ELASTIC FESTIVAL OF IMPROVISED MUSIC 2/26-28, 3030 If you're reading this on Thursday, you can catch the first night of this small but impressive event, featuring Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls (see Critic's Choice). On Saturday, cornetist/electronicist Rob Mazurek (once a Chicago-scene anchor who's seen more rarely since his move to Brazil) leads his Black Goat Ensemble; a version of the group that includes New York trombonist Steve Swell (who won't make this gig) and New York guitarist Alan Licht (who will) performed last Sunday at the Chicago Cultural Center and has been recording in town all week. Among the fest's other likely highlights are Ken Vandermark with his large Crisis Ensemble, Jason Ajemian and Nori Tanaka's bass-and-drums duo the Lay All Over Its, and a duet between drummer Mike Reed and AACM-raised master flutist Nicole Mitchell. See Jazz listings for a full lineup. PETER CASE 2/27, SCHUBAS Before he was a Nerve or a Plimsoul, the teenage Peter Case was a hitchhiker and a busker, and there's always been enough of the portable troubadour in his solo work that his power-pop years can seem like just a detour. On his most recent album, 2002's Beeline (Vanguard), Case is so comfortable in his windburned skin he seems to doze off from time to time, but the subtle arrangements prop him up as needed. Tamboura and harmonium fit in among the guitars like they've been part of the Americana sound all along. DIVISION 2/27, FIRESIDE BOWL This suburban trio is celebrating the release of Conversational, its second album (if you don't count a few CD-Rs). The melancholy power pop gets some extra depth from the Chavez brothers' interplay on bass and guitar, but what lifts it above the ordinary is the honestly gorgeous harmony singing: effortless-sounding vocal lines sprout up long and twisty from nearly every song on the record. NESS 2/27, RECKLESS RECORDS ON MILWAUKEE; 2/28, SCHUBAS Rick Ness's vision seems to have grown since the demise of his major-label band Fig Dish. On the new Up Late With People, he and his current group boldly bare their Queen and ELO influences in thick, ambitious prog pop with just a hint of rocker strut. "Where the People Kick It" is made of some new substance that's lighter than metal but just as strong, "Lightning Lights Up" sounds like Pink Floyd as interpreted by Dennis DeYoung yet is somehow not dreadful but lovely, and the 13-minute multipart title track is just gloriously audacious. This is a record-release show. UNSEEN 2/28, BOTTOM LOUNGE Though these Boston-based punks have been around for ten years, last summer's Explode (BYO) is only their fourth full-length. Their two-guitar attack sounds tight and focused, with tantalizing flashes of high-speed melodicism lurking in the fiendish riffs. I'm tempted to penalize them for the song railing at fans who called them sellouts for playing the Warped Tour, but front man Mark Unseen recently made a damn good point in a recent interview with a Tampa zine: big commercial tours are about the only way kids in the boonies get to experience punk live at all. As a former boonie kid, I dig. CHRIS WHITLEY 2/28 & 29, MARTYRS' Long-limbed, deep-lunged Chris Whitley has been singing his soulful badlands ballads for well over a decade, scoring the occasional minor hit and stretching out with unexpected collaborators (two-thirds of Medeski Martin & Wood, for instance). And he's built a solid audience in Chicago by making Martyrs' his de facto home base (his 2000 live album was recorded there). A sort of cult-level Springsteen, he's gone the Nebraska route before (with 1998's solo acoustic Dirt Floor), and on the new War Crime Blues (Messenger) he sets out alone again to confront naked grief and terror head-on with a chilling grace. His impeccable rhythm on guitar reminds me a bit of John Hammond Jr. at his best; the cover of the Clash's "The Call Up" here is by itself more than worth whatever he's asking. Whitley's also just released Weed (for now, both CDs are available only at his shows and via mail order), where he gives some of his older material (including favorites like "Big Sky Country" and "Phone Call From Leavenworth") the stripped-down treatment. It's less riveting than War Crime Blues, but so are a lot of other good records. SSION 3/2, METRO Cody Critcheloe, leader of this Kansas City-based audio/video act, claims Courtney Love as a major influence. But the aggro diva thrives on pain, and on Opportunity Bless My Soul (Version City) Ssion seem to be immune to it: Critcheloe and his conspirators repel angst like a duck sheds water, instantly deflating drama and melodrama alike into something clownish. That's an awesome power, and generally they use it for good--on songs like "Ride My Inner Child" and "College" they channel their giddy, mocking energy into hyperactive, keyboard-driven party fodder. The animal costumes liven things up too. They open for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (for whom Critcheloe has designed cover art). This show is sold-out. FUCKING WEREWOLVES, CHROMATICS 3/3, FIRESIDE BOWL The Chromatics started out as a skronky unit in the vein of PiL or the Fall. When they really got rolling--on their first full-length, Chrome Rats vs. Basement Rutz (Mordam)--they managed to harness simultaneously two seemingly incompatible forms of energy: the stop-and-start as practiced by U.S. Maple and the irresistible-momentum-to-hell of Joy Division. But they splintered just after making the record; now original member Adam Miller has reconstituted the band as a duo with bassist Nat Sahlstrom, and their new Plaster Hounds reportedly sounds a lot more like Suicide or the Silver Apples. Also on this bill are the local group Fucking Werewolves, whose horror-show come-on "Lycanthropy" can be heard at home.uchicago.edu/kmchoy/band/werewolvesband.html. QUATRE TETE 3/4, METRO Three years in the rock polisher and still a pretty rough diamond, this local trio has just self-released its debut, The Marvel of Specialization. It's busy, heavy, angular rock, like Yakuza by way of Touch and Go. Though I'm not sold on the supposedly "gamelan-structured" instrumentals that account for 3 of the 13 short songs, I certainly give the band points for using almost every guitar tone ever invented at least once, and also for showing a little humanity (as when guitarist Mark Bartak sings about wearing women's underwear), something bands like this often have trouble doing.