Natalie Merchant at the Orpheum Theatre
"Natalie Merchant manages to make what would seem to be a stuffy premise -- putting new melodies to the classic words of dead poets -- into the most sonically adventurous project of her career. Known more as a singer and lyricist, she proves to be uncanny at conjuring the perfect and surprisingly eclectic musical settings for these old poems, on her new double CD, Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch). Robert Louis Stevensons' "The Land of Nod" is transformed into an appropriately dreamy orchestral idyll, while Arthur Macy's "The Peppery Man" becomes a foreboding blues dirge, and William Brighty Rands' "Topsyturvey-World" works wonderfully with a loping reggae rhythm. Joined by Medeski Martin & Wood, "It Makes a Change" is as close as the former 10,000 singer has ever come to pure '60s girl-group bubblegum, while Robert Graves' "Vain and Careless" is contrastingly spare and somber, with a low welling of lute and viola. Inspired by a series of conversations between Merchant and her young daughter, Leave Your Sleep is ostensibly a children's CD, and there are certainly some overtly playful and silly moments, such as the groovy, fast-talking jive of Jack Prelutsky's "Bleezer's Ice-Cream." Overall, though, the album is anything but cute or condescending, with ethereal, mournfully moving soundscapes like Lydia Huntley Sigourney's "Indian Names." When Merchant and an acoustic trio debuted these songs in April at the Aratani Theatre, she was a charming host and eagle-eyed teacher, firmly reigning in her unruliest fans while giving witty, informative slideshow introductions about these mostly British and American poets. Tonight she'll be backed by an eight-piece band."
Odeum Guitar Duo at the Norton Simon Museum
"The Odeum Guitar Duo is a strange name, to be sure, conjuring dubious connotations, from odious to Imodium. But guitarists Robert Wetzel and Fred Benedetti are anything but odious and certainly won't send you running for the Imodium. These guys are fabulous, either solo or in tandem. Wetzel, who, with his post-shoulder-length gray hair and Native American looks, boasts a fascinating blend of Dutch, Indonesian and Chinese lineage, has been a featured performer in the master classes of guitar legends Christopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia and the Romeros, and currently does quadruple duty on the music faculties of the University of San Diego, UC San Diego, San Diego State University and Grossmont College (when does he have time to perform?). Benedetti, who's also on the guitar faculty at Grossmont and San Diego State, was one of 12 young artists chosen to participate in the master class of the father of classical guitar, Andrés Segovia, at USC in 1986, and has since received accolades worldwide. Enjoy this prestigious team as it creates what the men call "tranquil yet combustive energy" in Twentieth-Century Alchemy for Two Guitars, when they perform 20th century guitar duets from France, the Americas and Spain. Norton Simon Museum, Gallery 21, 411 N. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; Fri., Aug.13, 7-8 p.m.; free with $8 museum admission; $4 seniors 62-plus; students & kids under 18 free. (626) 449-6840, nortonsimon.org."
-Mary Beth Crain
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Wild Beasts, Lone Wolf at the El Rey
"Leeds band Wild Beasts offer something quite rare, a psychologically intricate party rave that seems to question the point of its own elation - but keeps smiling on in the face of disaster. The wild ones' recent Two Dancers (Domino) is by turns shimmeringly elegant, euphoric, curious, mildly experimental, thrillingly ambiguous in intent and sound, a study in classic form but not quite, and constantly keeps you guessing as to what it's all about, even as you do the Muppet stomp to its gently pumping rhythms. The strangely asexual or pansexual or whatever effect of singer Hayden Thorpe's falsetto juxtaposes against videos of the band as monks wandering round the woods or framed inside of frames inside of zooming frames - the tone, in other words, feels right for the times. And they're clever, they know how to play with words: "Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants" is the name of one of their tunes, as is "We Still Got the Taste Dancin' on Our Tongues." Right!"