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On the superb Viva Last Blues (Drag City) the rambling concerns of Will Oldham all seem to come together. Coherent but loose, he and the ever-shifting supporting cast of Palace (aka Palace Brothers and sometimes Palace Music) traverse lazy country rock, austere folk, and amped-up Neil Young-ish burners with a compelling immediacy that pays no mind to a flubbed note here and there. Oldham's taken plenty of guff for his singing--peppered as it is with cracks, missed notes, cries, and other clanging vocal "mistakes"--but part of his coarse genius is blindness to technical perfection, which comes across as unfettered emotion. The new album finds him placing total confidence in some invisible muse, allowing his voice to be guided through the rocky proceedings. So whether it's overstepping the boundaries of its natural range on the celebratory "Work Hard/Play Hard" or exposing its frailties on the spare "We All, Us Three, Will Ride," his voice seeks only to be true to him. Oldham's writing continues to improve, exhibiting greater depth in terms of both lyrical clarity--he poignantly examines basic desires and feelings with nonpareil power--and stylistic diversity. While Palace have always opted for a raw, slightly rehearsed looseness, a surprise gig last month at the Rainbo at the start of their current tour was nothing more than an open rehearsal--which would have been OK if the band knew the music. While Oldham's combos have often employed a strong intuitive sensibility, only ESP and unparalleled improvisational skills could have salvaged such a travesty. Early reports from the road don't suggest they've gotten their act together. Approach with caution. Saturday, 10 PM, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; 525-6620.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Oldham.

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