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With the hubbub of the holidays behind us, what's needed is a peaceful evening with some close friends, such as the crowd that shows up every Sunday night at the Third Ward's El Nedo Cafe to hang around with Eugene Moody.

There's probably no regular among the east side's steady-gig R&B crowd who produces more peer commentary than this balladeer. In the words of Collaboration Band bassist Larry Guy -- words echoed by virtually every bluesman in town -- "I just can't figure out why Moody isn't making records and going places. It's almost like he doesn't realize how good he really is."

There's no such doubt in the minds of the regulars at Maxine Waters' elegantly funky blues and soul food haven on Ennis Street. They've been discussing how good Moody is for E well, "a good long while, I couldn't begin to tell you how long," says Waters. Round it off and call it a decade, at least, that Moody's rich tenor has been spilling out of "the pit" down a few stairs from the dining room and filling El Nedo's every nook and cranny. Tell the regulars that you think Moody's range and passionate treatment of soul and R&B standards outstrips even the likes of Bobby "Blue" Bland and O.V. Wright, and they'll simply nod. What might be considered heresy to the uninitiated is accepted by the longtime faithful as obvious. It's also rather obvious why Moody's most enthusiastic fans tend to be the ladies from the neighborhood; it was a female fan who was once overheard commenting that any man who's that damn sexy is probably nothing but trouble.

Despite its cramped quarters and less-than-perfect acoustics, El Nedo, located just a few blocks north of TSU, provides one of the more fun places around to listen to Moody. Sure, it takes a room with the size and sound system of a Billy Blues or a Rockefeller's to let listeners really appreciate what an incredible voice the singer really has, but there's a comfortable intimacy and a great deal of history to El Nedo that underlines the collective heritage of blues singers. Little Richard once remarked that you shouldn't put a tuxedo on them funky old blues, and much of the magic of the music is found in just such small, off-the-beaten-path venues, where practiced audience participation melds with the music in a delightful synergy.

El Nedo's is a room that Lightnin' Hopkins and Cleanhead Vinson called home in their day, after all; to trod these hallowed boards is a far greater privilege than one might expect, given the cafe's nondescript exterior. Once you're inside, of course, the low ceilings and dim lights accentuated by year-round strings of Christmas lights scream "blues bar" in no uncertain terms. And when Moody and whichever bassist and drummer make up the Blues Back Band on any particular Sunday night begin working their way through Moody's intensely personal and heartfelt renditions of classics from the likes of Bland, Al Green and virtually every other balladeer to straddle the gap between soul and blues, there's a sense of delightful continuity and community that's seldom felt in larger, trendier blues theme clubs. Guitarist Jerry Lightfoot flatly assesses Moody as "the best unsigned blues singer in the world." The regulars at El Nedo, with their brown-bagged bottles of camaraderie, have been realizing that for years now. -- Jim Sherman

Eugene Moody and the Blues Back Band play at 9 p.m. Sunday, January 7, at El Nedo Cafe, 3401 Ennis. No cover. For info, call 528-3524.

Darden Smith -- To give you some reference points for evaluation, here are a few words other critics have used to laud this singer/ songwriter: crisp, organic, warm, wistful, gutsy, pretty, natural, intimate, individual, tough, insistent, talented, compact, unassuming, sneaky, romantic, compelling, promising, poignant, stinging, stirring, elegant, regal, literary, sharp, aching, sparse, gorgeous, catchy, simple, understated, heady, traditional, intricate. Here are a few artists that other critics have used as comparative mileposts for Smith's oeuvre: John Hiatt, Don Williams, Paul Simon, Bruce Hornsby, Marshall Tucker, Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Rodney Crowell, John Cougar Mellencamp. When it comes right down to it, Smith really doesn't have much of a personality of his own. Little Victories, his latest product, was released way back in 1993, so the guy's not exactly prolific, but that outing did at least point up the great critical conundrum inspired by the best of Smith's output: is he country, rock, folk, pop or what? He's too polished for hard country, too mellow for rock and just self-involved enough for folk. Put Smith somewhere between Jackopierce, Shake Russell and Jack Saunders. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, Saturday, January 6, at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $10. 528-5999. (Brad Tyer)

Guster -- Often, an untimely name change can leave a lot of damage in its wake. For Guster -- formerly Gus, until another band with the same name signed with a major label and threatened the Boston trio with a lawsuit -- the addition of the "ter" shouldn't matter much, as the band is largely unknown under any moniker outside the Northeast. But Guster is getting there slowly, opening for such national acts as Live, Liz Phair and Rusted Root, and even blowing the occasional bigger act off the stage with its enticing blend of multitextured acoustic guitars, upward-reaching harmonies and beatnik percussive accents on congas and bongos. An alterna-folk power trio that achieves its power by overstating its aggression without the aid of amplified sonics, Guster gives most other overtly thoughtful burnout bands (Toad the Wet Sprocket take note) a run for their bong. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue, at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 10. Tickets are $4. Cotton Mather opens. 869-COOL. (Hobart Rowland)

 
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