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Blazing Chips

A lotta folks gawk as three sets of people do things on computers, turntables and mixers; one of the performers, Mira Calix, daringly attempts her time onstage without the aid of video projections. DJ Calix is a former graphic artist at Warp Records in London who discovered that she could apply her visual conceptions to aural games. Her stuff really only throws in the funky rhythms as a token, and then they feel like a field of holes sucking the beats underground. Calix leaned on too-long patches of looped oblique fabric (possibly guitars) muffled/splayed to dreams-interrupted effect, and her evil side sent mammoth, woolly bass frequencies down the El Rey's walls, which made my heart hurt, literally. None of the above rudiments does Calix pull off in a stunning way, but about 45 percent of it made for effective fantasy-triggering fodder, and caused approximately 55 percent of the crowd to bob their heads or do bizarre dances.

Nobukazu Takemura segued into Calix's set on twin laptops linked with a video projector, which accompanied his entire performance loosely in time with his startling shreds of sounds. Takemura began his career as a hip-hop DJ in Kyoto, and his evolution into more formal sound-art realms has been fascinating to witness. With his Macs he contrived to turn audio into video, an old trick that usually produces mere multicolored abstractions, though Takemura has a nice line in crude claymation figures and li'l furry critters; far more interesting was when he allowed the video images to trigger the audio parameters, and the resulting connective tissue of voices/color/shape/fiber/rhythm and itchy blobs of mercury being poked through a sieve were then -- paradoxically? -- best savored by shutting one's eyes.

Headliners Plaid's laptops emitted the English duo's crystalline melodies and textured rhythms in time with projections favoring cityscapes, vintage cinematic "future-world" scenes, the burnished gold of forlorn carousels; musically, they too made only passing reference to rump-shaking and keeping it real. Plaid's sound is a novel but rarely earth-shattering fusion of the plaintive-dreamy with a foreign-intrigue ambiance somewhere along the Portishead/Goldfrapp continuum, and aided by these particular visual images had a pleasant cocooning effect. Nice colors, neat patterns: Plaid.

CODED SOURCE at the Smell, April 6 G.E. StinsonPhoto by Debra DiPaolo

Live abstract electronic improvisation interacting with live abstract computer-image manipulation -- the combination's a natural. Technology is making a lot of art easier, and Coded Source is grabbing the digital cow by the udder.

To the right of the dark stone shoebox that is downtown's the Smell, G.E. Stinson marshals his electric guitar, beat box and heap of effects devices to battle the norteño sounds bleeding in from the adjacent dance club. To the left, back toward us, artist Carole Kim wrangles her laptop to motivate her creations and project them against the rear wall. To the right of the screen and above Stinson's right shoulder, Kaoru acts as an intermediary, glancing at the images, singing non-lyrics, and warping her voice and Stinson's noise through a loop/echo machine.

Beautiful visuals: Penis-mushrooms wage war; paint-brush things press and spin on polished wood; aqua-radiations swell; organic shapes pass each other on perpendicular skew paths. The soundtrack takes a while to coalesce, as Stinson begins with standard horror-movie doom guitar, then locks in with watery sprung twangs and huge, harsh electro-percussive rhythms; Kaoru stocks the aural lake with recycled noise, cut-up vocal melodies and robot declarations. Though the optic impact and sonic wallop are often stronger separate than together -- hey, this stuff requires intense concentration by two parts of each participant's brain -- there are moments when something new and powerful is realized.

How would this trio come off magnified? Loudness and bigness might break down some barriers. Clearly it's already loud enough for bass-droneman Devin Sarno, who's in the audience wearing earplugs. (Sorry we missed his earlier duet with Stinson, though the subsequent eerie, sliding-sound turntable set by DJ Chowderhead was delicious.) Regardless, Coded Source emerges unbroken. (Greg Burk)

THE STEVEN McDONALD GROUP at Spaceland, April 13

Perhaps Steven McDonald is too modest. He humbly sees himself as playing Carl Wilson to his older brother Jeff's Brian ("Jeff's the genius," he says), and he generally deferred to Jeff when they collaborated in the manic, over-the-top glitter-pop-punk spectacle that was Redd Kross. Steven's hair-tossing artistry, psychedelic bass paddings and occasional lead-vocal turns in the Kross (and in fraternal side projects like the wacky Yoko/Beatles homage Tater Totz and the reductivist hardcore parody Anarchy 6) revealed that he had plenty of star power -- enough, in fact, to draw a capacity crowd for his long-awaited bandleader debut.

"I'm somewhere between Che Guevara and Belinda Carlisle as a front person," he said in a recent phone interview. "Not enough lead singers are go-go dancing now." Backed by a quartet of sympathetically powerful unknowns at Spaceland, McDonald was free to shake his booty and his tambourine, sometimes switching to bass or pecking a little at the keyboards. And the little girls (still) understand: A knot of not necessarily young women at the side of the stage squealed unselfconsciously throughout the set like Beatlemaniacs.

Even as he emerged from Jeff's shadow with a brace of catchy, irony-free new songs -- built on groovy "Taxman"-like, octave-tolling bass riffs and melodic keening shrouded in Nirvanaesque layers of distortion -- Steven acknowledged his brother's influence and his old band's legacy directly. The SMG opened with "Frosted Flake" and rumbled through three other Redd Kross tunes, including the wistful hot-rod fantasy "SoCal V8." At one point, Steven, who seemed genuinely surprised by the crowd's affection, confessed that he was probably talking too much between songs, adding that Jeff had warned him "to keep the mystery." The band mysteriously and mystically closed the show with a giddy reclamation of Stone Temple Pilots' Redd Kross sound-alike "Big Bang Baby," which McDonald introduced as "me channeling Scott Weiland channeling my brother." (Falling James)

DEADSY at the Dragonfly, April 12 Photo by Nicole Rosenthal

Can a band be so cartoonishly '80s it's revolutionary? Deadsy seem to think so. There are a lot of neo­new wavers and synth-pop revivalists out there, and Deadsy are hugely indebted to the likes of Gary Numan and Berlin. The difference between this band and its smirking counterparts is an unflinching devotion to a cryptic cultural cause: kicking out sci-fi escapist cult-of-prep-school jams with the body-rocking ferocity of death-metal hellions.

The Dragonfly scene was a Felliniesque spectacle, with Mardi Gras beads and harlequin masks handed out at the door to a riot of club kids, Eurotrash, cornrowed wiggers and Sunset Strip losers, peppered with stilt-walkers, candy girls and celebs (Drew Barrymore resplendent in a taupe beret). Due to space limitations, keyboardist Dr. Nner had to fish-scale his Rolands at 45 degrees forward, forcing him to sprawl over them in Phantom of the Opera posture; Creature wielded his bass as foam-rubber saliva bungee-jumped off his chin; Lacoste-clad drummer Alex Püre flayed his Neoprene sound pads. But the voguing high point was when front man P Exeter Blue I (a.k.a. Elijah Blue) and guitarist Carlton Megalodon back-buttressed each other for the solo in Rush's "Tom Sawyer," much to the delight of the gum-smacking teenyboppers, already thrilled with the pair's Adonis looks.

After auspicious beginnings, the evening was marred by electrical snafus. "Fuck these technical difficulties," screamed Blue, "we're gonna do this shit without power," then launched into a quasi-acoustic version of "Mansion World." When the PA went kaput again, Blue and Dr. Nner said nothing, raising their arms in classic what-the-fuck gestures. Never mind the cosmic injustice of their Commencement's five-year abeyance -- even on their hipster-filled home turf, Deadsy can't get a break. (Andrew Lentz)

DROWNING POOL at the Palace, April 11

The bruising Dallas quartet Drowning Pool -- the surprise package of last year's Ozzfest -- are more deeply steeped in metal's heritage than your average angst-rock outfit: Their platinum debut disc, Sinner, skillfully walks the line between commercialism and credibility, while their live show aims to fuse contemporary sonic pummeling with the user-friendly showmanship of '80s arena acts. Yet while their music longs to be dark and meaningful, they've descended onstage into a road-jaded lowest common denominator of volume, cursing and attempted crowd pleasing.

From the moment Drowning Pool struck up, all semblance of savagery, dynamics and melody was lost in an overcooked soup of superdelayed vocals, heavy-for-the-sake-of-heaviness instrumentation and the Palace's uncooperative acoustics. A strangely subdued audience flailed a few arms in the air and -- with repeated encouragement from lumbering front man Dave Williams -- coalesced for a vaguely respectable mosh pit. Sinner's title track and the Wrestlemania theme tune "Tear Away" peeped above the churning mire, but the formula of Williams' sustained lamenting syllables over chugging, looping verse riffs soon overstayed its welcome. From the ludicrous quantities of speaker stacks to a bass solo evoking Spinal Tap's free-jazz experiment, Drowning Pool pumped charmingly unpretentious man-metal, but their material was as plain as their uncluttered stage setup. Only guitarist CJ Pierce retained any spring in his stride, his tandoori-flavored six-string interlude the night's unlikely highlight.

At set's close, the crowd's chant was "'Bodies'!" (the radio hit) rather than the group's name -- a classic case of song overshadowing band. (Paul Rogers)

BONNIE "PRINCE" BILLY at the Troubadour, April 16 Bonnie Billy/Will OldhamPhoto by Daniel Corrigan

Near the end of his marathon encore, Bonnie "Prince" Billy grinned and teased the crowd: "You can go home if you want." Leaving was an obvious option -- the band had been on for two hours already, drilling holes into our hearts with a mix of melodramatic circus act ("Barcelona"), evangelistic ranting ("King of Sorrow" -- yes, the one by Sade) and frigid horror ("I See a Darkness") -- but one that virtually nobody took advantage of. Instead, someone yelped out hoarsely, "You guys are like the fucking Band, man."

Were we guests at some late-night basement jam session that got infused by ghostly spirits? Bonnie Billy's rumpled hippie band just played and played, as he continually conjured up Robert Johnson despair through an existential Jerry Garcia delivery.

Like sometime recluses Leon Russell and Hasil Adkins, puffy-pigtail-bearded Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy) transforms into a dynamic showman onstage, his plain-guy shtick colliding head-on with his progressive American songbook. With his David Grisman­esqe imagery and God-fearin' non-attitude, one would think Oldham was performing old spirituals or standards. But exceptionally heavy subject matter -- incest, murder, redemption, listless defeat -- is a specialty of this Kentuckian child prodigy.

At one point, Bonnie Billy held court over 11 players -- full band, accordion, Rhodes and a choir backdrop ("I Found a Joy of My Own"). Then to finish, binding the psychological edges he previously frayed, he dug into his music sack and pulled out a kick-ass version of Madonna's "Don't Tell Me (To Stop)" (encore song No. 8). But shortly before he left the stage, Billy told a story about a sticker he once found in a box of Crunch Berries when he was a boy. It read, "I'm Lost. But I'm Really Movin'." "That's propaganda," he observed. (Wendy Gilmartin)