Anyone who follows popular music knows that success is often a matter of timing. Yesterday's cool, after all, is today's Wang Chung.
It wasn't long ago that alt-country was supposed to save the world. The genre even had its own supergroup in Uncle Tupelo, which, after putting out a string of brilliant releases to practically universal critical praise, seemed to define the movement the way Nirvana did the Seattle sound. But CD sales were another matter entirely, and it was a commercially undervalued Uncle Tupelo that called it quits in 1994.
Tupelo's mid-'90s spawn hasn't fared much better commercially. And thanks in no small part to Alanis and Jewel, their future looks all the more grim these days. Even the music press has found a new trend to champion in electronica.
So what's a critic to do with a great outfit like Whiskeytown, a band whose rootsy leanings are almost certain to become passe sooner than later? Good question. Incorporating a bit of low-key Replacements and a dash of Exile on Main Street-era Stones with heaps of Hank Williams-style heartache, Whiskeytown could well be the heir apparent to alt-country's crown of thorns. Band leader David Ryan Adams pens the sort of songs you want to tell your bookish friends about -- literate, beautiful chronicles of loss as catchy and emotionally bare as something Alex Chilton might conjure up on a good day. Back when Uncle Tupelo broke up, though, it might have been hard to forecast Whiskeytown's folkie evolution. Around then, Adams was still slugging it out with his first band, the Black Flag-by-way-of-Sonic Youth-influenced Patty Duke Syndrome. Looking back, however, those DIY roots were perfect preparation for what followed. In the best punk tradition, Whiskeytown's songs aim for both the heart and the mind.
On Whiskeytown's 1997 major-label debut, Strangers Almanac, Adams focuses on the tiny observational details -- a beat-up TV, a burning cigarette -- that seem freighted with meaning when your world is falling apart. Almanac standout "Everything I Do" chronicles the time spent lamenting a romantic breakup and obsessing over not being able to move on. "Everything I do," Adams sings wearily, "says miss you." All Whiskeytown's members hail from various points south, and they cite influences as diverse as the Police, Loretta Lynn, the Eagles and Buck Owens. (Though granted, it's hard to hear, say, Sting in Adams's subtle delivery.)
Whiskeytown came together in Raleigh, North Carolina, just a few months after Patty Duke Syndrome called it quits. Adams was looking for something to do, and Skillet Gilmore, Whiskeytown's original drummer, suggested country music. It was Chapel Hill resident and dB's co-founder Chris Stamey who brought the group to the attention of their current label, Outpost. As the story goes, when producer Jim Scott (who worked on Tom Petty's Wildflowers) heard Whiskeytown's 1995 independent release Faithless Street, he said of Adams, "I believe him," after which he promptly signed on to helm the band's major-label follow-up. Whiskeytown recorded 36 songs for Strangers Almanac, and the 13 tracks that finally made it to disc arguably comprise one of the best releases in recent memory.
Whiskeytown has a reputation for high-endurance, two-hour-plus sets, and the band's last few Satellite Lounge gigs have been bristling, if modestly attended, affairs. So catch them now in a cozy setting, and with any luck (a miracle, perhaps), Whiskeytown will be entertaining amphitheater audiences come this time next year.
-- Seth Hurwitz
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Whiskeytown performs at 9 p.m. Wednesday, January 21, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. 6 String Drag opens. For info, call 869-COOL.
Bob Margolin -- One of the more pleasing stories in blues this decade has been that of Bob Margolin, a guitarist who's secured a niche as an exponent of the music and spirit of Muddy Waters. Schooled in the rudiments of the blues while working in the greater Boston area with guitarist Luther "Snake" Johnson, Margolin signed on for a seven-year stint with the Muddy Waters Blues Band in 1973. His ensuing solo career, however, was stalled until he signed with Alligator Records in 1992, an affiliation that's produced three releases to date. Aside from his solo work, Margolin has enjoyed acclaim for his playing with the Muddy Waters Tribute Band. As always, whether leading his own band or sharing the load with old friends, Margolin speaks through his guitar with irrepressible personality and raw emotional veracity. At 9 p.m. Friday, January 16, at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond. Cover is $8. 266-9294. (Frank-John Hadley)
Rex -- These days, few rock drummers are busier than Doug Scharin. In addition to his work with Rex, Scharin recently played in Codeine, and he still mans the set for HIM and June of '44. Scharin's mastery of slow, hypnotic tempos makes him damn near indispensable, as he blends seamlessly into his musical surrounding. Tense, spidery, dynamic and -- yes -- hypnotic, Rex combines Scharin's languid grooves with various stringed instruments, including viola and violin, for memorable and deceptively poetic music. Over four CDs, the foursome's sound -- awash in emotional tides set to odd tempos -- has only gotten more powerful. Much more interesting at lower volumes, Rex knows how to articulate as well as captivate. On Sunday, January 18, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Tickets are $7. Those Bastard Souls open. 862-7580. (Brendan Doherty