Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, has the most dubious reputation for live performance of any national touring act since the Replacements. While it was de rigueur for the legendary '80s Minneapolitan geniuses/underachievers to show up so drunk that they could barely stand up, let alone play, nearly all reports contend that Marshall is victim to a stage fright that edges into paralysis. Talk about the Peter Principle in action: Imagine a spot-welder afraid of sparks, a lawyer who fainted at the sight of a judge, or a golfer like Steve Elkington, who is allergic to grass. But since her image is that of the saddest and most fragile of singer-songwriters, leeching herself of emotional pain for the audience's voyeuristic pleasure, the infamous jackrabbit-in-the-headlights aspect of her shows actually seems to drive up her stock.
All of which is too bad, because contrary to the general consensus, there's more to Cat Power than uncut misery. Several songs on her most recent disc are downright peppy ("Free" in particular is an almost Go-Gos-like romp), and The Covers Record of a few years ago displayed an artist both acutely aware of tradition and utterly compulsive about subverting it.
And despite Marshall's reputation, the Cat Power show I saw recently was intimate and moving, both funny and harrowing, and it lasted an hour or more. Because I saw her on a good night, part of me wants to contend that it's refreshing for an artist to go on stage, "be for real" and damn the consequences rather than giving the same market-tested, tight, predictable show night after night. I'm even tempted to suggest that Cat Power's live erraticism is simply a by-product of her genuineness, the very aspect that makes her music compelling in the first place. But then again, I've never suffered the indignity of paying good money to witness one of her extended panic attacks. Heck, I even caught the Replacements on a good night. -- Scott Faingold
Friday, September 17, at Mary Jane's Fat Cat, 4216 Washington Avenue, 713-869-JANE.
Sloan, with Robbers on High Street
If you've never heard of Sloan, you can blame Kurt Cobain. After their hooky Beatlesque power pop made Sloan one of Canada's most successful bands in the early '90s, they were signed by DGC. But in the wake of grunge, the label failed to market the Nova Scotia foursome's national debut, Smeared. Their sophomore DGC release, Twice Removed, received the same treatment -- the label demanded a heavier, noisier record rather than one that offered the light, bright sound that got them signed in the first place. Sloan prevailed, and Twice Removed was met with an onslaught of critical acclaim and was even named the Best Canadian Album of All Time in a poll by Chart magazine. But the across-the-board praise was unable to generate sales for yet another unpromoted endeavor.
Fast-forward ten years. Sloan has stuck to its guns and is now touted as one of music's greats. The band's staying power has been rewarded, and its perfect pure-pop now graces an age that gives well-crafted lighter tunes (à la Shins and Death Cab for Cutie) the respect they've always deserved. Having just finished a tour with Aussie retro-rockers Jet, Sloan is poised to become what DGC never gave the band an opportunity to be: huge. -- Brian McManus
Saturday, September 18, at Mary Jane's Fat Cat, 4216 Washington Avenue, 713-869-JANE.
Talk about poor timing: Rage Against the Machine imploded as a band just when its politically charged sonic rants would have found a receptive audience. But stepping into that void -- and doing surprisingly well at it -- is SoCal hybrid-genre band Incubus.
The band's latest, A Crow Left of the Murder, is by far its most aggressive and muscular effort. Rising above the alt-rock tensions (and occasional pretensions) of the previous Make Yourself and Morning View, the band finally broke out of the rock-bands-with-a-DJ pack. Attracting most of the attention right now is "Megalomaniac," with its vaguely anti-Bush lyrics ("You're no Jesus / You're no fucking Elvis / Wash your hands clean of yourself baby / And step down! Step down!) and explicitly but innovatively done anti-Bush video. Singer-lyricist-dreamy pinup Brandon Boyd -- along with the rest of Incubus -- is genuinely pissed off about the state of affairs in this country, and a number of tracks on Crow explore the band's discontent. (Boyd calls his pen a "patriot's weapon of choice" in "Pistola.") Yes, millionaire rock stars bemoaning materialism ("Zee Deveel") and trashing pop culture ("Take Shows on Mute") are tiresome, but Incubus at least makes the excursions interesting musically. And when Boyd and the boys go psycho on relationships, as they do on "Beware! Criminal," or get mushy on "Southern Girl," at least they do so with panache.
Incubus is clearly developing, not stagnating (Staind, anyone?), and is one of the few to have played both Ozzfest and Moby's Area: One festivals. But given the nature of Crow, don't look for noted Houston hard rock fan Barbara Bush to be ogling Boyd's six-pack from the front row. -- Bob Ruggiero
Saturday, September 17, at Reliant Arena, 8400 Kirby, 713-629-3700.
Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra
As every storm junkie knows, most Gulf Coast hurricanes start roiling just off the west coast of Africa -- something about warm water and cool air. A black guy of decidedly mystical bent once told me to stuff all that rot meteorologists spew -- hurricanes, he said, really are the revenge of millions of dead black Africans on the former slave economies in the former Confederate States and in the Caribbean.
It's the kind of theory that's so rife with drama and poetic justice that I wish it were true -- deep within the shark-infested waters off the coast of Africa, ghosts of those doomed souls chucked dead and dying off the Middle Passage slave hulks stir the seas, brew up a storm, blow it across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, where, expending the force of 10,000 nuclear bombs, it annihilates the sugar plantations, cotton fields and slave markets from Havana to Savannah and all the way to Atlanta! Word. But don't the descendants of those slaves die in hurricanes, too? Isn't their property destroyed, too? What's up with that? Oh, well, what was that you were saying about "mid-latitude frontal boundaries," Dr. Neil?
But if that theory were true, the perfect soundtrack to the storm formation would be Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, or Hurricane Fela, as they should be called, so heavy is the presence of Mr. Kuti, the late African music god. The massive, multiethnic Brooklyn-based Afropop combo rains Nigerian beats over hypnotic grooves that pummel like a 140-mile-per-hour sustained wind, and the intricately interwoven electric guitars, percussion and bass move with an inexorable, slowly building power, which explodes with detonations of saxophones, organs and trumpets. In the eye of this cyclone are lyrics about the evils of imperialism, Dubya and international capitalism. Could be dreary, hectoring stuff if wrapped in a less attractive package (we all know that the Man sucks), but the Antibalas narcotize their messages with a bulletproof groove that will have you stomping out the floorboards in your master's house. And that's a force-five storm on music's hurricane scale. -- John Nova Lomax
Friday, September 17, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh Drive, 713-521-0521.
Susan Pace Benefit
While the meltdown of Houston's Southwest Wholesale, the largest independent music distributor in the Southwest, may not have pushed the collapse of Enron off the front page of the Houston Chronicle, the effect on the local music scene was devastating. And the loss of medical benefits has been equally overwhelming for longtime Southwest HR person Susan Pace. Pace has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease that normally strikes children. She's going to need a double lung transplant, and she's going to need it soon.
Former Southwest employee Susie Black has put together a benefit for Susan to help defray some of her medical expenses, and two mainstays of north Houston's vibrant hard rock scene have signed on to help out. Hollister Fracus and Sore both boast former Southwest employees, and their sizable fan bases will hopefully join with Susan's family and friends to raise some money for this most worthy cause. A silent auction also will be held.
As an added treat, the evening will be capped by a jam featuring members of Oz Knozz and Pitbull, two of Houston's most legendary hard rock acts from the past. This evening is a chance to check out the best of north Houston's hard rock scene past and present and help out someone who really deserves it. See you there. -- Greg Ellis
Saturday, September 18, at Forgetta'bout It Too, 5920 Highway 6, 832-593-7069.
When Leo Kottke strolls onto the stage at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall to inaugurate Compadre Entertainment's series of Americana-themed concerts, most folks in the crowd will be there to hear him play guitar. I'll admit -- he's pretty dang good at it. His singular sense of composition and use of unusual tunings has made him the most popular and influential acoustic guitarist in America for more than 30 years. However, the reason I'll be there (and maybe one or two others like me) will be to hear Leo sing.
Kottke once said his daughter asked him, "Daddy, please don't sing. You sound like a goose." There's a small minority of fans who would beg to differ. Ever since I heard Kottke's singularly melancholic take on Paul Siebel's "Louise" when I was 14, I've been a fan of Leo the singer. Kottke's voice is as unique an instrument as you will ever hear, whether it's taking on classics like "Louise" or Tom T. Hall's "Pamela Brown" (I consider Kottke's versions of both definitive) or original material like the quirky "Frank Forgets."
Granted, more people agree with Kottke's daughter than with me, and that's why his current album features only one vocal number (a stirring version of the Weavers' "Banks of Marble") and why the majority of his show will feature his mind-boggling guitar playing. But I'll be in the crowd, looking around for signs there might be others like me, keeping my fingers crossed for "Louise." -- Greg Ellis
Thursday, September 16, at Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.
The Austin City Limits Music Festival
We all know things have not been the same between Austin and Houston since those Hill Country rats snaked the state capital from us, but apparently that foul deed was not enough. Now there is the Austin City Limits Music Festival, a shindig to envy if ever there was one.
This year's model, the third annual, boasts more than 130 acts on eight stages. If heavy hitters like Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello or indie mainstays like the Old 97's and Wilco don't justify the road trip, perhaps a second helping of Franz Ferdinand or Broken Social Scene will. And when will we next get the chance to see the Roots, the Wailers and the Pixies in one weekend? -- Amanda Mahmoudi
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Seven Mary Three
If you think about it enough, music isn't cool. At all. In fact, it sucks. Don't believe me? The proof is at Guitar Center on any given afternoon, where washed-up SRV geeks tweak extended solos on gear they can't afford. The proof's also at Jimmy Buffett shows, where middle-aged white accountants in huaraches and Hawaiian shirts cut loose, ripped on Miller Lite and Margaritaville tequila. It's in the fanny packs of concert promoters, and in the acoustic guitar your boss brings to work to show you he's learned the chords to a Sublime song. Yes, if you look hard enough, there are as many reasons why music is lame as there are soundmen with bad ponytails. And for a brief moment in time, Seven Mary Three was the end-all, be-all of music suckage. Like Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, they were the "kings of shit." -- Brian McManus
Saturday, September 18, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak Drive, 713-862-3838.