WANDA JACKSON, CADILLAC ANGELS at the Derby, January 24
"I guess all these songs are for the women," Wanda Jackson said before launching into the original riot-grrl anthem, "Mean Mean Man." Later she praised the gal who designed her acoustic guitar for thoughtfully leaving plenty of room for cleavage. A spitfire diva who toured with Elvis and wrote many of her own classic rockabilly hits, Jackson was refreshingly humble and down-to-earth at the Derby. She thanked the crowd for "letting" her have a quick, sanctimony-free run through the old-time gospel of "I Saw the Light." It had a good beat; most of the artfully decked-out extras from Happy Days kept dancing. Although her radiant voice soared unbroken throughout the too-short set, she stroked her throat and apologized "if I sound a bit Ferlin in the Husky."
Truth is, she sounded wonderful, with backing trio Cadillac Angels kicking up a driving, rootsy ramble that subsided for a precious few country ballads. "Country music and rockabilly are kissin' cousins," she explained, alluding to the days when critics from both camps insisted she choose only one style. (You don't want to fence in a woman who introduced "Riot in Cell Block #9" by declaring, "I've never been to prison that's one joint I've missed.")
Despite the thrilling closing fusillade of "Let's Have a Party" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," the show's highlight came earlier on a casually tossed-off performance of Charlie McCoy & Kent Westberry's "Tunnel of Love," one of those haunting, soul-baring tunes like "Sally Go 'Round the Roses" and Peggy Lee's "Fever" that linger timelessly, beyond genre. As the fillies' skirts whipped on the dance floor, Jackson was momentarily framed by a funnel of synchronized spinning limbs. A guy held his partner's hand behind her back for a quick moment, stealing a kiss when they paused midtwirl. Jackson looked down knowingly, teasingly, and sang, "The tunnel of love . . . it's gonna get you someday."
LUCINDA WILLIAMS, ROSIE FLORES, MIKE STINSON, RANDY WEEKS, KEVIN BANFORD at Crazy Jacks, January 21
Over the last decade and a half, roots-rock showcase Ronnie Mack's Barn Dance has floated through some seven different venues and hosted everyone from an army of local lights and losers to arena-rock titan Bruce Springsteen and historic musical figures like James Burton, Rose Maddox and Big Jay McNeely. Mack celebrated the event's 15th anniversary by assembling a head-spinning 15-act lineup that manifested everything from appalling self-indulgence to stunning artistic self-assurance.
With two performers who had appeared at the very first edition singer-guitarist Rosie Flores and veteran doghouse bass slinger Ray Campi the long-established Barn Dance tone was represented with typical folksy flair, while sets from more recent arrivals struck an occasional spark of hope for a scene that is too often mired in a moribund retro sleepwalk style. Despite their waxworks vintage wardrobe, Kevin Banford & the Bakersfield Boys took a refreshingly relaxed approach in their update of the classic Wynn Stewart-inspired California country sound, while Randy Weeks, late of the Lonesome Strangers, turned in a nasty dose of dense, overbaked original material that stuck in the craw like a sun-dried mud pie. Another downturn came with Sweethearts of the Rodeo All Stars, who managed to insult Waylon Jennings with their half-assed goof on "Good Hearted Woman" and dredged up an unsavory and unwelcome version of the Stones' "Wild Horses."
It was the surprise appearance by Lucinda Williams that really hit dead-center; sounding deliciously drunk and pissed off, she performed with a ferocity, poise and emphatic follow-through that was light-years ahead of 95 percent of the other participants. The only other recognizable attempt at legitimate artistry came from Mike Stinson, whose rough-hewn urban honky-tonk didn't exactly electrify but stirred up an effective elegiac mood, particularly with "The Late Great Golden State," a lament on the decay of the once-brilliant "coast country" movement that Mack's Barndance strives to preserve. (Jonny Whiteside)
DIRTY VEGAS at Spundae, January 25
The dance-music scene of late has been in a bottomless twister of depressed sales, club raids and artistic confusion. Megaclubs are addicted to overpriced overseas jocks playing that imaginationless scourge, TVP (Typical Vocal Progressive), or worse '80s-sampling white girls with bad makeup and art-school delusions (they call it electroclash). But perhaps the most unfortunate thing to happen to electronic music's evolution is the current wave of competent producers pretending to be DJs because a) mix-CD DJ compilations are much cheaper to produce but still rake in the profits based on said producers' good names and b) DJ tours are ready-made for the club circuit and don't require the expensive roadies and gear that live acts command (just add vinyl).
This brings us to Dirty Vegas, British no-hit wonders who barely blipped the radar when Mitsubishi licensed their Daft-Punk-meets-Sasha-style tune "Days Go By" for a commercial featuring a pseudo pop-locking woman. Suddenly this trio of waif-boy producers is on the global DJ circuit. Suffice to say, we wanted to hate these guys, but the truth is they rolled into Spundae like the two amigos and rocked the joint (the third guy, Steve Smith, admirably stayed away from the turntables and instead banged a tambourine against his wrist until he vocalized "Days Go By" a cappella for D.V.'s finale). Yes, they can blend two songs together without a train wreck, and, yes, they actually took dancers on a journey (mating Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" with a contemporary orgasm-sampling track), and, yes, they didn't bang the beats at 140 beats per minute like some 19-year-old wannabe on E. Dirty Vegas' Paul Harris actually dropped Ricky Motanari and Davide Ruberto's composed, piano-based "Redzone" in the middle of a largely female-fed dance-floor frenzy that would have made any man skip a beat.
The concept was novel crossover dance producers who can actually spin and we were even more surprised when we heard a slice of Dirty Vegas' tastefully tribal mix-CD A Night at the Tables on KCRW on the way to the club. It was as if the storm had passed and the dark days had gone by. (Dennis Romero)
STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES at House of Blues, January 23
What startles one hearing Steve Earle play live is how hard he fucking rocks. Like the Rolling Stones when they were dangerous. Like Jerry Lee when he kicked over piano stools. Like a million garage bands who give the neighbors coronaries. At HoB, Earle plowed through most of Jerusalem, his most recent masterpiece, a collection of songs that challenge the lies spewed by rich thieves currently pushing the planet to the brink of apocalypse. There's a hoary phrase, "When rock mattered," that gets trotted out to denote a fixed era in time. When Earle snarls, "That every tower ever built tumbles/No matter how strong no matter how tall/Someday even great walls will crumble," the lyrics are, of course, as current as a jet flying into a skyscraper.
Backed by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel on guitar, Kelly Looney on bass and Will Rigby on drums, with additional guitar/keys by son Justin, percussion by brother Patrick and vocals by Garrison Starr, Earle played guitars, mandolin, banjo and mouth harp, and the extreme dynamics of the songs' arrangements and construction were cathartic smash 'em over the noggin, let 'em breathe with an extended mandolin break, return to headbanging. After a set of two-plus hours, the ride became a physical release. When Earle pulled out "Someday" from 1986's Guitar Town, it was apparent that the words have taken on weight in the years since he wrote that ode to leaving a small town where life's payoff is a gig at the fillin' station. For his second encore, he tore through covers of "Time (Has Come Today)," "Get Together" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?," pointed statements reminding us that rock & roll, and a certain 48-year-old country boy, matter now as much as ever. (Michael Simmons)
JOHNNY WINTER at Ventura Concert Theater, January 22
The legendary guitarist was escorted gently onto the bare stage to his chair, where he remained seated the entire set. He barely nodded to the audience as he broke into a blues medley, swift and effortless on his Steinberger. With his long, flowing white hair spilling onto tattooed pale arms, eyes tightly shut, strumming his guitar as if he could do it in his sleep, he looked like some sort of blues angel perched on a cloud in his own world, probably something like heaven to Johnny Winter.
Accompanying Winter were a harmonica player, a bassist and drummer. The band was tight, the bass keeping up, and the harp player subtle enough and in the groove. But everyone's eyes were on Johnny and his ripping, timeless guitar solos. For someone not once looking into the audience, barely addressing his fans, Winter had enormous presence. While his voice is still distinctly his, age has taken its toll; the harmonica player was the vocalist for half of the songs, presumably because Winter just isn't up to it these days. There was no "Rock N Roll Hoochie Coo" tonight; this was strictly a blues set, with standards like "Good Time Charlie," "Blackjack" and "Mona."
After nearly two hours, Winter finally got his steel guitar out for the encore, "Mojo Boogie." Again his deft mastery of the guitar reminded the audience of the virtuoso musician seated before them. Fans who expected songs from his great album Still Alive and Well might have felt disappointed, but they would have realized that, yes, Johnny Winter is still alive and well sometimes it's just kinda hard to tell. (Tulsa Kinney)
THE D4, THE BANGS, THE DISCIPLES at the Troubadour, January 21
Even with the boatload o' buzz (and an appearance on the Craig Kilborn show the night before), the large crowd outside the D4's Troubadour gig was a bit curious: Pink collaborator Linda Perry, MTV has-been Jesse Camp and actor Geoffrey Rush (?) were just a few of the peeps plunked in the roped-off smoking section before the New Zealand group took the stage. Turns out the first two and a few dozen or so tat rats were there to catch openers and recent Capitol Records signees the Disciples. Still, Hollywood Records' answer to the Hives (Sweden, New Zealand they all have groovy accents, right?) did jam-pack the Troub mere seconds after middle-slotted Washington power trio the Bangs wrapped up their spunky set.
The D4 make refreshingly ungimmicky, messy, hell-raisin' grinds, and though the overused "garage" label is accurate here (the band have their Detroit shake appeal down pat), they have as much in common with the manic metal overdose of Andrew W.K. (see tunes like "Party," "Let Loose" and "Rock n' Roll Motherfucker") and the sleazy 'n' spastic vibe of NYC faves ranging from the Ramones to the New York Dolls (so obviously enamored of American rock they even covered the Devil Dogs' version of Johnny Thunders' "Pirate Love"). Muttonchop-sideburned singer Jimmy Christmas and drummer Beaver were a glistening swirl of adrenaline; Strokesy-looking bassist Vaughan was a cool and confident contrast. But the real star was guitarist/sometime singer Dion, a madman who looks like Roger Daltrey and riffs like Pete Townshend, all windmill arms and into-the-crowd antics. More than reckless frolic, the frenzied display seemed to stake a claim: If there's gonna be an N.Z. invasion, this fab four plan to be on the frontline. (Lina Lecaro)
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THE RATTLESNAKES, THE MANIFOLDS at the Smell, January 23
"It's a real rock lineup" is how the Manifolds' front man introduces the show. Initially believable, the statement looks increasingly wan as the night spirals down. There's a slew of bands, but they're instantly nameless because they fail to make any name for themselves; they're only rock if we define rock as music involving loud guitars and vocals directed vaguely toward the rafters, music that sounds like that description instead of exploding from it.
But there are two serpents that shine in even this dull nest. The Manifolds themselves are all vulgar guitar and vocals like someone trying to be heard over a hurricane. This is garage rock, but convincingly so; if we can place garage as being exuberance and fury's noisy intersection, then good garage rock is site-specific, a particular set of intersections. If rock is an oft-said word, then it's how individually it's said, and the Manifolds say it with slack élan, asking the crowd to "take our fucking merchandise. Just take it. We're fucking sick of it."
The Rattlesnakes look too cool for school, but they're not completely without fang; it's adrenaline rock, the vocals playing call/response with walls of guitar sound, chanting with an almost Minor Threat vibe, though this is a much louder prayer. At their best the Rattlesnakes sound like a car wreck interrogating itself. But at their worst? This is just rock as a big inflatable threat. The Rattlesnakes play fast and loud, but it's a sad day when that's the best that can be said. Sports-car rock. They're tight, but what of it? This isn't science or theater; rock isn't a well-fitting lid or a well-delivered line. As the set progresses, everything, even their genuine passion, ceases to command attention the set dissipates into a slurry of painted metal sound. (Russel Swensen)