Remember geek rock? Back in the late '70s, it took the guise of the new wave singer/songwriter when self-proclaimed English losers such as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson made low self-esteem cool and gave homely guys some long overdue respect. Both artists, of course, spawned scads of less capable (the Knack, the Romantics, etc.) and more attractive (the Knack, the Romantics, etc.) acts, and the novelty appeal was quickly lost.
Now, along comes freak rock, a homegrown pest tunneling its way out of the Midwest on the apron strings of what some misguided journalists are calling the "country punk" movement. Freak rock is not about scrawny, self-absorbed loserdom, mind you. Its self-image is more akin to that of the jelly-tummied, unwashed, beer-swilling crowd found loitering outside the local vocational school in a town near you. Right now, the two bands most proudly flying the banner of the miscreant, the deviant and the just plain lazy are Missouri's Bottle Rockets, the subject of much music-mag ink in recent months, and Ohio's lesser-publicized Ass Ponys, who may be too twisted for their own good.
In the Ass Ponys' hillbilly version of hell, a kid takes extreme pleasure in watching insects fry under a magnifying glass as he daydreams of getting laid; a lady spontaneously combusts in her favorite easy chair; a boy prostitute trades blowjobs for spare cigarettes; and decapitated snapping turtles hang bleeding from clotheslines. It's comforting to know that band leader Chuck Cleaver takes all of his ideas from everyday experiences. Cleaver lives in the town of Bethel, Ohio, a cozy little locale where, he says, "not only do [people] worship the devil, [but] they're dumb as hell." Sounds like a swell place to raise a family.
All of Cleaver's rambling about the abnormal would sound a bit tasteless and condescending if it weren't for his sympathetic delivery -- a strained, inebriated falsetto that could have easily originated from the mouth of a townie who's witnessed weird stuff for years. As for the music, much of Ass Ponys' latest CD, The Known Universe, and its even more skewed 1994 predecessor, Electric Rock Music, meanders along on a wavering path of equal parts folk, country and roots rock, but with nagging hooks that hint at a friendliness that's pure pop. Throughout The Known Universe, familiar melodies have a habit of resurfacing and changing as frequently as the songs' pliable settings, and more often than not, the basic beauty of the music clashes wonderfully with Cleaver's strange stories.
Whether this battle of opposites comes off live has a lot to do with the prominence of the vocals. If you can't hear what Cleaver's saying, then the magic is lost, and you're merely left with a competent bar band fronted by a good-natured, silly-looking singer -- which, come to think of it, isn't really so bad. -- Hobart Rowland
Ass Ponys perform Friday, April 12, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 (21 and over) and $7 (18 to 20). Throneberry and Acid Country open. For info, call 225-0500.
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Eddie Adcock -- Back in the early 1960s, when the Opry was the Opry and bluegrass was locked in its highly structured traditional ways, a banjo player for the Country Gentlemen had an idea: take any song that struck a chord -- a Bob Dylan head-banger, a Lefty Frizzell classic, whatever -- and grass-ify it. Thirty years later, bluegrass has evolved in all sorts of interesting directions, meshing with jazz, country or just about anything that fits. And though Eddie Adcock wasn't the only one with the urge to update, his early tinkerings with "newgrass" earned him a spot among the pioneers who, in turn, inspired Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, David Grisman, Alison Krauss and other next-generation giants.
Adcock's experience in rock and jazz gave him a sense of how to arrange electric or brass sounds for acoustic strings, and bend the bluegrass rules enough to meet in the middle. He did it with his Gentlemen until 1970, and has continued to do it with the Eddie Adcock Band since. Of course, having a lead singer with a voice as steady and full as Martha Adcock's would sugar even the nastiest rattles. And with Martha and Eddie teaming to write about half the band's material, the one-two punch is practically self-contained, needing only a bass and mandolin for texture and a little close harmony.
Unlike the brash newgrass instrumentalists that dominate the current scene, the Adcock Band won't bowl a crowd over with fancy finger-work. Their sound is subtler, almost smooth, feeding on hearty country-music stock, a taste for heartache and a touch of the blues. But don't confuse bluegrass subtle for bluegrass lite; the Adcocks' grass has heft. At Steak and Ale, I-10 and Wilcrest, at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 14. Tickets are $7. 467-5050. (Bob Burtman)
Alejandro Escovedo -- Granted, he's simmered down to a slow boil since his days with guitar-heavy roots rockers the True Believers and the kicker-punk outfit Rank and File, but Alejandro Escovedo's still got plenty of the spitting-mad youngster in him. His narrator's eye for the little details is as sharp as ever, and he can still grind out gorgeous melodies. Escovedo's new CD, With These Hands -- the release of which he celebrates this weekend -- suffers a bit from a lack of energy and an overdose of good taste, but you can be confident the performer in him will remedy that on-stage. In their prime, the True Believers, led by Alejandro and his younger brother, Javier, were the most potent live act around. The elder Escovedo has funneled some of the Believers' energy into his own shows, and he remains one of Texas' best songwriters, two things that make paying him a visit well worth it. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, April 13. Tickets are $8. 528-5999. (