WHERE THE GRASS IS BLUER: Seems local promoters and touring acts alike have finally realized not only that bluegrass is alive and well, but that there's a loyal audience for it here in the Naked Pueblo. A fine crop of bluegrass shows have made their way through town recently, and all have, seemingly, ended up in the black. This week adds two more to the growing list of top-notch traditional performances.
One of the true living legends of bluegrass music, Ralph Stanley has been an active performer for more than half a century. Hailing from the Southern Appalachian Mountain region (Clinch Mountain Hollow, Virginia, to be exact), Stanley was taught by his mama, in true bluegrass fashion, to play banjo as a young boy. In 1946, he and his older, guitar-playing brother Carter formed The Stanley Brothers, a band that stayed true to their mountain roots by playing music passed down from generations before. When Carter died in 1966, Ralph put together a collection of young players and dubbed them the Clinch Mountain Boys. He's been recording and touring with them ever since, garnering five Grammy nominations in the last five years.
This year's entry in the Best Bluegrass Album category, I Feel Like Singing Today (Rebel), is a collaboration with one of modern country's most successful songwriters. Despite the fact that Jim Lauderdale hails from Nashville (a town currently infamous for churning out soulless, slick pop-country), he's the exception to the modern country rule when it comes to writing heartfelt and genuinely soulful country songs. (A quality he shares with his tourmate of last year, Lucinda Williams.)
Never mind that some of his compositions have ended up in the hands of The Dixie Chicks and the like; his tunes have also been recorded by George Jones and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Catch Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys with Jim Lauderdale when they perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 5, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $18 in advance, available at Hear's Music, Antigone Books, or by phone at 881-3947. They'll cost $20 at the door.
On a more local note, you may recall a band from Phoenix by the name of The Nitpickers, who've made their way to Tucson for a handful of shows in the past year-and-a-half. That band's primary singer/songwriter, Dave Insley, has just launched a new record label specializing in bluegrass and country along with partners Michael Dannerbeck and Jeff Farias. The label's maiden releases are Tammy Patrick's The White Album, and the eponymous Nitpickers disc, a winning collection of wistful cowboy songs and uplifting bluegrass numbers with Insley's homespun vocals, often reminiscent of John Hartford's, floating above it all.
Join the Nitpickers for a CD release party at 9 p.m. Friday, February 4, at Nimbus Brewing Company, 3850 E. 44th St. Cover is $3. Call 745-9175 for details.
BLUE-GREEN SCENE: Traditional American bluegrass music takes its roots from the ballads, banjo and fiddle music of England, Scotland and Ireland, and this week we'll also be treated to a performance of one of the preeminent torch-bearers of traditional Gaelic music.
Though they hail from the Donegal region of Ireland, Altan is no stranger on American shores. Their new album Another Sky (Narada), lands stateside on February 29. Picking up where 1997's Runaway Sky (also on Narada) left off, the new disc is testament to the gentle merging of traditional music with a slightly more modern sensibility. Sky's combination of folk songs and originals features the expected jigs and reels, and a few songs in Gaelic, but the band's broad exposure shows a face as well, with guest appearances by Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Douglas, and an unexpected cover of the Bob Dylan chestnut "Girl From the North Country."
Altan's pure flow is unmistakable, but as always, it's leader Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh who steals the show with her deft violin weaving the backdrop for her gorgeous soprano vocals.
Altan continues the Celtic Crossroads concert series at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 9, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Advance tickets are $20, available at Antigone Books and Hear's Music. Tickets at the door are an additional $2, if there are any. For more information or to charge tickets by phone, call 881-3947.
MORE BLUE HUES: Before the Cohen brothers, Fargo, North Dakota, was known only for its funny accent, if known at all. But the northern outpost is quickly (and unlikely) earning a rep for churning out blues artists so young and talented it's almost freakish. The city boasts tender-aged blues guitar showoff Jonny Lang; and though she's since relocated to Minneapolis, Fargo was also the starting point for 14-year-old Shannon Curfman.
Not since Fiona Apple's debut three years back has a teenager sounded so believably world-weary, far beyond the life experiences of such a young singer. Tossing off Bonnie Raitt-influenced guitar licks like they were no big deal, singing in a voice that ranges from sultry to defiant to wistful, and co-writing the majority of songs on her debut album Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions (Arista), Curfman instantly suggests she's more than a mere up-and-coming blues artist; she's seems to be one who's arrived on the scene fully formed.
Lines like "I don't make promises I can't break," and "Let's skip the inquisition/ Consider this your eviction/I'm coming home," could be laughable in light of the fact that the girl's not even allowed to date until she turns 16. Instead, in their assuredness, they're utterly disarming.
Check her out for yourself at 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 8, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are $10, available at CD Depot, Hear's Music, Guitars, Etc., Zip's University, and Congress Street Store. They'll cost $12 day of show. For more information, call 798-3333.
BAUER AND BOB: Best known as the other axeman for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Judah Bauer has boiled the meat off the bones of that bombastic trio to form 20 Miles, with brother Donovan on drums. Where the band's spotty debut had its moments, the follow-up, I'm A Lucky Guy (Fat Possum/Epitaph) is a far more assured affair.
The spare lineup suits the material well, with Judah churning out clean Delta blues grooves to accompany his impressive backwoods crooning. Highlights include the catchy opener "East St. Louis," the wistful "Sympathize," and the chugging country-blues of "Oh Ruby." If the wack hip-hop beats of JSBX's Acme (Matador) were an utter disappointment in '99, the newest 20 Miles platter is by contrast an utter revelation.
The Bauer boys share the stage with tourmate and Tucsonan Bob Log III at 9 p.m. Monday, February 7, at Solar Culture (formerly Datura), 31 E. Toole Ave. Admission is $7 at the door, and you can call 884-0874 for more information.
SKIE'S THE LIMIT: If SoCal's The Fireants had appeared on the scene several years ago, they surely would've been unjustly lumped into the riotgrrl camp by hacks who never really understood that movement's intentions. Riotgrrl was all about female rage at the hands of, to quote Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, "male, white corporate oppression." But Fireants' lead singer, Skie Bender, maintains she's not angry, and the band's second full-length, Coping Mechanism (Firestarter), proves her right. Bender isn't angry; she's just paranoid.
Equal parts vocalist and performance artist, her delivery bears more than a passing resemblance to a post-punk Patti Smith, but her lyrics and the accompanying music are dark and foreboding, eschewing punk-by-the-numbers for something more dramatic.
In "Long Ago," Bender is "scared to be alone"; she concludes in "12 Years" that "nothing good ever lasts"; and "Hold Me Down" is, of all things, a love song. To this listener, the album is creepy. But reportedly, The Fireants are best experienced live.
Local audiences get two chances to witness them in their element this week: at 9 p.m. Thursday, February 3, at 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St.; and again in support of The John Doe Thing (the latest incarnation of the ex-X singer/guitarist) and local alt-country outfit Fourkiller Flats at 9 p.m. Friday, February 4, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission for the Congress show is $7 at the door. For more info, call 7 Black Cats at 670-9202; and Club Congress at 622-8848.