This Little Underground 

As an event, the third ELLA Music Festival (Oct. 1-3) was a notable expansion for the annual local celebration of female artists. This year, it showed greater dimension through added program elements like keynote speakers, a market and daytime showcases of emerging talent (ELLA Rising). But while last year was a step up in terms of talent, this year's featured lineup was wildly uneven, ranging from powerful (Kaleigh Baker, Vasti) to merely embryonic (Jehn Cerron) to outright laughable (Keats' Handwriting).

The musical breadth ELLA represents remains largely vanilla, which is fine if all you're looking to achieve is simple solidarity, a revival for the congregation. But if you aspire to something wider, deeper and with more impact, then humdrum orthodoxy won't do it. Basically, if you aren't already down with this kind of action, ELLA ain't gonna change your mind.

There's more color to the female artistic spectrum in the area than what's currently represented here, many of them far more interesting in vision. It's unfortunate that some of the more promising artists this year were, for whatever reason, relegated to the second-tier ELLA Rising showcases.

Beyond the issue of taste, the voices ELLA mostly features tend to follow stereotype to a fault. And reinforcing stereotype usually brings adverse impact. Think about it another way: Has Oprah or Lifetime TV done much to legitimize women as a whole? Almost every smart woman I know rejects that idea.

ELLA is something that can have serious value. The regional female talent that I've seen firsthand could easily make this festival a destination. But what it essentially comes down to for ELLA is figuring out what it truly wants to be.

The beat

Having just officially joined the mighty Fat Possum Records stable, Digital Leather rode into town (Sept. 27, Will's Pub) with a fresh, synthetic take on garage rock motored by insistent, vibrating synths that lift you to catharsis. Even though the volume was kicked up by a full-band format, their commanding sense of melody came to the fore. Both this performance and their new album (Warm Brother) affirm that their electro-punk sound of before has blossomed into something more expansive and transcendental, something headed beyond easy classification.

Though strong, the sonic deluge of local metal merchants Khann can be incredibly dense and difficult. But their recent appearance at Garage Days (Sept. 28, the Social) was an excellent display of sheer technical brutality, proving that this back space is the room for them.

Sharing the bill were first-rate Kentucky killers Lords. A bloodthirsty clash of punk and metal, their misanthropic music rolled out in eviscerating slashes and laid down destruction.

Scotland invaded Orlando in a heavily accented indie-rock triple-header (Sept. 29, the Social). Though certainly not bad, Frightened Rabbit was the least moving despite their top billing. Their sweet, rich melodies had a tough time standing out next to the high drama and grandeur of the Twilight Sad. Although the Twilight Sad's recent album, Forget the Night Ahead, was a major mainline into their sound, the live show didn't fully capture that new power.

The least seasoned of them all, We Were Promised Jetpacks, delivered most forcefully with a simple approach that produced more crunch, octane and kick than the others. The headlong urgency they packed live could stand eye-to-eye with prime-era Wedding Present or early Walkmen.

With a consummate frontman like Richard Butler, the headlining Psychedelic Furs were good as always (Sept. 30, House of Blues). And despite the hype from decent records, Canadian indie popsters Islands were disappointingly thin live. But I was most intrigued to see Madchester poster boys Happy Mondays.

Personally, I always considered their music boring and absurdly overrated. Stone Roses? Absolutely. Happy Mondays? What-the-fuck-ever. But their historical importance is such that my curiosity to see them play after all these years was inescapable. Well, it turned out to be a flat performance. Age and drug-dulled senses were likely factors, but their biggest enemy was history.

Now that we're far removed from the atmospheric buzz of the late '80s—early '90s zeitgeist that added to their luminescence, their music ultimately stands as dull and empty. Their sacred-cow status among some is sustained only by nostalgia; they remind those fans of a fond vignette of their lives. But that's it, Jack.


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