BLACK EYED PEAS 5/25, HOUSE OF BLUES This LA trio, which combines the flower-child vibe of De La Soul with the syncretic futurism of the Roots, is fast becoming the ideal hip-hop group for people who don't like hip-hop very much. The group's aptly titled second album, Bridging the Gap (Interscope), is packed with high-profile cameos by the likes of De La Soul, Macy Gray, Les Nubians, Mos Def, and Wyclef, which never allow the music to get too subtle. Soulful vocal hooks, sleek live instrumentation, and dynamic rhymes are set within well-oiled grooves embroidered with touches of everything from drum 'n' bass to flamenco. It's to the group's credit that it can make this patchwork seem seamless, but the demographic research behind the production sounds louder than the music to me. LAURENT GARNIER 5/26, REDNOFIVE This French DJ built his reputation at Manchester's legendary Hacienda nightclub in the late 80s, mixing techno and house with glossy 70s soul and R & B. He's remained an international star in his own right ever since, but he's also established himself as a label owner and producer. His F Communications imprint has brought the world not just his own twitchy, broad-minded take on electronic grooves but also music by Finnish producer Jori Hulkkonen and the first recordings by Parisian jazz-house phenoms St. Germain. His most recent album, Unreasonable Behaviour, works as well on the dance floor as it does in headphones, expertly balancing electronic beats and beauty as it swerves from robotic techno dementia to faux-jazz slinkiness. SPRAGUE BROTHERS 5/26, SCHUBAS Chris and Frank Sprague, associates of rootsy hipsters like Deke Dickerson and Biller & Wakefield (and supposedly distant cousins of Buddy Holly), explore the stylistic space between the Everly Brothers and the early Beatles. On their recent Forever and a Day (Hightone) their beautiful close harmony singing, hooky Merseybeat melodies, and rockabilly-flecked guitar are occasionally accented by a bit of Beach Boys sunshine, garage-rock stomp, or twangy western swing. There's nothing original about the sound--but the original songs are written as well as almost anything they're aping. GEORGE STRAIT, ALAN JACKSON, LEE ANN WOMACK 5/26, TWEETER CENTER As usual, George Strait himself headlines this highly successful Nashville package tour. On last year's George Strait (MCA), the voice that sold country to the suburbs in the 80s sounds as great as ever--despite the plethora of schmaltzy ballads he wastes it on. Also high up on the bill are fellow trad-minded superstars Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack. Jackson is arguably the finest mainstream honky-tonk act working today; on his latest, When Somebody Loves You (Arista), he eagerly plays the simpleminded good ol' boy, dubbing himself a "Meat and Potato Man" ("I don't like caviar, sushi bars / The IRS or phony stars") and insisting that "It's Alright to Be a Redneck." But he betrays his smarts when he rips through "Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-tempo Love Song." Womack chose excellent songs for last year's I Hope You Dance (MCA)--including tunes by Buddy and Julie Miller, Bobbie Cryner, Rodney Crowell, and Bruce Robison--but the grit-free pop-rock production didn't do them justice. When the corporate knob twirlers do let a little twang seep in, as on a searing "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," she lives up to her rep as one of Nashville's better mainstream singers. Lonestar, Brad Paisley, Sara Evans, and Asleep at the Wheel round out the main-stage lineup; BR5-49 and the Warren Brothers play the small stage in "Straitland," a midway featuring trinket vendors and carnival rides. KLEENEX GIRL WONDER 5/27, ABBEY PUB On his new Smith (MOC), Kleenex Girl Wonder's boy wonder Graham Smith scales new heights in self-indulgence: he claims to be giving the listener "a unique view into the actual creation of an album" with puerile skits that help stretch two dozen low-impact jangle-pop tunes over two CDs. Looking for new sounds to make his next album, Smith attempts to download some music-programming software from the Web but accidentally gets a top-secret NASA anticrime application instead; he then gets sucked into an international data theft ring involving the FBI, the KGB, a forensics expert, and a temp secretary. The whole convoluted mess seems like something Smith might have dreamed up when he started the band in 1993--but it would've been much cuter when he was still 14. Kleenex Girl Wonder performs on the final night of the Chicago Indiepop Fest--a three-night, four-show event taking place at the Abbey and Schubas--along with Frisbie, M.O.T.O., the Hushdrops, and Happy Supply. JAAP BLONK 5/29, CHICAGO CULTURAL CENTER Opportunities to hear a live performance of Ursonate--a masterpiece of dadaist sound poetry composed by Kurt Schwitters between 1921 and 1932--come few and far between. The work requires great endurance, imagination, and vocal control from a performer; its best-known modern advocate is Eberhard Blum, whose 1991 recording for Hat Hut is astonishing. I haven't heard the version recorded by Dutch vocalist Jaap Blonk in '86 (it's now out of print), but he certainly meets all the requirements. The performance is in conjunction with "Con/textual: Art & Text in Chicago," an exhibit featuring art that incorporates words, running through June 17 at the Cultural Center. REX HOBART & THE MISERY BOYS 5/31, THE HIDEOUT The leader of this Kansas City combo is a clever lyricist in the classic honky-tonk vein--some favorite lines of mine, from last year's The Spectacular Sadness of Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys (Bloodshot), are "I always said nothing would come between us / Cheating was the last thing I would do / But nothing just walked in the door and my promises flew out / Here comes nothing and she's looking pretty good." Hobart's singing voice--tame, clean, and thin as gruel--doesn't do the songs justice, but fortunately the band's sanguine playing, especially the fluid pedal steel licks of Solomon Hofer, does.
Monica Kendrick is on vacation.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rebecca Bournigault.