The jokey funeral wreath set up on the stage last Saturday night wasn't the only sign that major upheavals were in store for Sapphire Supper Club. The crowd of well-wishers that gathered for the "Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am All-Star Jam" send-off for outgoing promoter Shayni Howen -- and incidentally, the club's simultaneous fourth-birthday celebration -- found a Sapphire that was comfortably familiar in some respects, yet drastically different in others.

"Where the heck did all this space come from?" the regulars might have wondered as they moved about the once-cramped nightspot's newly roomy interior. Its back bar had been truncated to allow for more mingling room in the area to the right of the stage; in addition, the cube of a holding pit next to the kitchen had been festooned with red curtains that set it off from the club proper, turning it into a separate, cozy haven. There was even a miniature VIP room for added solitude -- all positive steps for a venue whose square footage has never equaled its reputation.

Why, then, were most of the handful of early birds adhering to Sapphire tradition by standing right on top of each other at the main bar before the show had even begun, instead of availing themselves of their new freedom to wander about the premises? Because old, bad habits die hard, that's why.

At least the self-imposed crush made it easy to spot familiar faces. Seated ringside with his wife, Hate Bombs drummer Ken Chiodini explained to me that he had planned to perform with show opener Terri Binion, but "didn't work up the harmonies in time." As if a few bum notes here or there would bust a Bomb's cred.

Shuffling past us was bassist Matt Lapham of Kow and its seemingly 200 offshoot projects.

"Hey Matt, who are you playing with tonight?" I inquired.

"I have no idea," he dazedly replied, revealing that he was still feeling the effects of a multicourse birthday dinner for Kow frontman Anthony Cole the band had just celebrated at Houston's. From his food-coma mien, it was obvious that appetizers may well succeed heroin as the scourge of the Orlando music scene.

Joseph Martens' Hindu Cowboys scored major points by showing up early in full Western-shirted splendor, remaining in costume before, during and after the band's brief set. Talk about being married to your image. If I really thought that Lamar Alexander roamed around his estate in a work shirt, I'd be in his corner right now.

Getting with the times

Earlier in the week, Howen had promised that her going-away bash would be a full but economically paced program. And lo and behold, the music actually began no more than 15 minutes after the announced 9:30 p.m. start time -- further feeding our perception that this was not our fathers' Sapphire.

As Binion warbled the a cappella intro to her first number, a nasty howl of feedback rose from the speakers, overpowering every other sound in the room. Although the problem was quickly remedied, an uneven mix hampered the remainder of her trio's set of yodeling Americana.

No such problems greeted Martens' Cowboys, whose country rock was note-perfect and invigorating. They closed with a highly credible take on Johnny Cash's immortal "Ring of Fire," pulling off a tricky live fade-out at its coda. I can't wait to see them again -- perhaps next Saturday, when they're allowed to flex their muscles a bit wider as the warm-up act for Dale Watson.

The balance of the evening was a hit-and-miss tour through the various strains of O-town inspiration. Lapham and Cole provided the rhythm as Princeton's Guff performed a surging cover of Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust," and Darling drew deserved applause for its amiable, in-the-pocket pop. But the debuting Mississippi (a Blue Eyes successor that had been known as Pure 69 as recently as two days earlier) was too somber for the celebratory affair, and the jazzy SoFluid sounded, as always, as if its members were riding one very long jam as part of an in-garage rehearsal. The pithiest criticism came from a woman sitting next to me, who asserted that "Jackie Jones sings as well and dresses better."

The jokers in the deck were The Hamiltons, who defied the somewhat static mood by beating their precious brains out on what they persist in calling punk and what I still say is rock & roll. No matter what anyone thought of their defiantly dopey, blessedly simple bursts of aggression, they were the clear winners in at least two categories:

1. Best Lyric, for the line "You blow me away/Like the first cigarette of the day"; and

2. Best Reference to Howen's Departure, for the comment "She's gonna be a big record executive, and we're gonna be the first band she ... PASSES OVER!"

Musical chairs

Old-home-week vibes truly set in during the show's final third, with various Kow members and their collaborators repeatedly mutating into new onstage configurations. No one could have blamed you if you had by then lost track of who was playing what for who, even with the easy groove of the familiar "Like a Train" snaking out of the P.A. and across the tables.

Funk was not on the agenda for Howen's associate Michael McRaney, who revisited his days on the other side of the footlights via two songs' worth of acoustic plaintiveness, including a slowed-down version of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers." The crowd response to a quiet solo performance so late in the evening was predictably mixed, and I gave McRaney full credit for going through with it -- it was obviously important to him on a number of levels. The same couldn't be said of the young guy to my left, who broke my concentration by turning to his pal and asking, "Have you seen my bitch around here anywhere?" Sensitivity is just wasted on some people.

As Seven Mary Three's Jason Ross took the stage to lead the all-star construct Chioji through some lumbering alterna-grunge, we were but a hair's breadth from 2 a.m. -- actually 3 a.m., as the arrival of Daylight Savings Time was about to induce the last paradigm shift in a night that had already been full of them. A protracted and cleansing squeal of feedback brought Chioji's nightcap of an appearance to a close, ensuring that the evening ended just as it had begun. It was a welcome reminder that the more things change, the more they stay insane.


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