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Post-Cold War Crazies

From Russia -- with love, and tongue firmly planted in cheek -- Limpopo offers up a vodka-dazed zaniness that can only be described as, well, intoxicating. The four clownish comrades who make up this Soviet quartet have been kicking around the States for about two years now, and they've managed to cause quite a stir among clubgoers and music critics alike by taking tradition to task with swift and inspired lashings of Russian and American favorites. The group uses the balalaika, the bayan (a Russian accordion) and other instruments of their homeland, combined with trombone, standup bass and assorted percussion, for a sound that touches on traditional/folk but more often than not veers off into something resembling an East Bloc mutant fusion. What else would you call funky jazz-rock renditions of Russian household faves "Korobochka" and "Ochi Chorniye"? Weird, maybe? How about "La Bamba" and "Twist and Shout" pounded out on an enormous bass balalaika, accordion and ankle bells? Downright bizarre, perhaps?

Limpopo's considerable skills and irreverent sense of humor keep the group out of the realm of mere novelty act. Igor Yuzov, Oleg Bernov, Yuri Fedorko and Igor Khramov -- who like to call themselves the four Igors to make on-stage roll call easier and off-stage identification more difficult -- played with various bands in Russia before traveling to the U.S. Yuzov (vocals, guitars, etc.) and Fedorko (vocals, accordion, ankle bells, etc.) met in the mid-'80s in Moscow, at a time when a thickly stifling official fog hung over the city's creative population. The pair hooked up with another musician in 1986 and took on the name Limpopo, after a South African river mentioned in a popular Russian children's story. The band caught on quickly, and despite a constantly shifting roster, Limpopo's popularity took them to venues across Russia and Eastern Europe. Yuzov and Fedorko found Khramov (trombone, balalaika, etc.) while performing at a music festival in Poland. The pair ran into Bernov -- the large presence behind the even larger bass balalaika -- on a Soviet-American Peace Walk from Odessa to Kiev, though nothing clicked musically at the time.

In 1991, with Fedorko leading the exodus, the four musicians individually left Russia and eventually congregated in Los Angeles, setting up shop in the ocean-side enclave of Venice Beach, a place where they could be assured that their eccentricities would go relatively unnoticed. Since then, they've been the subject of a television documentary, played countless folk festivals nationwide, won Ed McMahon's International Star Search, of all things, and toured incessantly. With random bits of humor, dancing and lame-brain choreography, a Limpopo show operates flawlessly on the assumption that more is better -- more of exactly what, you'll have to discover for yourself.

-- Hobart Rowland

Limpopo performs at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday, December 21, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $10. For info, call 528-5999.

Robert Earl Keen -- Considering it's the holiday season and all, you can bet Keen is making a special version of one of his signature tunes, "Merry Christmas from the Family," a part of his show. A small-town Texas version of a Married ... with Children holiday nightmare, the song details how some relatives from hell show up, plug in their motor home and blow the Christmas lights. Then it's bloody marys all around to soothe the frayed nerves. It's an entertaining story, something that can be said of most of Robert Earl Keen's songs. While most musicians are loath to slap a label on their work, Keen has no problem doing just that. "I'm a country performer who doesn't get played on the radio," he says.

That definition doesn't quite scratch the surface when it comes to spelling out the impact Keen's beer-and-tequila-drenched songs have on his legion of fans. Keen is a troubadour whose words cut through social barriers, placing listeners on even planes. And while he doesn't rate himself highly as a philosopher, his musical tales leave just enough space for listeners to draw comparisons to their own lives. That's probably why his shows attract all kinds: suits, cowboys, hippies and college kids alike. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, 7:30 and 10 p.m. Thursday, December 21; 8 and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, December 22 and 23. Tickets are $15, $22.50 and $27.50. Mary Cutrufello opens Thursday; Mike Landschoot opens Friday and Saturday. 869-TICS. (Greg Barr)

Mark May -- The music industry appears to be learning, finally, that Houston is a productive area to go shopping for recordable blues talent. Mark May -- a veteran of the prolific Galveston County bar scene and one of the few living adherents of the peculiarly Texan notion that blues can be played on both standup and lap steel guitars -- recently released You Can Call on the Blues on Icehouse, and it's an impressive debut. May's backup band, the Agitators, are as tight as the heads on drummer Danny Goza's kit, and guest flames from Joe "Guitar" Hughes and Gatemouth Brown saxophonist Eric Demmer fuel the buzz that May might be the next to join the international Houston blues crusade. He's already made it from bars in Kemah to bars on Richmond; can worldwide fame be far off? At the Velvet Elvis, 3303 Richmond Avenue, at 9 p.m. Thursday, December 21. Tickets are $1. 520-0017. (Jim Sherman)

 
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