REAP THE FRUITS OF SXSW: March is an especially fruitful month for music fans all over the Southwest, as bands load up the van and make a mass convergence on Austin, Texas, for the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference, scheduled this year for March 13-17. No band in their right mind would travel hundreds or thousands of miles for just one gig, so bands tend to make a tour of it, hitting as many stops on the way to and from Austin as possible because, as Mike Watt once said, "If you aren't playing, you're paying." Luckily, Tucson is one of those Southwestern towns that reaps the residual benefits of the conference, and this week marks the first windfall of SXSW-aimed bands, one that will continue for the next few weeks. It only happens once a year, folks, so take advantage of it while you can.
ELECTRO-ETHNIC: Though former Talking Head David Byrne's solo output becomes seemingly less relevant with each new release, the label he founded and runs, Luaka Bop, keeps his hand in the game, with its always interesting roster of current world-music-inspired acts (Los Amigos Invisibles, Susana Baca) and rediscovery of old ones (Os Mutantes, Shuggie Otis). Falling into the former category is New York City's Si*Sé, a six-piece multi-culti, bilingual collective fronted by vocalist Carol C. (the beauty) and producer Cliff Cristafaro (the beats), who provides programming and keyboards. They are abetted by a drummer, a percussionist, a bassist and a viola player. The band's self-titled debut album, released last year, draws on rhythms that place it in the electronic pop category, but it encompasses so much more that descriptions become difficult (though the press kit quote describing it as "the sound of worlds colliding, nations rubbing elbows with other nations on subway platforms" goes a long way).
"Si*Sé" has a distinctly urban--as in, big city, not R&B--feel even as it pilfers from as many ethnic musics as you can imagine. It's sorta like how you hoped Nelly Furtado would sound, until you realized she's just a glorified pop tart playing the ethnic card.
The focus of the album is Carol C.'s voice, breathy and sensual at one turn, forceful and evocative at the next. Opener "Slip Away" is pure instant gratification, the rare combination of the ethereal and the danceable, and the first of many to fall into that category. Another, "The Rain (Where Do I Begin)," updates the Oran "Juice" Jones hit from the '80s to glorious effect, while "Burbuja," in lesser hands, would come off as Natalie Merchant warbling in Spanish; here though, it's a nifty dub reggae workout framed by Carol's roller coaster of a voice. It's an album as perfect for clubbing as for the half-lidded chill-out afterward.
Si*Sé performs on Sunday, March 10, at Backstage, 6350 E. Tanque Verde Road. Doors open at 8 p.m., and local DJ Alex Reez will spin as opener. Tickets are $10 at the door. For more information call 733-6262.
SKELETAL POP SYMPHONIES: On its third full-length, We Are All Beautiful People (Future Farmer, 2001), the band For Stars demonstrates its uncanny ability to meld pop hooks with quirky sonic flourishes, even as much of the material trots by at a forebodingly slow pace. The few upbeat songs recall a skeletal version of the miniature pop symphonies of such bands as the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev ("Wires"), and "How It Goes" sounds a bit like the missing link between The Bends and OK Computer. Elsewhere, the slow-core tunes are probably best described by the title of that old Replacements song, "Sadly Beautiful."
For Stars, along with Sub Pop artists Migala and Tucson's Truck, perform at 9 p.m. on Friday, March 8, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress. Admission is $5, and you can call 622-8848 for further details.
SLAP LEATHER, PARDNER! Since its last Tucson appearance, Gunfighter, which itself rose from the ashes of Molly McGuire, has undergone a few noteworthy changes. Singer/guitarist Jason Blackmore (no relation to Richie, as far as we know) and bassist James Armbrust have relocated to San Diego from their former home in Kansas City, leaving behind singer/guitarist Toby Lawrence (replaced by guitarist Mike Tobin, formerly of Stick) and recruiting a new drummer, Rob Smith, along the way, leaving Blackmore as the only former MM member and the band's sole frontman.
Yeah, yeah, but What do they sound like? you ask. Gunfighter sounds like a Midwestern rawk band that grew up with an ear cocked towards the D.C. Dischord scene, moody and melodic one minute, ferociously pounding the next. The arrangements are complex, but luckily never get in the way of the song, and the band will appeal to those who enjoy braininess amongst their bludgeoning (think Deftones or Queens of the Stone Age).
Gunfighter, along with Tucson's Red Switch, appears at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, at 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St. For more information call 670-9202.
SHIVERY HYPNO-FOLK: Singer/guitarist Dawn McCarthy cut her teeth on the New York City cabaret and folk scenes before relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area nearly four years ago. Once there, she hooked up with Nils Frykdahl--whom Tucson audiences will recognize from his other current band, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, as well as his former one, Idiot Flesh--to form Faun Fables. As evidenced by its debut album, Mother Twilight (Earthlight Records, 2001), the duo specializes in an odd hybrid of hypnotic folk infused with the spirit of wandering mountain ballads. It's gorgeous even as it's a bit unsettling: McCarthy's eerie voice brings to mind a cross between those of Cat Power's Chan Marshall and Sinead O'Connor, retaining the former's tone and the latter's dynamics; the minimalist, guitar-heavy arrangements locate the swooping, almost chant-like vocals front and center, right where they should be.
Faun Fables, along with openers Buko & Tita and Stucco Floor Fish, performs at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission is $5. For more information call 622-8848.
MOST MEM-ORABLE: Fifteen years of driving a cab would provide fodder enough for a person to sing the blues a few times over, and that's just what New Orleans' Mem Shannon did. It worked, too, as Shannon has been called "the finest social commentator since the days of Willie Dixon and Percy Mayfield" by the Washington Post, and "among the foremost blues poets of his generation" in Living Blues magazine.
On his newest album, Memphis in the Morning (Shanachie, 2001), Shannon mixes a healthy dose of wry, down-home humor into his soulful groove. Don't let the blues tag mislead you: Shannon's blues come equipped with a horn-driven chunk o' funk, recalling old-school soul-funk outfits like the Bar-Kays and Tower of Power ("Drowning On My Feet" even nicks the horn arrangement from Sam and Dave's "Soul Man"). Eschewing standard my-baby-done-me-wrong blues fare for songs about SUVs and opening for B.B. King, Shannon is producing some of the funnest blues music out there.
Mem Shannon & The Membership perform at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, at Boondocks Lounge, 3306 N. First Ave. Advance tickets are available for $7 at Antigone Books, CD City, Enchanted Earthworks, and at the club, or online at www.dotucson.com/tickets. They'll be $10 at the door. To charge tickets by phone, or for more information, call 297-9133.
FERRICK'S BACK: Falling somewhere between the strummy folk-pop of the Indigo Girls and Ani Difranco's acousti-funk is singer/songwriter Melissa Ferrick, who released her fifth album, Valentine Heartache, on her own Right On Records label in May of 2001. True to its title, the album secures Ferrick's title as the queen of the confessional anti-love song. Whether bemoaning a recently departed lover ("Maybe I turned out to be/Nothing like the me/You wanted me to be" from "Break Up Song") or anticipating the next one ("Will you ask me where I hurt/And heal me with your eyes" from "Will You Be the One"), Ferrick's songs sound like the voice of experience, as if the lyrics could just as easily be diary entries as songs.
Melissa Ferrick performs at 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Annie Hawkins provides support, and admission is $10. For more info call 622-8848.