This Little Underground

And the parade of big names continues …

The beat

On paper, booking the original lineup of Bad Brains (March 8, Club Firestone) seemed like a certain slam-dunk. And it was, in terms of draw. But all that glitters is not gold; sometimes, it's just old. The legend of these hardcore gods looms large, holding a near-mythical place in the punk rock canon, but this show — a total lapse in performance — was a loud proclamation that it's twilight for these idols.

The primary culprit for the abysmal set was limp execution by singer H.R. Any sense of potency and timing in his "singing" is long gone. The only way homie could've tried less is if he rolled onstage in a La-Z-Boy. And it's anyone's guess why — ganja, age, whatever — but motherfucker is kuh-RAY-zee now. Who knew the band's name would prove so prescient?

If this performance is any indication, the only place the original lineup of Bad Brains can show up together without damaging their legacy is at a meet-and-greet. For their own sake, they seriously need to call it a day. You gotta know something is very wrong when you can say that Bad Brains' reggae sounded better than their hardcore.

Even older, but in far better shape, was British folk legend Richard Thompson (March 13, Plaza Theatre). Not that anyone needs reminding that most acoustic singer-songwriters aren't worth much, but seeing Thompson's robust guitar style and accomplished singing proved that the field is populated by some of the music world's biggest underachievers. While most others sound like a musical concession even on their best day, the sound of Thompson's voice accompanied only by his acoustic guitar was rich and whole. When you see work like his, a thoughtfully realized execution of acoustic music's expressive possibilities, it only deepens your contempt for all the half-baked wanking that persists under the guise of intimate songwriting.

Packing out the house was Atlanta's Deerhunter (March 10, Back Booth), the outstanding project headed by phenom Bradford Cox currently buzzing hard on tastemakers' radar. Their kaleidoscopic dream-cloud of experimental layers and textures was thick and swirling, but never without focus. Their nimble handling and honed sense of melody grounded what could easily have been a meandering storm of sound in lesser hands, in effect turning a hurricane into an orchestra. The result was an demonstration of how to not only fill but transform a room.

If you're a fan of Big Business, as everyone should be, then you need to jump on Portland warriors Red Fang (March 13, Back Booth), stat. Brandishing heavy metal that's deeply rooted in rock and punk, their grisly sound is a blitzkrieg of mammoth, hammering riffs and a roaring sonorousness — somewhere between stoner and ax murderer. Mounted atop the triumphant braids of guitars and the stampeding low end is some of the best metal riding today.

Also packing one big-ass donkey kick was the abusive noise-rock of Louisville's Young Widows (March 15, the Social). In a disorientingly loud fit of squalor and aggression, their polluted sonic advance stabbed like a rusty knife. Y'know, in a good way.

However, the most incandescent performance of the week was the essential, life-affirming glow of King Khan & the Shrines (March 8, Will's Pub). In person, the rock and soul production seems that much bigger, with a live cast that extended into the double digits including a full brass section and even a cheerleading go-go dancer.

Though Khan's revivalism does little in the way of advancement, he redraws rock & roll with rawness and abandon. His campy antics (which often seem to be competing in a race with the Black Lips) don't lend themselves to serious contemplation, but his howling fire-and-soul delivery is all truth. Worth every ounce of the hype, it was a radiant performance and a reminder of all that's redeeming about rock.

The doctor is out

To obviate mass hysteria, I've been asked by the authorities to serve notice that I'll be on break next week. Do not panic when you don't find This Little Underground in the next issue. I'll be back April 2.

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