This Little Underground

Dammit, man. R.I.P. Estelle Bennett (of the Ronettes). See? I do like pop music.

The beat

Maybe Canada's Cowboy Junkies are the kind of thing your parents listened to. Mine did, and they even went to the concert with me (Feb. 11, Plaza Theatre). The dubious tag of mature band is admittedly inescapable for the Junkies. And their languorous, often understated delivery doesn't exactly do much to fend it off. But seriously, kids, your parents are some pretty cool people if they're hip to a band as subversive as the Cowboy Junkies. Let me remind you that they took twangy folk music and got it stoned years before Mazzy Star did.

Though spare in construction, the acres of atmosphere in their supremely tasteful arrangements filled the cavernous theater with ease. This quality alone is enough to admire. But proving my point that a darker, more daring urge lies beneath all this supple gentility were string players Michael Timmins and Jeff Bird, who flashed some stylishly astringent guitars that were deeply indebted to the Velvet Underground and the Jesus & Mary Chain. While the reliable rhythm section held it down, these two danced on the edge of the knife to inspired results.

Speaking of the twang, apparently my assessment of today's country music crowd isn't 100 percent accurate. Now, I don't mean fans of true country music, who are much more of a marginalized set these days. I'm talking about mainstream listeners, the overwhelming majority of whom are poor suckers under the soulless commercial spell of the wayward pop-in-country-clothes Nashville establishment. Turns out, some of them actually do know some respectable music, as evidenced at the high-quality Reckless Kelly concert (Feb. 8, the Social). Almost completely devoid of the hipster contingent despite the band being signed to Yep Roc Records, the turnout was largely non-downtown good ol' boys genuinely enthusiastic about the band's robust, sincere country-rock. Humanity surprises me every day.

L.A.'s Slacktone rolled some major-league surf rock into town (Feb. 8, Will's Pub). Typically, surf bands are all about the guitarist. Now, slinger Dave Wronski is the real deal and all, but drummer Dusty Watson — who has actually kept time for Dick Dale, Agent Orange and the Supersuckers — was such a supernova of ferocity and precision that he was responsible for most of the octane in the performance. Nevertheless, they're one hot combo. And extra points for dope covers of the almost obligatory "Misirlou" and the Hawaii Five-0 theme song, which is only the greatest TV theme song ever.

The week's most high-impact event was the label showcase for local imprint Sleepy Bird Orphanage (Feb. 13, Copper Rocket). The haunting yet beautiful folk of Brooklyn's Christopher Stelling is something worth seeing live. His impressively layered acoustic playing maintained a gorgeously diaphanous quality despite being heavy on technique.

The main draw, however, was a genius head-to-head between experimental wildmen Happy Valley and post-hardcore mathematicians Watch Me Disappear that placed both bands on stage at the same time going blow-for-blow with original songs. The rules of engagement also included a guitar-off, a drum-off and a cover song each, the finale being an all-in jam.

The score according to me: Watch Me Disappear takes both the guitar and drum face-offs, but Happy Valley wins the cover category (with an even sillier rendition of Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy") and overall presentation for their arsenal of props, which was probably a foregone conclusion anyway.

The Bao Show

While we're on the subject of them, the next edition of my own traveling showcase of regional talent is poppin' off Feb. 20 at Will's Pub. You know the deal: I sort through the shit and bring you only the rarefied stratum of the area music scene — 'cos you're high-class like that! This volume features the blues-punk scream of the Hex Tremors, the detailed indie-pop nuance of the Pauses, and the jet-fueled, noise-pumped '90s indie rock of Jacksonville's Crash the Satellites, who are returning with a new lineup.

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