HACKENSAW BOYS 3/12, FITZGERALD'S These boys started out playing bluegrass jams on street corners in Charlottesville, Virginia, and though the crowds have gotten bigger over the years--two summers ago they were the only unsigned band on the Unlimited Sunshine Tour with Cake, the Flaming Lips, De La Soul, and Kinky--they've never lost that busker feel. Now en route to South by Southwest and then to Europe, they're milking the last drops out of 2002's The Hackensaw Boys Give It Back--a breakneck-paced collection of traditional mountain songs and country classics that, in a fairer world, would have done for this music among the collegiate crowd what O Brother, Where Art Thou? did with the NPR set. A new album is due late this spring. BLACK 47 3/13, HOUSE OF BLUES These unofficial spokesmen for New York's Irish community didn't manage to put out their 9/11 album till just last month, but timely or not, it's the best thing they've ever done. New York Town (Gadfly) is a portrait of a city rendered in portraits of its people--lovers, fighters, firemen, soldiers--brought to life by an ensemble cast that includes guests David Johansen, Suzzy Roche, fiddler Eileen Ivers, and Rosanne Cash. The sound track is a bit flat-footed (homages to swing and hip-hop feel more like homage than music) but can't keep the strong screenplay down. HAVENOTS 3/13, SCHUBAS This young English band put out a beautiful debut, Bad Pennies, in the UK last fall, and former Chicagoan Chris Mills will release it here in April on his Powerless Pop label. Core duo Sophia Marshall and Liam Dullaghan, both previously solo acts, were apparently united by an aesthetic that brings American folk and country back into the cool British fold; on the album they trade off lead vocals, harmonize constantly, and generally work hard for their goose bumps, earning them honestly even on lines like "I love you more than the Rolling Stones / When you cover up your face with your hair." Mills headlines. SAW DOCTORS 3/13, THE VIC Irish populists the Saw Doctors recap 15 years of career highlights on their first concert album, Live in Galway (on their own Shamtown label; there's a DVD version too). What's especially striking about this evening of romantic but unpretentious (and unambitious) roots rock is how often and how seamlessly the hometown audience jumps in on vocals--I've heard plenty of paid, rehearsed backup singers who didn't sound nearly so tight and confident. TOSSERS, SPIDER STACY'S POGUE MAHONE 3/13, METRO Every so often Spider Stacy--cofounder of the mighty Pogues and lead singer in the post-Shane MacGowan era--brings the band's original name, Pogue Mahone, out of retirement and bestows it temporarily upon a younger group that has the chops and repertoire to back him on some U.S. dates. The first new Pogue Mahone was a Pogues tribute band from Cleveland, the Boys From the County Hell; for this three-show tour Chicago's own Tossers have the gig. They've occasionally been dismissed as a Pogues tribute band themselves, but that's unfair--Purgatory (Thick), the latest album in the south-side Irish punkers' ten-year career, is their most poignant, pugilistic, and passionate yet. They'll play a Pogues set with Stacy, then a set of their own. JOHN VANDERSLICE 3/13, SCHUBAS Though this poet of the studio might be one of the best songwriters working today (as some ardent fans in the press would have it), his new album, Cellar Door (Barsuk), gives me a creepy feeling I don't think is entirely intentional. He's clearly aiming for a sense of desolation right from the opener, "Pale Horse" (which quotes from Shelley); but too many songs turn out to be based on films ("Promising Actress" and "When It Hits My Blood" most clearly), and he starts to seem overly removed. Underneath the impeccable analog warmth, Vanderslice sounds a little chilly--like one of those people who think they know a lot about life when really they've just stayed home and watched a bunch of movies. COOPER TEMPLE CLAUSE 3/15, DOUBLE DOOR The Brits never felt the need to reject the 80s or hold its pop music at an ironic arm's length. Though the electronic flourishes on this NME buzz band's U.S. debut, Kick Up the Fire, and Let the Flames Break Loose (RCA), are...well, if not exactly up to the moment, at least solidly mid-90s, the group sounds very comfortable with its slightly gothic, new-new-romantic dreaminess. Traces of Pink Floyd and Slade aren't played for laughs either, for that matter. The whole mishmash is loose and lithe and considerably lighter than its sources, which is both a good and bad thing. The wonderful New York band Calla opens. BITCH & ANIMAL 3/18, SUBTERRANEAN This New York duo extended its impressive run on the feminist music scene with last year's Sour Juice and Rhyme (Righteous Babe). Coproduced by June Millington (of pioneering female hard rockers Fanny), it's got a lighthearted, snarky feel: the spacious, playful arrangements, dominated by electric violin and hand drums, echo both the Raincoats and the Roches, but womyn's politics run strong in the lyrics and bantering interplay ("If all you men are making money offa callin' us bitches / Then I'll just do it myself"). Sadly, B & A are calling this a farewell tour. Infomercialist Susan Powter and locals Super 8 Cum Shot open. CRACKER 3/18, THE VIC This bill, which has alt-rock radio stars Cracker opening for leader David Lowery's old band, college-radio legends Camper Van Beethoven, seems designed to illustrate the law of diminishing artistic returns. I think Cracker may be well aware of it, too: their latest album, last fall's iMusic release Countrysides, is all covers (including yeehaw classics like "Family Tradition" and "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother") with the exception of "Ain't Gonna Suck Itself," a new song about the indignity of being dropped from Virgin Records. Not exactly on a par with Camper's 1987 remake of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, but still a boozy good time, especially if you're sick of artists whose relentless drive makes you feel lazy.