Photo by Wild Don Lewis

at the Henry Fonda Theater, March 13

Though tarred with garage rock’s fuzzy brush, New York’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs flaunt a freedom of expression and an instinctive artsy irreverence alien to their template-tethered peers. And here art meets entertainment, as Chrissie-Hynde-vs.-Barbarella vocalist Karen O brings a raided-mommy’s-closet glamour and humor to sometimes wistful soundscapes.

The charmingly vulnerable single “Maps” has put the YYYs on the cusp between cult kingpins and high-street contenders, as reflected in tonight’s diverse crowd and their two-show tenure at the Fonda. On a sparse stage flooded with color, O & Co. surprise with their musicality. Drummer Brian Chase performs with trained articulation, constantly re-examining divisions of the beat to provide a swiftly shifting yet song-oriented backdrop for this bassless trio, while embracing that most un-garage of devices, the click track. Often with his back to the audience, tiny ’n’ tufty guitarist Nick Zinner is the introvert noodler incarnate, but rather than self-indulgent wandering, he sets up intriguing, looping note bursts, more Daniel Ash than Keith Richards, more New Wave than old school.

Yet none of this would’ve escaped the rehearsal room without the strutting, hand-on-hip Karen O — tonight in sheer silver bodysuit — who commands attention and, with her semispoken Hynde-isms, exhibits a vocal fruitiness lacking in the band’s recordings. Ironically, the YYYs sound glossier live than on their sometimes self-consciously lo-fi debut, Fever To Tell, most of which they revisit tonight. The inevitable climax is the addictively whimpering “Maps,” all fluttering percussion and gorgeously minimalist guitar, with O at her most melodic and controlled.

Well-earned encores culminate in the droning yet gripping “Modern Romance,” O now in bizarre Darth-Vader-plays-Little-Red-Riding-Hood garb. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have the vision and the visage; if songs of “Maps” quality continue, they threaten to become a genre of one.

at the Knitting Factory’s AlterKnit Lounge, March 12

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have built an image antithetical to subtlety, and guitarist John Frusciante has chosen to break that mold. Of course the last two releases by the groundbreaking L.A. rock/funk outfit have expressed more mature subject matter — simply and precisely composed, and textured by Frusciante’s silky, melodic approach to his instrument and to songwriting. Tonight, though, he attempted to engage on more visceral and ambient levels by channeling a raw and seemingly unrehearsed soundscape. A shoeless Frusciante sat on the floor of the stage and remained there as he sucked us into his own world with an almost uncomfortably intimate demeanor. After greeting the small room, he assaulted the crowd with 20 minutes of ear-splitting synthesized noise and modulated feedback à la Brian Eno and Flying Saucer Attack, a movement in chaos colored with hints of melody from the underlying drone of a recorded choir ensemble.

Cameras flashed distractingly as the audience was suspended in anticipation of the songs they had come to hear (and never did). When Frusciante finally picked up his guitar and was joined by second guitarist Josh Klinghofer, they wove a 10-minute instrumental, sweet with impeccable licks that could have been picked up off of the cutting-room floor of a Velvet Underground session. Then Frusciante stood, waved, smiled and left. Inviting a voyeuristic viewpoint into the creative process, he left the impression that this was an artist worthy of attention outside of his band. He had displayed the validity of honest music-making, void of labels and pretense. (Ryan Ward)

at Club Tropical, March 4

To lose one’s ass in space is not always a bad thing. Improvisational violinist Jeff Gauthier realized this when he decided he’d rock his 50th birthday by assembling an octet to revisit two of the early-’70s albums that shattered his brain as a teen: Herbie Hancock’s Crossings and Mwandishi. That music was Hancock at his most extreme; he was flogging some of the same musicians (Bennie Maupin, Buster Williams) who’d also stepped off the edge of the world in Miles Davis’ bands, and he wasn’t about to let Miles out-trip him. Gauthier wasn’t gonna be out-tripped either, so he brought along several of the flip-topped players from his Cryptogramophone label to do the deed.

David Witham was a key, not only transcribing the unorthodox music but also doppelgängering Hancock’s nervy harmonies and effects-tweaked Fender Rhodes sound on electric keyboard. Scott Amendola and Brad Dutz were a steaming groove team on drums and percussion. Bassist Steuart Liebig propelled the funk with clean intensity. George McMullen laid down crucial atmosphere on trombone and didgeridoo. Embodying the occasion’s true spirit, Nels Cline rendered the time gap irrelevant with his risky, thrilling guitar explosions. The second most nervous guy onstage was Gauthier, whose precise, humane electric violin decorated the borders when he wasn’t just standing there marveling.

And the most nervous guy (though you wouldn’t’ve known it) must have been David Pask, essaying the bass clarinet and flute parts of Maupin, who composed much of the material and happened to be attending. Asked later what he thought of this edgier, faster take on the venerable slabs, Maupin admitted he was impressed by the commitment that went into the performance and by the whooping audience reaction to concepts whose poor public reception 33 years ago drove Hancock to abandon avantitude and sell millions. “I’d like to hear it again,” he said. (Greg Burk)

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