ARAB ON RADAR 3/17, FIRESIDE BOWL There was a time when great rock 'n' roll front men--Iggy Pop, Alan Vega, Johnny Rotten--courted physical confrontation with audiences in intimate settings (or at least coped with it admirably when it came unbidden). But audiences have thicker skin now, and Arab on Radar's William Tell is one of the few singers who can get a real rise out of them, acting very very convincingly like that smelly Tourette's sufferer on the bus. Of course by now the band's fans go expecting to be assaulted in fascinating and humiliating ways--the surprise is in how. But what may surprise those who only know the hype is the startling musicality of Soak the Saddle, their first release for the local Skin Graft label--a churning and throbbing and clattering but never purposeless racket that gives brawny substance to the style. PRODIGALS 3/17, NAVY PIER, ABBEY PUB The Prodigals, products of New York's Irish-immigrant community, have only been a band for two years, but they've already generated considerable buzz with their hopped-up Irish rock--which only occasionally degenerates into undistinguished festival mush or "hip-hop" melds whose most obvious point of reference is Sinead O'Connor. I suppose the Pogues are the easiest and cheapest comparison, but there's no evidence of that sort of wild genius here: on the Prodigals' latest album, Go On, the originals can't hold a candle to the traditionals (in particular "Black-Eyed Gypsy" and "Spancil Hill," which Americans would know as "Ghost Riders in the Sky"). Front man Gregory Grene is actually a Chicago native and once studied with local (and international) fiddle legend Liz Carroll. WOMEN HOLD UP HALF THE SOUND 3/17 & 18, HOTHOUSE That the lineup of this two-night festival is predominantly female is the worst reason to attend; the best is Alabama-based violinist and violist LaDonna Smith. On her rare previous visits to Chicago she's played with guitarist Davey Williams--but while the duo is no slouch, Smith's evocative playing is deepest and darkest when she has the stage to herself. She's a tireless promoter as well as performer of improvised music--for more info check out her Web zine, The Improvisor (www.the-improvisor.com), and her articles on the theory and practice of improv, particularly "Improvising Across Borders" and "Improvisation as a Form of Cultural Recreation." She performs the first night only; on the same bill are Jack the Dog, the duo of percussionist Carrie Biolo and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Kowalkowski; multi-instrumentalist Laurie Lee Moses with cornetist Rob Mazurek, bassist Cecile Savage, percussionist Ed Ludwig, and drummer Dave Pavkovic; and singer Maggie Brown. RACHEL'S 3/18, THE HIDEOUT The Rachel's (their subliterate apostrophe, not mine) are performing their 1995 score to Stephan Mazurek's dance/theater piece Egon Schiele, and to accommodate the requisite grand piano, the Hideout has actually knocked down a wall. But I fear the structural damage will be more compelling than this overrated chamber-pop outfit's polite and meager charms. SAVES THE DAY 3/18, METRO For all the tuneful buzz-saw guitars and speed-freak drumming on this New Jersey quintet's second album, Through Being Cool (Equal Vision), singer Chris Conley's vocals and lyrics are pure wronged puppy dog. Even the staged party photos in the booklet set the band members up as unappreciated wallflowers with big soulful eyes (all except guitarist Dave Soloway, who seems to be scoring). Yeesh. It rocks, but...key line: "I took a piss that lasted longer / Than you and your manipulations." MARY BLACK 3/19, THE VIC In Irish ballad singing, the voice is the key--the ability to sustain long fluttering phrases, to carry the piercing in-between tones, to convey the self-consciously timeless tales of love, work, and war, regardless of accompaniment. In fact, some of these songs still sound best a cappella, and listening to the world-famous Mary Black on her latest album, the rather redundantly titled Song for Ireland (Gifthorse), I started wanting to hear them that way: the tasteful acoustic guitar and keyboards, with occasional accordion or fiddle for folky color, seemed totally superfluous. Then again, with a voice like that she could be backed by Arab on Radar. LOLITA NO. 18, MUMMY THE PEEPSHOW, POLYSICS, SPOOZYS, NUMBER GIRL 3/21, FIRESIDE BOWL This Japanese package tour is making just five U.S. stops. Each of the four bands I've heard--no clue about Polysics--warps a slightly different strand of American punk or postpunk: Spoozys, as the NASA uniform on the cover of their Astro 99 (Bad News) and song titles like "Surf Devolution" and "It's Only a Droid" indicate, dig Devo, the Buggles, and Man or Astro-Man?; Number Girl's Rocktransformed (Parlophone) is poppy emocore, despite a tune called "Iggy Pop Fanclub"; Lolita No. 18's Fubo Love NY (Sister Records), produced by Joey Ramone and Daniel Rey, is poppy hardcore with helium-huffing vocals; and on their This Is Egg Speaking (Benten), Mummy the Peepshow are the most irresistible of the lot, playing tight post-Ramones power pop with squeaky harmonies and a wry freshness few American bands can generate anymore. (They're also responsible for the best song title I've heard so far this year: "Spring Pants Has Come.") WILLEM BREUKER KOLLEKTIEF 3/23, EMPTY BOTTLE Active on the European jazz scene since the late 50s, Dutch reedist Willem Breuker has played with just about everyone who's anyone over there--including Han Bennink, Peter Brštzmann, Peter Kowald, Alex von Schlippenbach, Fred van Hove, Misha Mengelberg, John Tchicai, Derek Bailey, even Can's Jaki Liebezeit--and with his ten-member Kollektief, it seems like he's trying to play with them all at once. But his big band has a very different personality from most of the folks you're likely to hear at the Empty Bottle or Victoriaville (the prestigious Quebecois new-music festival they're headed for later this spring). At times, they seem to enjoy playing to the cheap seats the most, applying their frightening chops to classical, cabaret, and camp with Monty Python-esque theatrics. Breuker is secure enough in his prodigious experience and knowledge of jazz that he can afford to go for some easy laughs, making this the perfect jazz gig to win over friends and family who think this stuff's only for eggheads.