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Elation: Still Possible!

Photo by Wild Don Lewis

ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES at the Queen Mary, November 7

With a certain born-again thug having reclaimed the Oval Office, the ’04 All Tomorrow’s Parties lacked the music-can-change-the-world urgency of previous installments. Nevertheless, Sunday’s cross section of musical retoolers reminded us that presidential terms are only four years, but rock is forever.

Perhaps due to Sunday’s drizzle, a dull Built To Spill didn’t do justice to their sweetly shambolic songs. The Cramps, however, were invigorated: “It’s raining,” Lux Interior intoned with hillbilly-preacher zeal, “which means God thinks we’re all horrible people — I like it!” Still, ex-Albuquerquians the Shins wove the tightest spell with near-perfect melodies threatening to bring us to our knees, lyrical nuggets only slightly less potent and an appealing clown/straight-man interpersonal dynamic. The Jicks possess a double boon of post-Pavement clarity and a more liberating format in which Stephen Malkmus can solo. But dude needs to drop the bookworm slacker pose: “This next song is called ‘The Maker of Modern Minor Masterpieces,’ about this guy John Currin, who you all have never heard of.”

My buddy J. thought the garage-rock duo White Magic were the day’s discovery . . . until he saw Eagles of Death Metal. J. was initially skeptical about Josh Homme’s side project — “It’s amazing what people eat up if cool people are doing it.” But after witnessing the thunderous boogie featuring a straight-up Allmans homage of two drummers, he was a changed man.

The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne could be high-concept rock’s Mister Rogers; rather than cajoling toddlers, though, he boosted post-election morale by flooding the airspace with giant balloons, warbling his band’s chunky avant-lounge funk, and bringing Peaches onstage for a duet of “War Pigs.” Still, the lead Lip was most winning when he pleaded directly: “Raise your hands and sing really loud. You’ll feel good — I promise.” Childish as it sounded, he wasn’t lying.

FESTIVAL IN THE DESERT at Bridges Auditorium, Claremont, November 6

The Festival in the Desert traveling revue got lost on the road between The More the Merrier and Less Is More. With an already-full lineup, the addition of Claremont local hero Ben Harper disrupted the pacing and extended the show past the saturation point.

The festival — an offshoot of annual events held in Saharan Mali, including the 2003 version captured on CD and DVD — featured a few acts that have performed at the real deal: Opener Blackfire’s Navajo aggro-rock, although admirable for its earnest ferocity and political-spiritual consciousness, had little in common musically with the other groups and also scared away some old folks. Second up was U.S.-born guit-pickin’ whiz Markus James and his buddies in Timbuktubab, whose intriguing explorations of the fertile loam shared by Delta blues and its minor-key Malian relatives were stymied by a sound mix as muddy as the Mississippi. The party finally got started when big-voiced Malian diva Ramatou Diakite and her quartet jacked in their funky Wassalou electro-roots groove, the venerable auditorium’s orchestra pit filling up and spinning into a cross-cultural dance vortex.

But the momentum dissipated when Harper came on. No one can fault Harper for a lack of passion — especially not the largely student crowd hanging on his every note — but his lyrics often bogged down in cliché, and his music rarely escaped the rootsy shadows of his musical idols. After his solo set, much of the crowd split, leaving a few hundred hardy idealists to dig the trance-guitar-infused camel-racing rhythms of Tuareg soul rebels Tinariwen. The former freedom fighters soldiered on till midnight, intermittently flashing the nomadic mojo that materializes when the tents are pitched and bonfires lit, and the starlit sand radiates in all directions.

—Tom Cheyney

SASQUATCH at El Cid, October 31

Desert rock — that drug-skewed caricature of Black Sabbath’s proto-metal template — reached a commercial watershed with the success of Queens of the Stone Age, thus deflating the underground cred of this proudly back-to-basics genre. It hasn’t helped that increasingly the ’70s-stoner aficionados involved lack the songwriting substance to broaden their appeal beyond the club-level faithful. So it’s a relief that Sasquatch — though their love of monstrously grooving guitar riffs and call-of-the-wild vocals (not to mention probably bales of weed) makes this emerging local trio easy to pigeonhole — reach beyond the choir with their contemporary songcraft instincts and low-pretense authenticity.

The Old Spanish decor of El Cid’s restaurant theater is an oddly appropriate setting for Sasquatch’s lonely truck-stop soundtrack, a collision of Wild West desperado romance and utterly modern alienation, panoramic sunset vista and suffocating backwoods horror. Keith Gibbs’ vast waves of ludicrously oversaturated guitar are frosted with his broken high-plains lament, at once defiant and wounded, his eyes clenched behind ribbons of hair through tormented, fluid solos. Drummer Rick Ferrante, in Easy Rider headband and sideburns, tattoos broad, breathing backbones spiked with flurries of unison bombast. Clayton Charles, a study in enthused diligence, works ominous, overdriven bass lines. Sure, the riffage wears Tony Iommi’s foreboding trademark, but Sasquatch’s infusion of last-stand blues and oozing psychedelia creates a more booty-shaking, less mechanical take on the mustached one’s genius.

Sasquatch represent a return to form for their ilk, often recalling Corrosion of Conformity’s 1994 Deliverance album, a subculture high-water mark. They draw a respectable crowd for a chilly Sunday night, and with only half their set culled from this year’s eponymous debut disc, are hinting at biker-bar domination to come.

—Paul Rogers

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