BAD LIVERS 3/31, SCHUBAS The Bad Livers have persisted for nearly a decade now, presaging the ascent of alt-country, transcending an unfortunate and inaccurate reputation as a novelty band, and weathering personnel changes that've stripped them down to the core duo of banjoist-guitarist-singer-songwriter Danny Barnes and tubaist-bassist Mark Rubin. They owe their survival in part to the orneriness that's guided their career. Their first recording, a simple and straightforward country-gospel album, came out on the indie-rock label Quarterstick, and now for their third outing on bluegrass indie Sugar Hill, they've made an excellent, innovative album that pitches hip-hop, punk rock, blues rock, a teensy dash of funk, and of course bluegrass into the butter churn--the only shred of pure down-home anything on the new Blood & Mood is Barnes's twangy, nasal voice. "Fist Magnet" is a hillbilly rap featuring the couplet "My kinfolk found a rat in their yard / Life is good when it ain't too hard"; "I'm Losing" starts with a furious guitar part and walloping drums that would do Shellac proud; "Love Songs Suck" layers more fuzzy electric riffs over a drum loop with a banjo tinkling away in the chinks and a pedal steel sweeping out on the hook. Jon Langford jokingly coined the term "countronica" for the Handsome Family when they started using a drum machine, but the Bad Livers are the only band I know that actually fits the bill. JOHN PIZZARELLI TRIO 3/31, BLACK ORCHID, borders on michigan In his 17-year career, American-songbook singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli has done some things that doubtless seemed risky to him--his PR cites an album of "late-night jazz" versions of Beatles tunes among his "fearless experiments"--but listening to his smooth and torchy new Kisses in the Rain (Telarc), I am reminded why revival jazz tends to catch on among people who don't normally like jazz: the passing of time helps drain the music of any dramatic tension it might've had in context, leaving lots of pretty and interesting lines to follow but no bumps big enough to make anybody spill a martini. CASH audio 4/1, Empty Bottle; 4/5, the hideout Cash Audio is the band formerly known as Cash Money. The trouble started when Rolling Stone ran a mildly humorous chart comparing Cash Money the indie-trashabilly duo with Cash Money the nouveau-riche hip-hop empire. Said empire's lawyers sent the band a cease-and-desist letter, and as it turned out Cash Money the label had prior usage (1992 versus 1994--but what about DJ Cash Money, who's been at it since the 80s?). As a last-ditch effort drummer Scott Giampino sent back a letter arguing that the scale of business wasn't exactly comparable; he says the lawyers "still haven't stopped laughing." So he and guitarist John Humphrey shrugged and changed the name, figuring the last thing Touch and Go needs is more expensive legal problems. The Empty Bottle gig is a release party for their third full-length, Green Bullet, which features a new third band member, harmonica wailer Dave Passow. As the Blues Explosion gets further and further away from its source material, these guys edge closer and closer: Bullet is a not terribly surprising but great-sounding trip into grittier, lower-down blues, including eight originals plus the blazing instrumentals "44 Blues," from the Hound Dog Taylor version, and "Got to Hurry," a rearrangement of the Yardbirds version. The Hideout appearance is part of an hour-long acoustic show that also includes Anna Fermin and the Slugs. PEDRO THE LION 4/1, FIRESIDE BOWL, reckless on broadway After two EPs and an acclaimed full-length on Made in Mexico records, Pedro the Lion--which is for all intents and purposes David Bazan--has made an apt leap to Delaware indie Jade Tree. On his new Winners Never Quit, he illustrates the aphorism "a good person is someone who hasn't been caught" in eight musically sparse but richly detailed vignettes about a nominally Christian politician with a vicious social-Darwinist paradigm. In the hands of someone less tasteful this could be pretty turgid stuff, but Bazan's understated approach delivers real shivers. BENEFIT FOR THE BRIAN DENEKE MEMORIAL COMMITTEE 4/2, FIRESIDE BOWL Brian Deneke, you may recall, was the 19-year-old punk killed by popular high school student Dustin Camp during a 1997 jocks-versus-punks rumble outside an Amarillo IHOP. Deneke--whose nickname around town was "Fist Magnet," according to the cover story in the current issue of Punk Planet--was portrayed by his killer's lawyers as a chronically violent troublemaker, and the young man who ran over him in a 1983 Cadillac was convicted of manslaughter, given a year's probation, and assigned a fine that had to be paid only if his probation were revoked. Deneke's family has filed a civil suit against Camp and his parents, but it's not clear whether funds that go to the memorial committee will be used to pay their court costs. The donations page of its Web site, www.briandeneke.com, says "some of the ideas we are working on include: an actual memorial park in memory of Brian Deneke, a scholorship fund, [and] a homeless shelter." The committee is also putting together a memorial arts festival in Amarillo in July. The Fireside benefit is a matinee show with the Arrivals, Deals Gone Bad, Mary Tyler Morphine, and several other bands. FIGGS 4/3, SCHUBAS; 4/4,fireside bowl This New York trio has been at it since 1991, and its discography is fairly typical of a band with some commercial potential but never the right kind at the right time: eight albums on six labels, including the obligatory unsatisfactory major-label stint, in this case on Imago and Capitol. This brand of smart, tuneful, lo-fi pop has had brief flashes of trendiness but has never moved a lotta units, and it can take a lifetime to hone. Like Graham Parker, whom they backed for a tour and live album in 1997, the Figgs are still working to get it exactly right, and on a few tunes--in particular "Please, One More Time"--from their new For the Fans EP (Hearbox), they do. STEREOPHONICS 4/4, THE VIC Performance and Cocktails (V2), this Welsh trio's latest album, was a long time coming (at least one of the songs was written as far back as 1995) and sounds it: it's the kind of loud, howly, melodramatic rock that could have been issued anytime in the 90s. There are some nice rolling bass lines and some catchy-at-the-time tunes, but singer Kelly Jones sounds like he has Kurt Cobain bone chips stuck in his throat. Charlatans U.K. headline. CRAZY TOWN 4/5, METRO More music to overturn ATMs and molest teenage girls by, from this (very) Hollywood rap-rock band. In "Revolving Door," from their new The Gift of Game (Columbia), front man Shifty Shellshock tells yet another screw that she's "some ass to tide this Casanova over / Till the right girl pass / I'll drop this lifestyle fast / Cause what I'm really looking for / Is the one that will last / And make my present past / My adolescence surpassed." And where will that leave him for subject matter, never mind an audience? RED ELEPHANT 4/5, SCHUBAS The hype is pretty hyper, but as the title of this Chicago band's debut, More Sounds From Spaghetti Westerns (Aware), might imply, the sound is laid-back: broken Morricone homages, whistlings, strings, bangings, creakings. These aren't necessarily the folks you'd expect it from, though: bandleader Ken Fountain is a veteran of Birds at the End of the Road, drummer Kevin O'Donnell fuels his own Quality Six as well as Andrew Bird's increasingly manic Bowl of Fire, cellist Eric Remschneider has played with Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, and Filter, and bassist Ken Schwartz and saxist Josh Bell played with Cassius Clay. STRATFORD MERCENARIES 4/6, FIRESIDE BOWL Steve Ignorant, formerly of Crass, fronts the Stratford Mercenaries, who also include sometime Buzzcocks drummer Phil Barber. The band has just released a second album on Southern, and it looks like a winner in the vintage postpunk category. "Series IIa" is a muscular metallic instrumental that might sound like Big Black on the wrong speed if it weren't for the guitar soloing, and "Cheap Excitement" (as in "I want some...") rips out with genuine 90s frustration: maybe cheap thrills are a little harder to come by, and admitting to wanting them is a little less acceptable, than in this music's heyday. Wanting is this music's best subject matter--another highlight is the Fugazi-worthy "Where Is Love?" Uplifting.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/George Brainard.