LIONEL LOUEKE On the new Mwaliko (Blue Note), Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke takes pains to show off the full diapason of his talents, and there's no arguing with his technical skill or his border-hopping mastery of jazz, African pop, and R & B. But most of the new record uses sophisticated jazz technique in service of concise, polished, radio-ready vignettes that rarely dig very deep. The majority of the tunes are duets with four different collaborators: throaty Beninese vocalist Angelique Kidjo, bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and Cameroonian bassist and singer Richard Bona. Between Bona's fusionoid fretless bass and Loueke's sometimes dubious aesthetic choices—he's overly fond of vocal tics like lip smacks, clicks, and scat singing, and his guitar is often so heavily processed that it barely sounds like a guitar—the album sometimes seems hung up on gimmicks. But on a version of Wayne Shorter's classic "Nefertiti" (a duet with Gilmore), Loueke demonstrates that there's plenty of substance underneath his style, engaging in a kaleidoscopic exploration of harmony. The three pieces with his longtime trio—bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth—also keep the bells and whistles to a minimum, focusing instead on rigorous, fully engaged jazz performances. And luckily Loueke will appear with that trio here. See also Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20. —Peter Margasak
WILD BEASTS When I first heard Wild Beasts' 2008 debut, Limbo, Panto, I dismissed them as overdramatic Morrissey enthusiasts, trying and failing to wed theatrical vocals to minimalist indie pop the way Antony & the Johnsons can. Consequently last year's Two Dancers (Domino) gathered dust on my desk for months before I felt prepared to brave once again the falsetto of singer Hayden Thorpe, who handles a bit more than half of the band's lead vocals. This time the band's debonair English swagger, which I initially found obnoxious, won me over—I think Thorpe's fascinating, meandering singing must have burrowed into my subconscious and flipped a switch. Brooding and dark, Two Dancers works hard to create its strangely seductive pull: the most dynamic song, "All the King's Men," juxtaposes ominous chants with shrill yelps, and the tenor vocals of Tom Fleming have an undercurrent of hothouse salaciousness a la Nick Cave. Wild Beasts are an acquired taste, but that second spoonful is worth the trouble. Still Life Still opens; see also Friday. 9 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, $15, $13 in advance, 18+. —Kevin Warwick
COUGARS What does it take to lure Cougars out of their den in this kind of winter? (I mean the local band—if I were talking about horny older ladies, I wouldn't have used a capital C.) Their appearances have been few and far between lately, but it seems that a highly pimped night of wrestling is enough to make one happen. The Rock and Wrestling Supershow, organized by EGO Pro Wrestling, features a hefty slate of midwestern wrestlers, and the main event is "Mr. EGO" himself, Cody Hawk, against Colt "Boom Boom" Cabana. Further down the card are Benjamin Kimera versus "Hardcore" Craig and Tarek the Legend versus "Relentless" Ron Mathis; there will also be a "triple threat" match with Ala Hussein, Steve Stone, and Devon Maximus, plus a tag-team bout with Utterly Fabulous and Punk Rock Rebellion (which sounds to me like a rumble that might've happened on Belmont in the 80s). It takes a furious barrage of mean-ass rock 'n' roll to properly soundtrack this kind of spectacle—the customary nu-metal just makes it feel like you're watching an energy-drink commercial. Cougars play so hard it sometimes seems like they're parodying hard rock, which to my mind makes them a perfect match for a sport that can't decide if it's parodying itself. Boots With Spurs open. 7 PM, Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake, 312-666-6775 or 866-468-3401, $15. —Monica Kendrick
FOUR TET There Is Love in You (Domino), Four Tet's first proper full-length (not remixes, not a collaboration) in more than four years, is being derided in some quarters as a straight-ahead dance album, which tells you a lot about the kind of fans Kieran Hebden has attracted with this project. It's admittedly a straight-ahead album in that it's fairly linear, without so much of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink incongruity that you might expect if you've heard the rest of Hebden's work. "She Just Likes to Fight" is lazily sweet, and clacking samples—stereo-panned triangles, what could be a lock opening—comprise parts of the beat; it sounds like a remix of an old Tortoise song. But to call There Is Love in You a dance album is a bit of a misnomer, since you'd have a hard time luring anyone onto the floor with any of it, except for maybe two tracks—the middle of "Love Cry" is midnight-cold house, and "Plastic People" might work at the dubtech monthly you've got going in your basement. Nathan Fake opens. 8 and 11 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, both shows sold out. —Jessica Hopper
MATHEW JONSON Vancouver polymath Mathew Jonson, now based in Berlin like so many other dance-music expats, has tried his hand at subgenres all across the spectrum—techno, house, electro—both under his own name and in collaborations like Midnight Operator and Cobblestone Jazz. His signature sound is quiet, subtle, and moody. Even his trackiest stuff builds into an unbroken woozy haze, but the complexity of the compositions keeps you from just floating away into the ambience. To follow how the songs shift—getting small and distant and then returning altered and sinister—you have to actively listen. Sassmouth opens. 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, 773-549-4140, $10, $15 after midnight. —Jessica Hopper
LIONEL LOUEKE See Thursday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
- Cameron Wittig
- Retribution Gospel Choir
RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR Alan Sparhawk, best known as the singer, guitarist, and lyricist for Low, has often indulged his harder-rocking side in a second band like Black Eyed Snakes or Retribution Gospel Choir. Lately the Choir—which also includes Low bassist Steve Garrington—looks more and more like the main attraction. While Low have no new album on the horizon and these days are gigging mainly in support of Morgan Thorson's dance troupe, RGC have been touring relentlessly and sound like they mean business on their new full-length, 2 (Sub Pop). Their debut felt like a grainy snapshot of the band's vivid and powerful live show, but this time out mixing engineer Matt Beckley—who's had a hand in productions by Avril Lavigne and Leona Lewis—gives Sparhawk's heavy riffs and spacey leads a massive, radio-friendly presence without compromising the songs' richness of detail. Local quartet Implodes open; one of their guitarists, Ken Camden, is about to release an album of Cluster-esque solo instrumentals called Lethargy & Repercussion (Kranky). 10 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433 or 866-468-3401, $10. —Bill Meyer
WILD BEASTS See Thursday. Still Life Still opens. 10 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, $15, $13 in advance.
CHICAGO UNDERGROUND DUO Boca Negra (Thrill Jockey), the Chicago Underground Duo's fifth album, is their richest, most diverse, and most daring yet. On previous efforts cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor have ranged along the spectrum linking free improvisation and postbop, augmenting their lush, spacey music with electronic effects and programmed bass lines, but they've never before unified the elements of their sound so completely. They recorded the new album last spring in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with producer Matthew Lux (who's played with Taylor and Mazurek, albeit not together, in contexts as varied as Isotope 217, Mandarin Movie, and Iron and Wine), and the way they press the recording studio into service as a musical instrument reminds me of the work Teo Macero did with Miles Davis. But though Boca Negra uses more overdubs and postproduction processing than any other Chicago Underground Duo record, in many ways it's also their most organic-sounding effort. Taylor creates a deep, thundering barrage, heavy on the low toms and kick drum, and simultaneously sustains a kaleidoscopic sizzle of cymbal tones; he sometimes switches to vibes or mbira, and on Ornette Coleman's "Broken Shadows" he pulls off an impressive feat, playing vibes with one hand and trap set with his other three limbs. Mazurek's abstract smears and snorts owe a debt of influence to his recent collaborator Bill Dixon, while his tart melodicism bears the mark of Don Cherry—and though both qualities have been part of his style for ages, he moves between them more fluidly and seamlessly than ever before. The album includes moments of introspective tenderness ("Quantum Eye"), minimalist gurgling ("Hermeto"), and celestial contemplation ("Roots and Shooting Stars"), and its ten pieces cohere into a warm, tactile, three-dimensional whole. 8:30 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433 or 866-468-3401, $10. —Peter Margasak
LIONEL LOUEKE See Thursday. 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
PATTI SMITH While researching the bootleg record industry I discovered that Patti Smith, despite lacking the gigantic rock-star status of frequently bootlegged acts like the Stones and Led Zeppelin, was nonetheless a favorite of concert recordists. Several illegal albums of her performances did well enough to be reissued, also illegally, by other bootleg labels—the surest sign of success in the business. Listening to Teenage Perversity, an unauthorized recording of a 1976 Patti Smith Group concert in LA, I can easily see why bootleggers loved her and why she didn't seem to mind their attention. In a live setting she and her band crackle with an energy you can pick up on even through the shittiest speakers. Though age has mellowed Smith a bit—she no longer traffics in quite the same brand of unhinged mania she could use to turn Them's "Gloria" into a shamanistic punk ritual—in concert she still pours on the heavy, hair-raising vibes. This performance is part of the 18th annual Hopefest, a benefit for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; Troubled Identity opens. Sunday at 2 PM at the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State), Smith will give a free reading from Just Kids, a memoir of her life in New York with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the late 60s and 70s; see Critic's Choice in Lit & Lectures. 8 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage, 773-929-5959 or 312-435-4548, sold out. —Miles Raymer
BELA FLECK: THE AFRICA PROJECT Banjo master Bela Fleck is a man possessed by a great musical curiosity, and in 2005 it took him to Africa, the ancestral homeland of his chosen instrument. His multifarious collaborations with musicians from countries as disparate as South Africa, Mali, and Tanzania—including some of the continent's greatest talents—are chronicled in a feature-length documentary called Throw Down Your Heart and a more recent companion CD of the same name, released by Rounder. The brilliance of giants like Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Vusi Mahlasela, and Hukwe Zawose is so well documented already that the album doesn't reveal any new facets of their artistry, but what does shine through is Fleck's nonchalant flexibility, which allows him to fit into groups of widely varying sizes and styles—and the banjo likewise meshes easily with African instruments, making a persuasive case for its African roots. Fleck is promoting the project with this tour, but I expect he'll be upstaged by one of his collaborators: Malian ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate, who's bringing his killer band, Ngoni Ba. A brittle-sounding plucked lute, the ngoni is clearly a predecessor of the banjo, and Ngoni Ba is basically Kouyate and three other musicians playing ngonis in different sizes and pitches, joined by a powerful singer (Kouyate's wife, Amy Sacko) and sometimes percussionists. The band's excellent second album, I Speak Fula, recently released by Sub Pop's new Next Ambiance imprint, features guest spots from heavy hitters like Toumani Diabate, Vieux Farka Toure, and Kasse Mady Diabate, but even unassisted Ngoni Ba delivers an amazingly rich, full-bodied sound, tapping into Mande fundamentals with a radical combination of traditional instruments. Fleck and Ngoni Ba will be joined by three more collaborators from Throw Down Your Heart: guitarist John Kitime and blind singer and thumb piano player Anania Ngoglia, both from Tanzania, and Nashville-based fiddler Casey Driessen. The musicians will take the stage in many combinations—Fleck solo, duets between Fleck and Kouyate, duets between Kitime and Ngoglia—and everybody will play together at the end. 5 and 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728-6000, $45, $43 members, $41 seniors and children. —Peter Margasak
MERLE HAGGARD & KRIS KRISTOFFERSON Merle Haggard is both a flinty ex-con and one of modern music's most tender balladeers, and though he's an idol to countless red-state rednecks, his own politics lean toward the progressive. Contradictions like that make him the closest thing this world's got to a living embodiment of the shitkicker/sweetheart dichotomy that country has leaned on ever since it became pop music. Nobody can put out records for half a century without dropping a few duds, but of the God knows how many albums Haggard has recorded, very few are outright embarrassing—and his rootsy recent material stands up pretty well against the outlaw-country classics he was cutting at his peak. If you've got any sort of appreciation for country music, you owe it to yourself to see Hag—his lung-cancer surgery in late 2008 was a success, but it was also a reminder that he's not gonna be touring forever. At this show, billed as an "acoustic evening," he'll be sharing the stage with Kris Kristofferson, and the banter promises to be so good you might forget you're not in somebody's living room. Kristofferson has gotten more attention in recent years for his acting work, but he's also the guy who wrote signature songs for everyone from Johnny Cash to Janis Joplin—his roles in a bunch of vampire movies (and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes) haven't changed that. With last year's Closer to the Bone (New West) and a revelatory session for Daytrotter in November, he's showed that his ability to summon deep emotions with a minimum of fuss is undiminished. 7 PM, Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont, 847-671-5100 or 312-559-1212, $35-$65. —Miles Raymer
LIONEL LOUEKE See Thursday. 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, 312-360-0234, $20.
MARS Have you ever listened to gangsta rap and thought, "Well, the violence is great, but this stuff is just too darn socially conscious and tasteful?" Then horrorcore rapper Mars is for you. He's fond enough of his Hannibal Lecter-style mask that I'm beginning to suspect he's actually really dorky looking without it, but I'll give him this: he knows the genre, and he proves it with his Internet radio show, "Suicide Hotline: The History of the Wicked Shit." (It's broadcast on WFKO, aka WFuckOff Radio, the online network of the juggalo nation.) His breakthrough release, 2005's Mars Attacks, is a similar display of mastery in album form, but my favorite is last summer's School House Glock (Mad Insanity). It's basically a concept record about how hilarious school shootings are, with side orders of rape and necrophilia—and perhaps most shockingly, it ends with a maudlin number where Mars suffers through a breakup and misses his kids. The real pleasure of this music? It takes moralists' arguments about slippery slopes on a wild toboggan ride straight to hell, rendering every conceivable taboo laughable, and still society fails to fall apart. ABK headlines; Mars, Trackula, the DRP, Critical Bill, Lil Sicc, Mission 16, UGV, Skitzofranix, and Talk-Sic open. 6 PM, Reggie's Rock Club, 2109 S. State, 312-949-0121 or 866-468-3401, $15, 18+. —Monica Kendrick
TAKEN BY TREES Much ado has been made about the decision of former Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman to record East of Eden (Rough Trade), the latest Taken by Trees album, with local musicians in Lahore, Pakistan. It was a brave choice and I'm impressed she pulled it off, but the album's level of engagement with Pakistani music is fairly minimal. Elements of qawwali are certainly present, but almost exclusively as ornamentation—the only exception is the traditional song "Wapas Karna," which features a seven-year-old boy named Sodhagar Ali on lead vocals (Bergsman and her producer, multi-instrumentalist Andreas Soderstrom, were unable to find a female singer willing to participate). That said, East of Eden is a gorgeous pop album: delicate, pretty, and meditative, with Bergsman's fragile voice shaping simple melodies with an appealingly soft touch. She's joined here by Soderstrom and the backing band of headliner El Perro del Mar. 8 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2501, $15. —Peter Margasak
MASTERS OF PERSIAN MUSIC This immodestly named assemblage of Iranian classical musicians—one of those rare all-star combos that also hangs together as a focused ensemble—has been touring the world sporadically for nearly a decade now. The group plays music governed by a form called a dastgah that provides a sort of seed motif and a framework within which the performers add layers of modulations and melodic patterns, then circle back to the motif. Dastgahs are usually monophonic—meaning that everyone plays the melody together, without harmonizing—but the Masters of Persian Music depart in small but important ways from the tradition, improvising brilliant lattices of contrapuntal lines, extending delicate curlicues and trills into the spaces in the tunes, and taking showstopping solos by turns. The current lineup, billed as "Three Generations," includes new vocalist Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, a powerhouse who's studied with group's original singer, Mohammad Reza Shajarian. He's the youngest member, but from what I've heard—specifically his performances on the Shahnaz Ensemble album Aseman—he's impressively accomplished already. His tone and pitch are precise, his melodic elaborations are inventive, and he's breathtakingly intense—particularly when he soars ululating into his upper register. The other key members are Kayhan Kalhor, a master of the kemancheh (spike fiddle) who's lent his sublimely lyrical playing to projects outside the Persian tradition (he's worked with Indian sitar player Shujaat Hussain Khan and New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider), and Hossein Alizadeh, a virtuoso on the tar (lute) who's also a prolific composer of film soundtracks and classical repertoire. Rounding out the seven-piece ensemble are Fariborz Azizi on bass tar, Pezham Akhavass on tombak (hand drum), Hamid Reza Maleki on santur (hammered dulcimer), and Siamak Jahangiry on ney (flute). 7:30 PM, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 312-294-3000, $20-$70. —Peter Margasak
- In the Country
IN THE COUNTRY Upon the release of its 2005 debut, This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat, this Norwegian trio was celebrated as the first jazz act on the roster of the eclectic Rune Grammofon label, but even then In the Country hardly played conventional jazz. On the group's third and latest album, Whiteout, pianist and composer Morten Qvenild (the "orchestra" in Susanna & the Magical Orchestra) spaces his notes out patiently, displaying the influence of Paul Bley, but little else about the music feels jazzy at all: the moody, contemplative tunes embed improvisation in their written material instead of foregrounding it in solo form, and instead of swing and spontaneity they have tight, ornate structures, like pop songs. The album's seven pieces, fleshed out by Andreas Mjos (Jaga Jazzist) on guitar, vibraphone, and marimba, move at an elegant crawl, subtly elaborating on their pretty phrases and accreting details in slow motion. Bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Paal Hausken usually deploy a feather-stroke pulse that shapes and supports the tissue of the music like a delicate armature, but they can also apply some muscle when it's called for. I'm not crazy about the grandiose synthesizers Qvenild uses on a couple pieces, but even with them, Whiteout is a gorgeous and distinctive album—and if you're willing to submit to its serenity, you'll be able to feel the power at its core. Apiary opens. 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $12, $10 in advance. —Peter Margasak