JEAN SMITH/CARLA BOZULICH, MECCA NORMAL, LUCID NATION at the Smell, September 14
Here's how deep Mecca Normal singer Jean Smith's faith in collaboration runs: Tonight's opening salvo was set up without advance meeting, much less rehearsal, between Smith and ex-Geraldine Fibber Carla Bozulich. (Lucid Nation's drummer sat in as well.) So the have-we-started-yet vibe was unsurprising, and the one song Bozulich prepared beforehand, sung to the tune of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?," left Smith twiddling her thumbs. Two improvised numbers -- one a Derek Bailey/ Tony Oxley-style game of tag, one vaguely Latin -- held together better, but when Smith muttered "change of scene" during the latter, it seemed a good diagnosis.
Mecca Normal proper, by contrast, were a model of concision. The Vancouver duo have been doing more with less -- just Smith's alien-being pipes and David Lester's guitar -- for 15 years, and it shows. This set was largely drawn from their excellent new The Family Swan, a harrowing collection about the horrors of, well, family. Smith's dad, in particular, sounds like a real hard-ass, throwing chocolate milk in her face in one song, insisting he has "no mind's eye" in another. Why isn't this just punk-as-therapy? Several reasons: Smith's lyrics have evolved from agitprop to detailed fictions, and Lester's playing remains crisp, even at its thrashiest. His stage manner is their rhythm section: He does a mean windmill, and raises and lowers his guitar at odd moments, as if he were playing along with different music entirely (maybe the jukebox conjunto seeping through from the adjoining bar).
After this, Lucid Nation's drone (Patti Smith trapped in a practice room with Godspeed You Black Emperor) came off as inchoate, with a strong whiff of CalArts-ish "project" shtick. The Robert Plant-mopped guitarist's turn at the mike -- "I can't make you live if you want to die" -- was worth a chuckle, but otherwise, a real room clearer.
WORLD FESTIVAL OF SACRED MUSIC OPENING CONCERT at UCLA's Royce Hall, September 14
Duke Ellington said God understands any language you pray in, which is why Duke never strained his Concerts of Sacred Music into ethereal divinespeak; he just tapped the joy in his own soul and let it gush. As condensed by the Luckman Jazz Orchestra under the direction of James Newton, this meant episodes of unrestrained jungle strut and lush swing, strung together with testifying blues solos and capped with a fever-footed tap dance by a young disciple of the legendary Artie Bryant (who was in the house). It warmed the heart to witness the bearish Mr. Newton as he leaped off the podium toward his seasoned (but not jaded) players, shook the boards on landing and yanked enormous, dissonant stings from them. Sweating, panting, tux untucked, he slapped our faces with the message that jazz doesn't have to be Lincoln Center taxidermy; it can still live and writhe like the streets of your city. The only off moments came from the two vocal soloists, whose fine classical projection was incongruous in context. You can catch the orchestra's full program this Saturday (9/21) at Inglewood's Faithful Central Bible Church.
Prince Diabaté's throbbing, perking ensemble of West African flute, xylophone, drums and dance got the polite assemblage of Westside yogaphiles yelling. Draped like a Guinean pope, the charismatic Diabaté was the cock of the walk -- "This man has no self-esteem problems," said my wife -- even strolling the aisles in the spotlight à la Angus Young while plucking virtuosic arpeggios on his groin-nestled kora. Appropriately, the band showered their pop griot with paper currency, the one symbol held sacred the world over.
The evening's other hit was the Puerto Rican percussion ensemble of Cachete Maldonado, which managed to warm the chilly Royce environs a few degrees with Afro-Caribbean battery. Tibetan monks and nuns may have chanted, and Lakshmi Shankar (subbing for Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, detained in Pakistan) may have wailed austere classical pieces and devotional songs from the canon of India, but they didn't dilute the overall impression that what the spirits really dig is a good party. As L.A. Weekly founder Jay Levin was heard to remark, "It makes me happy, and that's sacred." (Greg Burk)
SWEARING AT MOTORISTS, SCOUT NIBLETT at Spaceland, September 10
What do you get when you cross a tattered baby doll from a dusty attic in Nottingham, a will-rock-for-drugs duo from Dayton, Ohio, and a comedian who wonders aloud if "we've entered the world of the threefold panda"? Answer: something like cabaret, and something completely strange. Nobody understood where the performers were coming from on this night, and that made for great theater. The intermission standup comic, Jason Traeger, described it as "stage art."
When Scout Niblett followed Traeger's odd humor to the stage, a brilliant juxtaposition took place. Niblett turned in one-two-three-chord chansons that cast a contemplative grayness over the room. She did her best to maintain her voice (which was hoarse from constant touring), often interrupting her own trance-inducing songs by laughing playfully as it cracked. Nevertheless, that voice cascaded through her sparse guitar arrangements like something altogether tragic. Midway through the set, Swearing at Motorists drummer Joseph Siwinski joined Niblett in a jarring rendition of Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine." Niblett herself then got behind the skins and played the tribal "Boy," which was like listening to an amplified heartbeat with somebody dreaming on top.
Swearing at Motorists opened their set with singer Dave Doughman holding a cell phone to the microphone and playing a message he'd left his mother. Thus began an enthralling hourlong excursion of Rabelaisian-style rock, derisive threats to the audience unless they delivered him some drugs, Prince-like leg-kicks and death-defying aerial jetés. With nary a spare moment in the set, and almost too much energy to ingest, Doughman was disappointed that his show had to close, and invited everybody to the sidewalk outside, where he would gladly play on and on. (Chuck Mindenhall)
ROBERT PLANT at the Greek Theater, September 12
Freak flag still flying, Robert Plant, late of Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin reunions, brought his enduring rock glamour and still-mighty god-hammer to the Greek Theater in an awesome display of control and abandon whose only fault was that it ended too soon. Plant still roams the territory marked out by Zeppelin, that unsuspected country bordered by the Mississippi Delta, the Middle East and Middle Earth, a place of lemon-squeezing heat, filigreed Orientalism and fairy-tale wonder; such is the stuff of his latest album, Dreamland, mostly a collection of covers, with an emphasis on old-school West Coast psychedelia. (The live set also included a cover of Love's "A House Is Not a Motel.")
Onstage between songs, Plant recalled with affection the golden age of the Sunset Strip, yet, unlike so many musicians of a certain age, he doesn't confuse his love of the days of his youth with the notion that the music was better then. Nor like most does he aspire to tastefulness -- or he's outgrown such aspirations -- preferring the grease, the grind, the garage. As performed by a band whose combined CV includes stints with Portishead, Sinéad O'Connor, Roni Size and Massive Attack, Plant's music felt huge and tidal and utterly modern in the sense that it belonged to no time but its own, and while often beautiful and sometimes delicate (Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" fought gamely against the crowd), it was never polite. Notwithstanding that nearly half the set mined the Zeppelin catalog, from an angular "Four Sticks" to a cheeky "Hey Hey What Can I Do" to a massive "Whole Lotta Love," there was no pandering to nostalgia, only working out new variations on old themes.
While Plant doesn't have all the high notes he used to, he used to have more than he needed, and remains a singer of fantastic power, recovered flexibility and restless intelligence, redeeming in the rendering his sometimes hippie-Hobbity lyrics and frequent use of the sobriquets "mama" and "little girl" (meaning the same thing, oddly enough). Roadies bring him hot tea now, and he does not bare his chest as in days of old when magic filled the air, but he put his body into his act, twirling and dipping and clapping hands. And there was magic enough. (Robert Lloyd)
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INLAND INVASION 2 at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, September 14
It wasn't yet noon, the temperature already soaring above 100 degrees, when the Distillers' Brody Armstrong concluded her opening set of punky Hole-influenced ravers with a cheerily inappropriate "Good night!" Early risers the Adolescents then rumbled remorselessly through iconic blasts "No Way" and "Amoeba," generating slam pits that pulsed in the dense second-stage mob like throbbing crop circles. "Nice gas mask," Tony Cadena commented as moshers stirred up clouds of smoky dust during the aptly titled Fullerton ode "Welcome to Reality." T.S.O.L. followed, with singer Jack Grisham rivaling Johnny Rotten for the day's best wisecracks. "We should have an arm-wrestling contest," he suggested as bouncers fended off an endless swarm of crowd surfers. Besides singing about having sex with corpses, Grisham decried the venue's exorbitant prices, and advocated rushing the water tent en masse as the proper punk rock thing to do. If only the kids were united . . .
By the time Brit hardcore yobs G.B.H. churned out the lovely ditty "City Baby Attacked by Rats," symptoms of heat stroke were setting in. The crowd trudged like dazed refugees to the main theater, where a revolving stage disgorged the Damned, whose bassist Patricia Morrison wore a paper sack over her head in tribute to her first group, the Bags. Lead vampire Dave Vanian's vocals offset the oppressive sunlight with darkly heroic grandeur, but the spinning stage whisked the band away so quickly that guitarist Captain Sensible barely had a chance to shout out to potential groupies: "Come and see us backstage. We fancy a shag." X and the Buzzcocks (whose heart-piercing love songs remain endearingly timeless) ran through similarly brief but fierce sets before giving way to lesser pretenders (Blink-182, the Offspring).
It was left to the Sex Pistols to puncture holes in the oxymoronic punk nostalgia. Backed by Steve Jones' juiced-up Chuck Berry riffs, Johnny Rotten was delightfully offensive, weighing in on everything from the tour's sponsors ("We have nothing to do with Levi's or K-Crock") and the SoCal way of life ("Wanna go surfing, dude?") to self-confidence ("No fucking rapper has got a package like this," he bragged, grabbing his crotch), war ("Bush can kiss my tush") and religion ("There is no God, apart from me"), before encoring with a thrilling take on Hawkwind's "Silver Machine." Rotten even threatened to bring Public Image to town next month, implying that there might be life beyond punk rock. Fancy that. (Falling James)