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Stay in Character

BRIGHT EYES at the Henry Fonda Theater, April 10

As a sign of just how much the fortunes of underground pop music have changed, I'll introduce a term that would've been an oxymoron three years ago: indie-rock heartthrob. Conor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes) is just that. The singer-songwriter's humble beginnings jibe with the typical indie-rock creation myth — a bumfuck city of birth (Omaha, Nebraska); a record deal gone awry (at age 14, his first band, Commander Venus, was signed to a label that evolved into Wind-Up Records, home of Creed); sketchy songs committed to 4-track. Yet, as soon as Oberst grew short hairs and began to get some meat on his bones, he left his smalltime origins behind. Cut to August 2002 and the release of Bright Eyes' fourth proper album, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. First-week sales landed it at the top of Billboard's Heatseeker chart; salivating A&R men considered pilgrimages to Omaha; fawning coverage appeared in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine; excited fans actually fainted at Bright Eyes' last set of Los Angeles gigs.

Last Thursday, the second of two sold-out nights at the Henry Fonda Theater, Bright Eyes didn't live up to the hype. "You're hot," one male audience member shouted. "Actually, I feel kind of cold," answered Oberst. It's not that the show lacked bright spots. Now 22, Oberst has the homo-hetero appeal of a young River Phoenix; his singing voice — a unique, cracked, nasal whine — gets across all sorts of messy adolescent emotions; his stage banter is genuinely and appealingly inarticulate. Problem is, while Oberst possesses the tightly wound passions of a young Bob Dylan, he has only about one-quarter of the songwriting skills and musicianship. Though his exaggerated warble may well make him the voice of a generation, he's definitely not the guitar player of a generation. A 10-piece ad hoc orchestra accompanied him last year, raising enough racket to paper over his ham-fisted acoustic strum, but this band was a scaled-back affair of five players trading off on drums, bass, guitar and a variety of supplementary toys (banjo, melodica, vibes, pedal steel). The extra space made his faults readily apparent.

Oberst's strengths are considerable enough that he's probably here to stay. His lyrics, in particular, present a unique Gen Z p.o.v., a jaded hopefulness delivered via twisty run-on sentences ("We have no health insurance/No cellular service . . . so imagine what you want/and hold on to that thought . . . so believe in who you are/and just make sure to stay in character"). Right now, however, youthful hubris is holding him back. At the end of the set, he swigged from a bottle of wine and revealed the limits of his current imaginings. "I had this dream in which I was superdrunk and supertired in front of all these people . . ." he said, trailing off and exiting stage left.

SOULFLY at the Roxy, April 11

Soulfly's metal groove is at least 3-D, maybe 4 or 5. Roy Mayorga's drums are huge, of course, with loose Brazilian rattlethuds and timbale rolls making you shake side to side 'stead of up & down. But what the H is Marcelo Diaz doing with that waydown bass? Sounds like he tunes to the room, not some "note." Whatever, he's got the floorboards vibrating like a Barcalounger, and if you lean against the back wall where the standing waves build, you receive a full-body massage at no additional cost. Bellowman Max Cavalera woofs like a mastiff within the greater implications of the beat; an occasional rainforest percussion jam breaks things up nicely. The layered noise guitars of Mikey Doling and Cavalera are there mainly for goosh in the poosh, with Doling sticking in creepy high nail-scratch tones by way of accent; when he hits a ridiculously fast wah solo, he makes guys clutch their skulls, like, Dude, don't you know we're high? Heavy weed consciousness and sex feel — an unbeatable combo.

Meaty cuts from all three Soulfly slabs are whacked out: a grunting "Back to the Primitive," a sing-along "Fire," a patriotic "Brasil," with subliminal flashes on Blue Cheer and Zep bridging the ancient-to-modern range of this very original outfit, which owes little to anybody except Sepultura, Cavalera's old band. Just when we're good and sweaty, they quit after less than an hour following a supercharged "Eye for an Eye." Well, Max did croak something about breaking his front tooth. Chances are he'll keep biting the mike, though. (Greg Burk)

SEEMEN at someplace in downtown Los Angeles, April 11

A peeling barn roof sloughs the soul of aged wood in the calm before the spectacle that is to silence and solemnity what Saddam was to the Kurds. "You get to run a machine that can kill you. It's fun!" Demonstrating 10 interactive mechanisms, Seemen's Kal Spelletich speaks down a bullhorn: "These are experiments, so there's no right or wrong." An EKG measures a huge dog's heartbeat across a gently drifting jazz backdrop. The somatic sounds make a small machine march and bark flame; an altered chew toy opens and closes demonic metallic flower petals. "Kali," a velvet chair with spindly metal arms, is operated at the armrests by a fetching volunteer in fine footwear. The scent of raped ozone oozes as a hacked lie detector belches flames from a halo over another volunteer's head whenever her lies manifest.

A man rotates in a chair through hugely blinding bursts of flame to gasps of amusement and amazement. Spelletich exults: "The coolest thing I think I can do is empower people." A walking machine fitfully mimics a subject attached to a kludge of ripcords and coffee bean-sensing technology. Malfunctions occur: "So close — it's like a dry fuck!" A lovely lady girds a strap-on flamethrower, resulting in a burning sensation. A hydraulic flying carpet nearly throws a tenacious volunteer, but he stands steadfast, and a "fire shower" holds a subject in a rapidly rotating cage of flame spit outward in centrifugal-forced fury. The "Hugging Machine," a padded hydraulic press (like those of modern slaughterhouses that comfort cattle before they ascend the Stairway to Heaven) propagates mothering endorphins as it clasps tightly. Finally, the "Ring of Fire" (propane tanks propelling rhythmic fireballs) surrounds a man until the gas dies, and that's that. (David Cotner)

BOZ & THE BOZMEN, THE LUXUS at Fais Do-Do, April 11

Western shirts and red lips were in bloom Friday as the rockabilly flock greeted its indie hero — and Morrissey guitarist — Boz Boorer. This was a night to check out the crowd and savor a real "I love L.A.!" moment. I mean, where else would you find pomp'd and primped rockabilly kids, mostly Latino, grokking a psychobilly cover of "John, I'm Only Dancing" as performed by a Londoner who's the world's biggest collector of Marc Bolan paraphernalia? The crowd was half the fun, really, because they're up for anything: Last year Boz did mostly acoustic T. Rex and Adam Ant covers; this year it was cranked-up psycho-punk renditions of obscure '50s tunes like Benny Cliff's "Shake 'Em Up Rock" and Eddie Bond's "Slip, Slip," as well as Boz's superior originals such as "2 By 2," "Rockabilly Guy" and "I Can't Stop" (and a great cover of the Polecats' "Make a Circuit With Me"). Boz's diction sucks, but clearly the lyrical theme of the night was "rock rock rock!" With Moz drummer Dean Butterworth sitting in, the band turned rock & roll into rock & rock — if you wanted in-the-pocket danceable stuff you should have gone to Big Sandy.

With Kid Rocker (Dean Micetich) sharing guitar duties and Boz's wife, Lyn, on powerful, slapdash double bass, the Bozmen paid tribute to the era of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry by celebrating their imitators. But maybe that was the problem: To this listener's ears, the songs eventually blurred into one another. Local openers the Luxus were a nice contrast of Brit-poppy romanticism: cinematic lyrics about girls made of plastic and gold; far-reaching, melodic choruses of spiritual longing ("Come out and feel!") and guitar riffs so familiar you'd swear they were rip-offs (except they're not). Technical and vocal problems made for an awkward start, but by set's end it seemed the band — who've been together a month — had earned their stage legs, and shown it's possible to be cool without pretense. (Kate Sullivan)

FÁTIMA, BYE SAMI, ENJAMBRE, VIVA MALPACHE, LAS 15 LETRAS at Fais Do-Do, April 12

The Lenten season was winding down, so the Latin alternative acts playing at Fais Do-Do Saturday evening rewarded the to-capacity crowd for their penance with a maniacal musical Mardi Gras. Opening was Fátima, whose aural approach unfortunately wasn't as miraculous as their namesake virginal apparition. The rhythm, lead and bass players tortured their guitars in unison to produce lame la-la punk while a conga player added inappropriate thunks. This drivel descended to its logical conclusion for the closer — an irony-free Bukis cover. Blecch. Similar in synapse-free sound was Tijuana-based Bye Sami, who at least had the prudence to switch tempos for each song — hang-ten blasts followed by crush/kill/destroy harangues and lilting love laments.

Beautifully weirding up the night were Anaheimers Enjambre, who transmitted ditties that are probably military marches for some faraway alien race. An eerie theremin sighed throughout the quartet's too-short playing time, bubbling under the elfin hums and metal melodies of brothers Luis and Rafael Navejas. Don't leave our planet anytime soon, chavos. Viva Malpache didn't impress last Saturday at the Westchester Sports Grill, but what a difference a week makes. Yes, lead "singer" Giovanny Blanco continues to irritate with a bleat that could dissolve kidney stones. But who cares what caws lead a combo when Malpache unleashed baseball-bat bangs of joy and pseudo-rancheras that turned the slam pit into a quinceañera dance floor?

It was 1 a.m. when Las 15 Letras graced the remaining faithful with an all-request show. Giddy guys and gals hollered out the group's repertoire of super skas, wicked punk-cumbia hybrids and tumbling ballads; the veteranos complied. Desire fulfilled, fans joined the moshers, who swirled and swirled as the early morning grew old. (Gustavo Arellano)

SIGUR RÓS, AMINA at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, April 7

It's easy to describe the crowd that gathered at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see Sigur Rós and their instrumental doppelgänger Amina last Monday as a well-heeled group of socially conscious young hipsters, down for an event, not just another gig: Rage's fallen angel Zach de la Rocha sitting across from violin-toting goddess Lili Haydn. The KCRW crew. The intelligentsia. The unruling elite. But the music? How do you describe a group of artists performing a collection of untitled songs sung in a mixture of Icelandic and English gibberish from an album known only by the unpronounceable set of brackets on its cover? One is tempted to say that the show was ^%$#*&^ with songs like "_____," and although there were moments of lelofaierl, the overall effect was *^*^*^*^*, but that really isn't doing Sigur Rós justice, is it?

So picture yourself in a boat on a river . . . better yet, an ice floe in an Arctic sea. You are aware of movement but have a simultaneous sense of suspended animation. You see enveloping shadows and blindingly white lights amid floating faces of children and distant dancing figures. You hear an unrelenting swirl of strings, magnificent piano and crystalline keyboards, the occasional orchestral cacophony of bowed guitar atop plodding bass and reluctant drums, all accompanying a virtual choir of angels emanating from just one man — a fully grown boy soprano named Jonsi — singing lullabies for hibernating polar bears . . . then thunderous applause as you awake from your dream state.

Integral to their charm, Sigur Rós' songs are intentionally abstract landscapes: fluid, unstructured, indefinable. There simply is no place for a concrete depiction of reality in their bowl of surreal. The form and the content are one. The metaphor is the subject. You get it or you don't. And to say any more than that really would just be more gibberish. (Liam Gowing)

THE DATSUNS at the Troubadour, April 12

Doug Martsch notwithstanding, there's not exactly a long tradition of indie shredders; reacting in turn against lugubrious '70s rock and the hair-metal of the '80s, indie rock has placed a premium on the primitive. Put simply, no one wanted to be seen as similar to a rock culture considered devoid of spiritual depth. No one wanted to sound like groupie rock. So when considering a band like the Datsuns, the return of the Great White Guitar Solo deserves particular attention.

Make no mistake, these guys have the hot licks. But how to make a case for them? For starters, they play with a tone dirty enough to bring R.L. Burnside out of his swamp smiling. This isn't stadium rock; this is barroom sprawl. More importantly, the lead guitar's a natural extension of their perfect incoherence, making one last furious attempt to say what can't be said. Think of it as the scribbling that occurs across the palimpsest of a teenage love letter; the scribbling in large part is the love letter. But don't let that image soften your idea of the band. This is rock that's ready for underage girls and fucking over friends and family. Take the opener — a crooned "ladies and gentlemen/ladies and gentlemen," and then a tidal wave of noise destroys whatever's said next. The band never relents — guitars coming out of taut bass grooves like animals from their den. Before the last note shimmers, the band will climb the scaffolding, convulse and throw their equipment into the crowd (it's always a special treat to watch security swimming after tossed cymbals while the band gleefully re-toss whatever's retrieved; see again rock as fucking people over).

This is rock as fun, raucous and out of control. Fun most of all. Because rock is first and foremost a celebration of itself; rock exults in itself as the intangible thing that absorbs the unbearable fracas of the norm. And here we find the error of hairspray metal: It was never their virtuosity that was insipid — it was their privileging of that virtuosity. Rock despises false idols. The Datsuns however, are the real deal. (Russel Swensen)

BOBI CÉSPEDES at the Conga Room, April 4

BRIGHT EYES at the Henry Fonda Theater, April 10

Don't go to the Conga Room unless you know how to dance, because patrons here take their rug-cutting seriously, even when they're just goofing to the cumbias cracking on the house system. Regardless of which Latin steps you dig, this "art-deco copacabana" is an ideal boîte to feel equatorial rhythms, especially when plantain-sweet Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes is laying 'em on so thick you can practically see the orishas smiling down at her.

Looking agelessly handsome with her graying dreads and bejeweled dress, the Yoruban-Lucumi priestess kicked off the evening with an ode to her favorite African deity, "Obatala." But despite her Caribbean lineage, she's proud of being a Bay Area girl, showing much love with the thumping "California" (a racist republic may seem an unlikely subject of homage, but Céspedes has positive juju to burn). And you can see why Mickey Hart wanted Céspedes to contribute to his Planet Drum project: not only because One Drop Scott's polyrhythms patty-cake to conguero/timbalero Nengue Hernandez's whiplashing hand slaps, but because even when Céspedes isn't shaking the rafters with her hearty Celia Cruz-inspired croon, she's shaking a gourd-maracca or scatting percussively with Hausa-Ibo tonal chants the audience repeats with childlike delight. "I think I'd better stop that," an impressed Céspedes said, "or you're gonna take my job."

While much to-do is made of guitarist and Grammy nominee Greg Landau's production work (and rightfully so), live it's keyboardist/ trumpeter Oriente Lopez and bassist Rahsaan Fredericks who anchor this groove machine. The only puzzling thing was the band taking a "15- or 20-minute" intermission after seven or eight songs — just as the crowd got all hot and bothered — and then not returning for almost an hour! While it may have refreshed their batteries, their absence triggered a dance-floor exodus the evening never quite recovered from. (Andrew Lentz)


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