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The Defiant Ones

BOB DYLAN at the Wiltern, October 17

Here's a sonofagun who virtually rose from the dead just a few years ago, and ever since has performed as if his life depended on it, which it does. Beyond that, in some way our own lives depend on it. Because if not for a few like Bob Dylan, we could lose touch with the vital abstract nouns that kept flashing across our minds' eyes as he blasted through over two hours of no-flab roots rock: integrity, unity, passion, commitment. DEFIANCE. Whenever Dylan sings a song it's new and now, so when he made the 40-year-old "Masters of War" into a cotton-field blues, quietly spitting, "I want you to know I can see through your lies," every fist in the house was clenched. We need that.

If at times in the past Dylan seemed like an aloof god, now he's willing to rank himself among a community of prophets all in service to a higher purpose of reckless poetry and shackle-busting abandon. He bit into no less than three songs by the dying Warren Zevon, as if to tell us not to forget, once that excitable boy has gone to glory, what crazed intelligence can do. He knows the value of pure energy: If the Rolling Stones, when they're in town a week from now, can pump half as much power and punch into "Brown Sugar" as Dylan did, we might once again have to start thinking about them as more than an act. And though no one would expect he'd cover anything by Neil Young, who was once considered his primary imitator, his take on "Old Man" had us strobing intensely between eras and identities.

By pounding simple chords (sometimes the wrong ones) on an electric piano through much of the show, Dylan reminded us that he too began as an imitator -- copying Little Richard before Woody Guthrie. And the tutti-frutti energy of early rock dominated the mood, from the crunchy cook of the opening "Seeing the Real You at Last" to the nasty blues groove of "Honest With Me" to the raging pre-encore rockabilly jam on "Summer Days." But the acoustic ballads "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" were what really raised emotions, even as Dylan typically jammed their words and melodies into unfamiliar spaces, making them sound like rushed late-night phone calls -- which, come to think of it, is how we often communicate our deepest thoughts.

Delivering their thrust through the excellent sound system of the remodeled and much more partyable Wiltern, the band rocked together like the road-seasoned friends they've become over the last several years, with guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell brilliantly firing licks off each other, and drummer David Kemper and bassist Tony Garnier throwing down a landslide of rhythm. Only on the surreal 1920 shuffles from "Love and Theft," as Dylan sang stuff like "I'm on my last go-round," did they sound fractured and weird -- and that was perfectly appropriate.

SING-SING at the Troubadour, October 16

I first saw Lush at 1992's Lollapalooza, Irvine Meadows. I had seen a few of their videos, and I was a big fan of "De-Luxe" -- I even dyed my hair red like Miki Berenyi's. However, I was impressed by the rich chorus-pedal sound of Miki's boss 12-string Rickenbacker live and how beautifully the voices floated out from the faraway stage. "That singer chick is rad," I said to my goth friend Heather. "Yeah, Miki's bitchen," Heather commented back. Then she pointed toward the sprightly guitarist to the side. "But Emma's the one who writes all the good songs."

Emma still writes the good songs. And even though Sing-Sing's other half, singer Lisa O'Neil, announced early on in the show, "This is not the return of shoegazer, this is pop!," Emma proceeded to fill the room with lovely, cascading chords o' shimmer on "You Don't Know" and "I'll Be" from their recent domestic release The Joy of Sing-Sing. The new songs sported a pleasingly Cardigans-ish spunk and included harmonicas and trumpets, sounding like cuddly sea chanteys. Otherwise the band and Emma and Lisa, clad in white, with clouds of bubbles showering them occasionally, played mostly tame, 4AD-tinged, up-tempo ear candy, further sugarcoated by Lisa's pillbox hat and kewpie-doll pouts 'n' wiggles.

Yet for Emma Anderson, the sugar seems to work. She's ventured into an unfamiliar, virulent land of samplers, Moogs and power chords and has come out sounding clear, focused and perky. But she is still the sprightly guitarist to the side, and needs a strong front woman -- whom she's found in Lisa O'Neil. O'Neil was successful at winning over an initially quiet and fidgety audience, then she even had the English courtesy to compliment us: "You're a very good-looking crowd, I think the best we've had." (Wendy Gilmartin)

 

THE CULT at the Wiltern Theater, October 19

This is not Spinal Tap. This is a band with sufficient back-catalog bounties to deliver a lengthy, B-string best-of set and still enthrall a sold-out theater. This is The Cult, who've been uniting epic melody, elegant escapism and post-Zeppelin bombast for 20 years, yet through perpetual reinvention have kept themselves -- and thousands of strangers -- stimulated and engaged. By choosing to perform some of the band's more obscure tracks tonight, The Cult both piqued their own interest and acknowledged that anyone who's still watching knows more than just the singles.

Reunited with Scott Garrett and Craig Adams -- the spirited rhythm section who propelled their largely ignored eponymous 1995 album/implosion -- tonight's five-piece incarnation basked in the glow of the material in their hands, touching on all of The Cult's seven albums and even "Moya" from front man Ian Astbury's Southern Death Cult prototype. Perhaps plugging past releases makes commercial sense for the currently label-less Cult, yet these were revisited with more artistry than obligation (including an unplugged trio midset). The brass-pole bravado of "Fire Woman" and "Sweet Soul Sister"'s soaring ecstasy breathed easier, unburdened with the overcooked production of their recorded templates, while the stark Dreamtime and Electric selections wore fresh flesh on their bones. Astbury was trying tonight (not always the case with this moody geezer), unleashing the full, controlled seduction of his intonation, while Billy Duffy's arpeggiated vines of six-string counterconversation snaked around him. Still in Doors mode (having recently performed with that revitalized outfit), Astbury appeared dapper in black shirt and tie, yet throbbed with timeless rock-deity destiny.

The gulf between a dazzling Cult show and a depressing one is respect: When Astbury and Duffy respect themselves, their songs and their audience, they're peerless majestic masters; when their self-esteem dips, they break the spell and flounder in belligerence. But tonight was a meeting of a mutual-respect society, and The Cult will retain relevance so long as they deliver their heroic visions -- of whatever vintage -- with this degree of pride and panache. (Paul Rogers)

MOVER at 3 Clubs, October 17

It's not 1969, just an incredible simulation. That's what we always thought whenever we'd pop into 3 Clubs on a Thursday eve. Last week promoter/bartender Tamar Michelle marked the final installment of her weekly live-music love-in with a performance by San Francisco's Mover, and the place brimmed for the last time with its usual crowd of shaggy do's and vintage leather 'n' denim-clad cuties. The San Francisco band's late (12:30 a.m.) set was full of country-coated ditties with a Stones/Grateful Dead-ish flair. Led by singer Eric Shea, the group even featured a couple of young Keith Richards look-alikes (always a good thing) cooking up their twang-filled, milk 'n' honey grooves. Tunes off their last CD, The Only One, drifted like clouds over a blissful breeze, similar to the loose 'n' languid stylings of local cowpokes Beachwood Sparks, but with a more rhythm-driven, less psychedelic sensibility.

The group's subtly bittersweet tunes epitomized the laid-back vibe that's made this free-music night such a gas over the past three years. Since there's no real stage in the dimly lit room, band and fans become one in the music, an aspect that made past shows with the likes of Elliott Smith and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club feel more like a jam session in a friend's garage than a rock show, even if back then the room was a bit too smoky for its own good. The venue has obviously been cracking down on cig-lighters lately, but Mover's billowy rock tunes and beer-raising toast to the end of the groovy gathering filled the room with something just as noticeable: faraway eyes wondering what the hell they're gonna do next Thursday night. (Lina Lecaro)

MAKTUB, YOHIMBE BROTHERS at the Troubadour, October 19

It's always a pity to see the Troubadour at half capacity on a Saturday night; the good news was, it meant more freak-funk for us psychonauts. Seattle crew Maktub (pronounced Mock-tube -- Arabic for "it is written") laid down grooves that could be college-mixer corny but were never less fun than a Space Needle bungee jump. Lead singer Reggie unfortunately grows his pinky-nail extra long (ewww!) and hides behind Kravitz shades, but when this spazz wasn't indulging in physical comedy, he displayed utter mastery over his diaphragm -- scatting, beat-boxing, warbling, there simply was no vocal mode the dude couldn't muster. "Now I'm gonna drop some surreal syllables," Reg said to the assembled few he'd long won over. "You repeat them after me and we'll have unity -- even if it's only for a second."

 

As for the Yohimbe Brothers, it was all about dashing expectations. Both of the band's core members -- turntablist du jour DJ Logic and ex-Living Color ax-god Vernon Reid -- stepped to the sidelines and gave the shine to Deantoni Parks, a drummer who conjures more polyrhythmic swing with a snare and a ride cymbal than any gear-whore skinbeater around. Parks' razzle-dazzle aside, the Yohimbes' ugly/pretty urban tension (as witnessed on their debut, Front End Lifter) got buried under bassist Jared Nickerson's molten low-end, phat as it was. No worries -- motley personnel in the form of vocalist Latasha Diggs, programmer Leon Gruenbaum (tapping a Compaq keyboard that hung from his neck) and gold-plated MC Red Rum fought for the band's right to party.

The Brothers ordinarily communicate telepathically, like autistic twins in a horror flick, but tonight it was a one-way conversation. Reid ran his guitar through two PowerBooks, conjuring textures as disparate as theremin, organ fugue, bagpipes and the cochlea-tickling keen of whales in mating season. Guess the stylistic exoticism got him nostalgic for punk simplicity. "This goes out to a cat who was always associated with one type of music, but that wasn't really him," he said, dedicating the encore to Joey Ramone. It turns out, Joey, we hardly knew ye. (Andrew Lentz)

CROSSOVER at Electrick, October 19

Philippe Kane, promoter of the electro-bash monthly Electrick, is upset that other electro-trash nights, like Synthetic, get most of the attention, even though these copy-kittenz "have no substance." Weird, I thought people like this electro-hash for its ferocious fixation on style and its little need for substance. The style-over-substance allure of electro-crash won't do much for its future, but it's great fun for the moment, and the scene provides a common ground where rockers and dancers, straights and gays, the Fischerspooner youth and the Yaz old can properly clash. Electro-clash.

By bringing in the sexy, photogenic NYC duo Crossover, Electrick definitely showed it knows what's up. When Desmond and Verona performed their layerless, bass-heavy, synth-junky robo-punk funk at San Francisco's Fake a couple of weekends ago, the place was so glam-packed with people really into it that there wasn't even room to bounce. It was a great show. At Electrick, the crowd was about half the size, and that drained the night's potential quite a bit. After all, even with the Crossovers, the Felix da Housecats and the Ladytrons, the scene's biggest superstar at the moment is the scene itself -- without that steady flow of checkered Vans, neck-ripped tops, heavy mascara, and a flock of hairdos hovering over it all, this derivative-chic spectacle of music and fashion begins to look uncertain of itself, as though it showed up at a party overdressed and deathly sober.

Still, those who stayed for the 30-minute performance surely noticed what an absolute stage presence Crossover is -- especially Verona, whose drop-dead gorgeous, one-two punch of deep voice and deeper eyes makes the song "Phostographt" from their catchy debut Fantasmo what it is: sweet faux-German nothings throbbing from her circuitry to yours. Yeah, most of the music tonight was prerecorded, and the spastic Desmond didn't add much whenever he abused his syndrums. But Crossover awesomely demonstrated how their type of music could start a scene, and how essential it is to look the type. (Tommy Nguyen)

UNDERWORLD at the Wiltern, October 21

U.K. prog-ravers Underworld wrapped up a six-date tour in support of their new album, A Hundred Days Off, with a self-billed reincarnation. The graphic-art-inspired duo is out to disprove those who said they lost the plot when member Darren Emerson defected. The only problem is that Emerson's Moroderesque DNA still posthumously programs every arpeggio, even on the new hit "Two Months Off" (ooh, we feel love).

Without their DJing Jekyl, vocalist Karl Hyde and programmer Rick Smith quickly spooked the Wiltern crowd with minimalist shtick (bubble-pack backdrop, men-in-black fashion, intelligent lighting). An ambient intro segued to the Trainspotting classic "Dark and Long" as a projected "LOS ANGELES" loomed above the stage (it was "L.A., make some noise!" for the chat-room generation -- lol!). Meanwhile, choons came roaring out of nowhere, filling the elegant, ornate cavern like a biblical miracle. The pioneering progressive track "Cowgirl" was rinsed with glorious, bouncing keys as a mike-toting Hyde sang of "hurting no one " -- save for the concept of live music performance, as no one actually played a keyboard. Smith tweaked an array of gear behind a black, closed-coffin console that seemed to entomb Emerson's memory, but the concert had more DATs than Soul Train.

 

It was preprogrammed, postmodern glory worthy of the most heinous boy bands, but somehow fresh for Underworld's self-biting egomania. Who cares if the music comes from Giorgio Moroder or Freur or Darren Emerson or Smith's mysterioso onstage gear, as long as it comes out hot, charges the synapses like a hit of E, and helps the economy? (The instrument-to-audience ratio was absolutely capitalistic; this downsized concert surely impressed the bean counters over at Clear Channel, the venue's owners.) White lights and "Born Slippy" vocals continued the medicine show as a young woman sold bottled water in the aisles like it was the World Series. Suffice to say, it was a sellout crowd. (Dennis Romero)


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