Björn Again

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

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.

While openers Magic Magicians shared the Helio Sequence's guitar and drum pairing, their stripped-down White Stripes approach couldn't have sounded more different. And though the resulting negative space left you wanting, John Atkins' anarchic guitar over Joe Plummer's totally arrhythmic drumming on "Mt. Decade" ensured that what you were left wanting was more. (Liam Gowing)

MINISTRY at House of Blues, March 22

Al Jourgensen wasn't always the speed-metal demon we know and love. In the beginning, he was just a spooky kid, vaguely unwholesome, recording singles with names like "I Wanted To Tell Her." But that was a larval stage. Mid-'80s, he came crawling out of the sludge, and he came heavy, and his Ministry's sample-packed assaults brought industrial rock kicking and screaming into the mainstream. Al's affliction became more intense and successful with each record. His fingers left trails of slime across everything from Jello Biafra to the most oozing cover extant of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy." Yet, in time, Al's gifts waned. Filth Pig was a record as black and dull as coal. The Dark Side of the Spoon made every one of Al's 40 years brutally visible. Ceasing to matter, Ministry ceased to be.

But the times, how they are a-changin'. Saturday night found the newly christened Al-Qaeda Jourgensen reviewing his legions with obvious glee. And it wasn't simply nostalgia that kept the crowd seething. Ministry's new disc, Animositisomina, combines the rage of both the man driving and the girl locked in the trunk. It's as furious a denial as rock's likely to see. Still, though fans hacked at each other throughout, it wasn't until the band's signature "Psalm 69" that the crowd erupted (familiar songs are safe houses). Al's response? Alternately mocking and blessing his flock, shaking his head as if to say, "Is that all you've got?" Despite the bravado, it's clear that the now sober Jourgensen feeds off his fans' passion. If he's a preacher, he's a vampiric one, full of bitter and sarcastic sacrament.

The times aren't just changing — time has finally caught up with Ministry. "N.W.O."'s samples of Bush Sr. seemed clever in '92; today it's a joke punctuated by a chop to the throat. "Sky-high with a heart made of stone/you never see me cuz I'm always alone" is how the song goes, and today that seems completely rational. Wouldn't you? is junk's refrain, and Ministry's as well. (Doesn't CNN leave you writhing in yourself like a junkie in a tub?) "Just One Fix," Ministry's best song, has William Burroughs rising above the crowd like a god over a fallen city. The motion he makes with his hands, looped and eloquent, is clear: Not enough. Something huge has gone missing. Ministry is here to make sure you notice. (Russel Swensen)

BEHEMOTH, DEICIDE at House of Blues, March 21

Scandinavians may have a lockdown on church burning, chain-mail bodices and corpse paint, but Europe's ground zero for technical death-metal is Poland. No disrespect to Vader, Decapitated, etc., but Behemoth make their countrymen look like babushka-wearing grannies, and a single spin of Zos Kia Cultus — a migraine-inducing suite of power-violence that goes straight for the limbic system — is all the convincing you need. If only overseas heshers didn't subscribe to the bogus convention of singing in English, because this noise would kick asski in Polski.

Tonight, though, it was the old-school crowd that held sway, and headliners Deicide had these folks in their scuzzy black-jeaned pockets. The New York band's been banging heads for years, but, on disc at least, their groove-based thrash is monochromatic. Live, however, it's another story, and when you factor in HOB's decent acoustics — the Hoffman brothers' scorching solos and drummer Steve Asheim's meaty fills were crisp and popping — you got one rabble-rousing set.

Maybe too rabble-rousing. Rewind a few hours, patrons were cursing the security gauntlet on the way into the venue, but when a vicious brawl erupted, they regarded these gorillas as long-lost friends. And when a wide left hook came inches from my jaw, so did I. It's a good thing Deicide front man Glen Benton — a nightmarish amalgam of Fear's Lee Ving, Andrew "Dice" Clay and Jimmy Hoffa — has an advanced degree in crowd control. Salutations ranged from "Fuck you" and "Up yours" to "You're on the rag" and "You suck . . . you suck . . ." And it didn't help that Benton's on the wagon: "That's just great — as the night wears on I stay sober and youze get drunker," he whined, then douched the front row for perhaps the 20th time before bouncing the empty water bottle off some poor dope's head. Now, if only they had a Grammy for Best New Churl. (Andrew Lentz)

DAVID WILCOX at Smothers Theater, March 22

Entering stage right with a big ol' grin on his face, David Wilcox didn't need a darn thing except a six-string and the goofy thoughts that ricochet inside his head — that and a cult fan base like the well-heeled Palisadians, Topangans and 'Bu denizens who not only gave the 30ish singer-songwriter two standing ovations but punctuated each song with "oh yeah"s and "woo-hoo"s throughout the two-hour set. Things don't get much kookier than this in cushy campus theaters.

Wilcox has developed serious chops since his mid-'80s coffeehouse days, and his spirited Cat Stevens-meets-Joni Mitchell strumming, powerful voice and comedian's sense of timing are beyond reproach. But does each song truly require a separate tuning? The between-song key adjustments were real momentum killers, though Wilcox unselfconsciously rode out these lulls with genial chit-chat. More aggravating still was his habit of summarizing the theme of each song just before launching into it — total overkill for a cat whose every lyrical utterance is clear as a bell.

While not explicitly religious, there are Christian overtones within Wilcox's 10-album discography, whether he's addressing relationships, parenting, freedom-vs.-fate, true-art-is-born-of-adversity and, of course, felix culpa — the notion that a prelapsarian world does not test one's faith and is therefore of no value — an idea lucidly expressed in "Apple a Day." I overheard someone in the men's room call him New Age, but a more accurate label would be spiritual humanist, albeit one with no patience for preachers or doctrinarians. If he does talk to God, he does it most directly when he feels "a big, big, love" while singing his son Nathan to sleep or staring out the window, savoring a warm, still night. (Andrew Lentz)

ERASURE at the Mayan, March 17

Andy Bell is the sweetest-sounding cherub in all of dance pop. Not since Bronski Beat's Jimmy Somerville has there been a melody maker whose swooning can send you into dreamland like a lullaby at your mother's bosom. More than just the male incarnation of Agnetha, Donna, Diana or any other dancing queen, the old gal's kept Erasure — poppier than Depeche Mode, lighter than Pet Shop Boys — from becoming dated Eurotrash disco, and gave a throwaway genre more credibility in the '80s than Kylie Minogue and all her la la la la's now.

Bell and partner Vince Clarke had transformed the Mayan stage into an Edwardian sitting room complete with chaise longue and gramophone. And out walks our King/Queen Bell (in black satin hoop skirt, jacket, high-button shoes and top hat) with his Gibson Girl backup singers. He twirls, he cancans, he strips down to a red corset and briefs, then twirls and cancans some more. And who is that quietly manning the controls and strumming guitar? Clarke, the debilitatingly shy Teller to Bell's Penn who can barely turn to face the crowd when called upon. Actually, for all his flamboyant charm, Bell himself seems like a timid soul, keeping the banter short and leaving lotsa time to do nearly all of Pop!: The First 20 Hits. We lock ourselves in "Chains of Love," take part in "Chorus," wave paper hearts during "Oh L'Amour," and when Bell says "Stop!" we stretch out our hands in Supremes-like fashion.

Culled from the current cover album Other People's Songs (do we really need someone else's interpretation of "Video Killed the Radio Star"?) were also versions of such classics as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Can't Help Falling in Love" and their up-tempo take on "Solsbury Hill" that's become a surprise dance hit on radio stations. Personal favorites: "Love To Hate You," a close cousin (once removed) of "I Will Survive," and the enchanting "Blue Savannah," with Bell's swirl of ethereal harmonies that is the perfect accompaniment to sipping a mint julep. Home is where your heart is. (Siran Babayan)


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