far from rolling over into obscurity, the Daisy boys returned with Polyphonic Spree, a superambitious, 25-piece coed ensemble who joyously deliver an unholy "Did I dream that?" crossbreed of '60s Brit-pop and boisterous Southern evangelism. Since being the talk of this year's SXSW conference, this Dallas band/cult have been riding the critical wave into packed clubs, and their first California appearance at a sold-out Derby was suitably humming with anticipation.

Having processed through the crowd, the white-robed Spree took their places on a busy stage while front man Tim DeLaughter's unmiked opening speech reduced the crowd to a whisper. While Polyphonic's songwriting, though accomplished, is no revolution -- rollicking Sgt. Pepper's romps driven by throbbing bass, horn fanfares and perky keys -- it's the delivery that's so remarkable. Though in essence a fleshed-out rock band, the Spree's 10-strong chorus croons a mostly lyricless angelic backdrop crisscrossed by flute, harp and theremin, weaving breezy, psychedelic threads into crushing crescendos -- a '70s movie soundtrack made flesh. Watching Polyphonic Spree is like witnessing Tommy unfold in real time, at club level, and credit is due to DeLaughter and co. for not restricting their vision to conventional pop parameters and doing whatever it takes to create the sounds in their heads despite the obvious logistical nightmares.

Polyphonic Spree are inspiring to the point of being subversive, more genuinely dangerous than any detuned angst merchants could ever be. Their pogoing, hand-wringing, arms-aloft ecstasy makes them the sect everyone wants to join -- and let's hope this is drug-induced, 'cause the alternative is truly terrifying. After Polyphonic Spree, how can we ever return to just four guys with guitars again? (Paul Rogers)

 

DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN, ICARUS LINE
at the Roxy, October 4

If you're old enough to remember when The Exorcist came out in 1973, you'll recall how moviegoers exiting the theater were mildly catatonic. The expression on people's faces when Dillinger Escape Plan left the stage tonight was similarly nonplused. Not that the band have anything to do with the devil, but you could call their next-level hardcore a form of blasphemy. There simply is no band more ferocious, more stroke-inducingly physical, so purely . . . id . . . than these five clean-cut New Jersey kids. "I see what you mean," the cocktail waitress yelled in my ear after a few numbers. "They're pretty harsh."

Putting an enlightened face on this pent-up rage is new singer Greg Puciato, a powerhouse shrieker with a steroidally cut torso, a black T that looked painted on, and a wireless mike to facilitate his chimplike tendency to climb the amps and gesticulate as though gnats were swarming him. "We need a singer as serious about this as we are," a gracious Ben Weiman said post-gig. "Greg not only has the energy level, but he can be entertaining without diluting the intensity." And how. Puciato's carnivalesque fire breathing supplied much-needed comic relief, especially when he torched a doll and threw it into the audience. After setting down a beer, the waitress dished out another aperçu: "There's a baby on fire."

Let's quash a few rumors: No, DEP has not left Relapse; the brand-new Irony Is a Dead Scene is a one-off with Epitaph, in full compliance with the band's contract rider. It's just too bad Mike Patton, who produced and played on the new four-song EP, was MIA. Rewind an hour to the Icarus Line, brooding glam toughs whose depressed cock-rock was satisfying and artfully oblique, except when temperamental guitarist Aaron North was flipping off the audience. "Just calm down, man," he sputtered. "You'll get your metal in 20 minutes." (Andrew Lentz)

MAUDE MAGGART
at the Gardenia Room, October 5

Overheard murmur: "I don't like tripods shooting people," and then the pall of conversational absurdity is suddenly suspended by the crystalline tones of Maude Maggart's clear, lush vibrato. Names from the slowly yellowing past -- Flo Ziegfeld, Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice -- mesh with the surrealism of her story of feather-headed showgirls sliding down a collapsing stairway. Chins are stroked to the dulcet harmonies of "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." At "Second Hand Rose," the light runs red across the piano-inflected jaunt of the moment as hidden feelings are exhumed from the iced earth of memory. "My Man" unveils Maggart's voice (exceptionally well-suited for the downtown Broadway theater district) as something rarely heard in today's vale of woe and atonality; a cabaret of light forms as the smoke of her voice enters the air and swings gently in the evanescent evening.

Tales of her grandmother (a 1926 Georgie White "Scandals" ballerina) dressed as a tassel on the stage curtain segue into invocation of Helen "Show Boat" Morgan, mother of all torch songs, on "Nobody Wants Me." Perched atop piano (played by John Boswell), she sings "Bill" with a joyous laugh in her voice that celebrates somehow, despite feeling like a hundred bucks, or when one gets nothing and likes it. "Why Was I Born," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" -- all sung so persuasively that it seems, in fact, she sings directly to you. The songs brim with the conflict of the double-entendre 1920s clashing with chaste Victorian mores to create a fountain of fervent desire and heartfelt confessions. Around the corner, a venerable neighborhood car wash is razed. "Love Me or Leave Me"? "More Than You Know"? Bitter, sweet, etc. (David Cotner)

PARISA, DARIUSH TALAI, HOUMAN POURMEHDI at Wadsworth Theater, October 5

Performances of traditional Persian music are relatively abundant in Southern California, where the Iranian ex-pat population numbers over 100,000. Yet this night featuring two musicians now approaching legendary status, and a third well on his way, had the aura of something rare and precious.

Vocalist Parisa, tar and setar master Dariush Talai and tombak player Houman Pourmehdi entered the stage to tumultuous applause and took their places on a stage adorned with flowers, silk and candles, and proceeded to cast their spell. In a program divided into two halves, the trio interpreted poems of revered Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz via improvisations within a dastgah or mode decided upon by vocalist Parisa. Particular modes chosen determine a set of goushehs (melodies or sequences) upon which the musicians may base their melodic and rhythmic variations; these melodies specify further note intervals and the form of the movement of the melodies within them; the rhythms selected can be symmetric, asymmetric or freeform and are also subject to the meters of the poetry being interpreted.

 

It's a complicated musical system that has developed over several centuries (and bears certain structural similarities to the Indian raga), and it has the capacity to force a deeper listening that, like the raga, the contemporary frenzied mind initially feels resistant to but whose patience, refinement, extraordinarily interlinked parts and occasional flashes of melodic simplicity can soothe and stimulate as it plays with the listener's sense of time. A trilling, yodeling Parisa delivered the poems flawlessly, with an inviting purity of tone and an impressive arsenal of inflective techniques; Talai's tar and setar (lutes) work was a truly spectacular show of control, speed and melodic invention; Pourmehdi on tombak (hand drum) laced the music with light rains of rhythmic counterpoint and unison play.

Tonight's trio was composed of exiles, owing to the fact that performances of secular Persian classical music is for the most part now banned in Iran. But that's our gain. Their work can be heard on discs available on the superb L.A. label Kereshmeh (www.keresh meh.com); and check out the Persian music, poetry and literature program Havaye Tazeh on KIRN 670 AM, Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. (John Payne)


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