This Little Underground

R.I.P., Sunday Night Vinyl and Sunday Morning Coming Down. The classic alternative and alt-country radio shows, respectively, were the two venerable programs that were the most tragic casualties of Real Radio's (WTKS 104.1 FM) completely regressive overhaul of their weekend music format. Now, instead of being the only major commercial station to offer halfway tasteful and semi-current indie and alternative fare on its "Real Music Weekends," they play ... classic rock. Yeah, like that's what the area's FM dial was missing. Boo to that.

The beat

When Strangers Family Band first emerged here, their sound was more in line with the thick rock of the new psychedelia. Then they recalibrated their style by retracing the genre's lineage back to its origins. It was a purer turn, but it also meant they had become unimaginatively verbatim, stepping backward chronologically and creatively.

But at their final show as a local band (Sept. 13, the Social), the L.A.-bound group proved that they're finally back on their game. What was once an amorphously sprawling roster that at one point featured multiple tambourine players is now just a trio. Trimmed of their former hippy-dippy commune fat, they've become a lean, mean mind-expanding machine. Without sacrificing any of their devout psych heritage, their focus, guts and power are not only back, but stronger than ever before. In fact, I've never seen them rock harder than this. All of which will now make me miss them even more. Local fans, keep your ties to this improving band strong so they'll come back often.

Speaking of circling back, San Francisco psych-rock headliner Sleepy Sun, now on their third swing through this year, has been working our town hard. Their profile is rapidly rising and the attendance wasn't quite what they deserved, but it was definitely respectable. If you don't know their sun-baked, stoned-out goodness yet then get on it, because this is a band that definitely deserves our reciprocation.

Hardly any acts can sling sunshine like the Drums (Sept. 17, the Social), the Brooklyn buzz band with Central Florida roots. Completely unbridled in their bliss, their crystalline, caffeinated twee-pop sound is a fantastically pure capture of the wide-eyed teen romance of the '80s. They hit the sweet spot live, with the heavy lifting done by the physical and clarion performance of singer Jonathan Pierce. There is likely no other band on the indie circuit today that's quite as spark-ling and joyous as the Drums.

Few artists can claim a mark as mighty, important and far-reaching as Public Enemy (Sept. 16, Firestone Live). Besides their significance to the American fabric, though, I can't even begin to tell you how much they mean to me personally. But despite my pent-up fanboy zeal, I'm also a stone-cold realist who understands all the potential legacy-blowing implications of seeing your idols perform 20 years after the fact. Turns out, my misgivings were wasted because they brought the full-on production and blew the house down.

Besides some tentative S1W dance routines, everyone else came to play hard. The live band was solid and DJ Lord was a respectable replacement for Terminator X. But the two who mattered most — Chuck D and Flavor Flav — stood up, delivered and made it seem like the last two decades of music were utterly pointless. The Hard Rhymer commanded it and Flav's sui generis showmanship hasn't aged a bit.

In addition to it being the year's most vibrant rap performance yet, the audience was the most live rap crowd seen in ages. When it comes to the persuasive power of music, almost none can match the excitement, conviction and cogency of PE. And their ability to whip hearts and minds into a fiery spell is remarkably intact. When you see a show that makes you think in that moment that everything else is just stupid, you know you're witnessing magic. And I left the show wanting to set downtown on fire. Man, fuck contemporary rap.

The only sad part of all this is that their message of disenfranchisement is still sadly relevant in today's society. If this stuff doesn't resonate with you, then the system already owns your ass. Artistically speaking though, this was a performance that unequivocally reinforced PE's rep as the greatest, most essential rap group of all time.

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