REM at the Hollywood Bowl, September 10

REM have long been the Abercrombie & Fitch of alt-rock: durable, dependable merchants of one-song-fits-all contemporary Americana. But onstage fights, apparent splits and the departure of ailing drummer Bill Berry have made us all — the band included — appreciate that perhaps this 20-year Georgia phenomenon can’t be taken for granted. So amid a perfect setting (and with a mix to match), tonight’s REM were a humble, humorous mutual fan club, arrayed before a backdrop spelling out L-U-V.

These shiny happy people kicked off appropriately with “Begin the Begin,” Michael Stipe’s voice in fine, crystalline fettle and bassist Mike Mills’ harmonies as poignant as on record. In concert, Mills’ contribution — bass, keys, backing and occasional lead vocals — can be fully appreciated. Yet it’ll always be Stipe’s lived-in, tremulous timbre that sets hairs standing and minds rewinding. He hung from the mike with that two-handed, Johnny-Rotten-meets-Gollum grip between loose-limbed Tae-Bo wanderings at stage’s lip — grateful and inclusive, utterly present.

The band’s songcraft and harmonic prowess allowed REM to fully engulf the senses, even at arena range and in a spare six-piece live incarnation. The arpeggiated opening and vocal interplay of the meaty new tune “Animal” augured well for REM as a continuing creative unit (though other fresh offerings trod stylistic water). But it was the living classics that got couples clenching, tears welling and college flashbacks flashing: the aching quasi-Yemenite intervals of “The One I Love,” the monastic melodic interaction of “Orange Crush” and the maudlin mandolin flecks of “Losing My Religion.” Encores included the desolate, together-alone optimism of “Everybody Hurts” and a hefty “Finest Worksong” before feedback and fluttering cymbals sucked us into the runaway rap of “End of the World”: an unlikely sing-along lyric to cruise this evening to its comfortable crescendo.

at the Greek Theater, September 7

There once was a fantastic used-record store near Vermont and Hollywood where you could go in midday and get schooled in music by the owner and employees in the friendliest of ways. My favorite lesson ever there was when I inquired about how to get into the Allman Brothers Band, and within minutes Mike the Second-in-Command was playing “Midnight Rider” on the PA and retrieving the Allmans’ 1972 Eat a Peach from the bins. Opening the album’s jacket to reveal James Flournoy Holmes’ magnificent Magic Markered magic-mushroom idyllscape centerfold, Mike smiled and asked, “Now, wouldn’t you like to live there?” Why yes I would, I said, and so I bought the record for the art . . . and kept it for the music.

A lot of other people still wanna live there, a fact made immediately evident tonight when the assembled “Peach Corps” — size XXXL kissing cousins to the Deadheads — began cheering, smoking and awkwardly dancing the moment the band charged into the gospel-funk rave-up “Revival” and the giant computer-generated psilocybin on the screens behind the band started to rotate and glow. “People can you hear it/Love is everywhere,” sang Gregg Allman in that remarkable biker-soul voice of his, surely one of America’s grandest treasures. Still leading the band from behind his Hammond organ, Gregg sang beautifully, especially on “Old Before My Time,” an aching and deeply moving new ballad. A rendition of the jazztacular instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” was simply staggering. Some aspects of the current ensemble were iffier: While Butch Trucks’ 22-year-old nephew Derek is the frighteningly talented guitar virtuoso that everybody sez he is, guitarist/singer Warren Haynes (whose day job is leading the band Gov’t Mule) holds the whole band back by hitting (and then endlessly holding) the same egregious crowd-pleasing notes on most every solo. And there it is: The present ABB is too competent, too sleek, too . . . CGI. Which is nuts, given that the Allmans, of all people, should know the value of the simple Magic Marker. (Jay Babcock)

September 11

Curtains — a collision between half of S.F.’s Deerhoof and one-third of our own Open City — have tightened up slightly since their last local sighting. Their playfully abstract instrumentals were strung together smoothly, interrupted only by drummer Andrew Maxwell’s funny-peculiar vocal interjections (“Money in the fusebox, ain’t that fun/Not when you’re being chased by an insane nun”). Chris Cohen (piercing guitar) and Greg Saunier (monophonic Radio Shack synth) aren’t at pains to produce especially pleasant tones, but Maxwell’s jazz instincts led them in less cerebral directions, as on the hard-bopping “The Bronx.”

Tokyo-based Maher Shalal Hash Baz, on the initial stop of their first American tour, were the evening’s wild card. Veteran Japanese underground figure Tori Kudo, on piano and guitar, is clearly their prime mover; this touring incarnation included — in descending order of player competence — sax, trumpet, French horn, bass and (just barely) drums. Imagine a junior high marching band rehearsing 30-second sections of Belle & Sebastian instrumental breaks and ’70s cop-show themes, and you’ll have some concept of their 50-odd-song set. (A few were longer psych-pop confections, with diffident vocals from Kudo.) Despite frustrating, pleasure-denying pacing, the band won over an initially mystified crowd by sheer unflappability, high-concept not-so-faux-naiveté, and exactly one fiery alto solo.


M.S.H.B.’s orch-pop-meets-Fluxus approach connects with the “One-Second Songs” Red Krayola recorded decades ago, but this time out, Mayo Thompson’s venerable (and ever-changing) vehicle displayed a more conventional dynamic — if the Magic Band and the Mekons are your idea of conventional. Thompson has the luxury of cherry-picking from a 37-year career and cross-breeding the harvest with current members’ strengths: Steven Prina’s louche crooning on “The Letter,” ex-Minuteman George Hurley’s funky support on “Black Snakes,” new violinist Sachi Yoshimoto’s locked-in lyricism throughout. The friction between Thompson’s theory-laden lyrics and his classic Gibson-Fender interplay with Tom Watson is at the core of the band’s appeal, but you didn’t need a reading list to grasp the import of the roiling one-chord closer from 1966’s Parable of Arable Land: “War Sucks.” Happy anniversary. (Franklin Bruno)

JIM LAUDERDALE at the Knitting Factory, September 16

Donna the Buffalo is not a character from a children’s book, nor do the group hail from the home of the Bills. (They’re from nearby Ithaca.) They don’t consider themselves a jam band, though they have commonalties with the descendants of the Grateful Dead: They play mutant Americana, perform without set lists, fuck with song tempos and dynamics, espouse leftie-greenie politics and launch into slithery extended improvisations. DTB also have fanatical fans — the Herd — who dance nonstop at their shows and spend way too much time sharing and discussing band minutiae online.

Since DTB rarely get out to these parts, they haven’t built the Herd here. A hundred or so dogies turned out at the Knit, many of whom were greeted by some stunning music right at the outset. DTB backs veteran singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale on his rootsadelic new Wait ’Til Spring; tonight, sounding like they’d long been road-dogging, Lauderdale and his pals choog-choog-choogled and nailed ragged-but-right harmonies like a back-porch sing-along. “That’s Not the Way It Works” just cries out for airplay, its deep-hooked chorus uplifting and world-weary.

When DTB came back on their own, happy couple Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear alternated on lead vocals, hers carrying a down-home brittle-pretty urgency and his packing a more deadpan gruffness. Cajun and zydeco are two of the group’s main musical food groups, framed by Nevins’ accordion, fiddle and scrub-board. When she pumped the squeezebox on “Tides of Time” or scraped the silver apron on “Positive Friction,” the dance energy jumped. Puryear’s no slouch, either; he showed he’s mastered his lessons from the Jerry Garcia School of Advanced Guitar Poetics, his eyes rolling and his body jerking as he sought the sonic sweet spots on his blond Fender. When the Bo Diddley riff started cycling through “Conscious Evolution,” you could almost hear Jerry giggling about how some things change — and some don’t. (Tom Cheyney)

at the Echo, September 13

Pretty Girls Make Graves take their name from a Smiths song, but they seem like anything but tortured romantics. Matter of fact, the Seattle quintet play so furiously, there’s no way to find any one influence in the froth of ideas crammed into 3-minute anthems with two guitarists running roughshod over their instruments, backs to the crowd like young Thurston Moores in training.

“We’re playing a lot of new material,” singer Andrea Zollo said, as though she had to apologize for the lethargy of a packed Echo, which beyond the core moshers wasn’t going appropriately nuts. It’s not like people weren’t feeling the tunes from New Romance (Matador), they just needed time to process the record’s elliptical jags of art-punk, considerably more challenging than those on Good Health (Lookout!), whose quasi-emo-prog already chafed at the genre’s self-imposed boundaries. But that didn’t stop the band from dropping that nostalgic rallying cry “Speakers Push the Air,” a song that shoots a chill down a generation’s collective spine.

The only downside of the night was an aborted encore due to an injury or something. When bassist Ted Fudesco announced an in-store performance planned for the Virgin Megastore next week, Zollo added, “Come on, play hooky, hang out” and what sounded like “do drugs.” Somehow, on the eve of the WTO thing in Cancún, I just couldn’t see enlightened post-punkers deigning to play that consumer haven. One thing’s for sure: The shoppers didn’t know what hit ’em. (Andrew Lentz)

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