Gradual Growth

If forced to lump Michael Fracasso into a category among singer/songwriters, you could say that he's the literary type. His songs have always had a shrewd combination of powerful images and memorable melodies. Yet, despite critical acclaim, two solid releases under his belt and a band that's so hot it could melt paint, he's not exactly what you would call a household name -- even in Austin, his current hometown.

Fracasso's latest and third effort, World in a Drop of Water, is liable to change that situation, however. Charlie Sexton, another of Texas's major talents, provides production assistance, not to mention his seemingly endless competence on a wide array of instruments, to add just the right textures and the proper musical settings to Fracasso's songs, which, in turn, are taken to places they've only hinted at in the past. At first glance, Sexton and Fracasso are an odd combination. Sexton is a talented young buck with major-label experience, his finely chiseled good looks commanding the adoration of female fans around the world. He's had the "Next Big Thing" tag thrown his way more than once or twice since breaking into the field in his teens. Fracasso, meanwhile, has been slowly but surely working away on his career, writing finely crafted epics and touching love songs while enthralling smaller audiences for the better part of two decades.

Even so, the alliance makes immediate sense when you hear Sexton's touch on new Fracasso numbers such as the jangly "Chain Link Fence," the rootsy "Started on the Wrong Foot" and the string-laced, Beatlesque "Our Finest Hour." For Fracasso's part, it's obvious that he's taken a major creative step forward over the last year. "Marie" is an achingly sad tale of the heartbreak associated with knowing someone you love has surrendered her life to drugs. It's drawn with loving detail and a stark instrumental backdrop that lends it a cinematic scope that exceeds its innate simplicity.

Indeed, Fracasso has come a long way since his formative years as a fledgling singer/songwriter in New York City's Greenwich Village. He spent 12 years in the Big Apple, honing his writing skills while becoming increasingly frustrated by what he saw as the glacial progression of the music scene there. Fracasso decided on Austin without knowing a single soul who lived there. Surprisingly, within several months, he was named best new artist in a poll by Music City Texas. From there, Fracasso hasn't looked back, seemingly winning over audiences one set of ears at a time.

Live, Fracasso's backup band, Horse Opera, is one of the tightest and most proficient ensembles around, equally capable of the lightest touch and the loudest roar with only the slightest goading from Fracasso. And like their winsome commander chief, their charms are immense and irresistible.

-- Jim Caligiuri

Michael Fracasso performs with Two Tons of Steel at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5. For info, call 869-COOL.

John Michael Montgomery -- The one word that best sums up the last couple of years for country star John Michael Montgomery has to be change. Known for up-tempo, lighthearted kicker candy like "Be My Baby" and "Sold! (The Grundy County Auction Incident)" and "I Love the Way You Love Me," Montgomery has taken a turn toward a more traditional sound and a slightly more serious lyrical direction on his latest CD, What I Do Best. But more profound changes have come for Montgomery on a personal level. In August 1994, he lost his father to cancer. The elder Montgomery -- who led the family band that gave his son his start -- had only begun to see his son's success when the illness claimed his life. At the time, "I Swear," the lead single from Montgomery's second CD, Kickin' It Up, had topped the charts, catapulting Montgomery to superstar status. To date, both the Kickin' It Up CD and his self-titled 1995 CD have sold more than four million copies, while Montgomery's 1992 debut, Life's a Dance, is now double platinum. But it wasn't until his latest album that Montgomery chose to publicly address his feelings about his father's tragic death, as he does quite directly on "I Miss You a Little." Still, talk about an understatement. At 4 p.m. Sunday, March 8, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Astrodome. Tickets are $10 and $12. 629-3700. (Alan Sculley)

Dervish/Nomos -- A number of young Irish bands are venturing across the Atlantic in the wake of the recent surge of interest in things Celtic. This week, two of the best make their Houston debuts, offering contrasting visions of acoustic music from Erin's green shores. First in town is Dervish, a six-piece ensemble leaning more toward the traditional end of the Irish spectrum. Fronted by lead singer and bodhran player Cathy Jordan, Dervish plumbs the usual themes of failed romance, exile and tragedy, offset by zippy versions of ancient jigs and reels. Jordan's voice has an airy, lilting quality that fits well with the band's string-heavy arrangements featuring fiddle, bouzouki and guitar. Accordion and flute also add texture to the mix. Just as punchy, but in a more contemporary vein, Nomos is anchored by the spiky beatings of bodhranist Frank Torpey, whose understated but insistent playing gives even the most introspective ballads a sense of urgency. Lead singer/songwriter John Spillane contributes a number of originals to the set list, and even the traditional tunes have a modern edge, with unusual key changes and other sudden shifts in emphasis. Like Dervish, however, when Nomos goes full-bore, everyone gets swept along for the ride. Dervish, 9 p.m. Friday, March 6, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk; Nomos, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 10, at the Mucky Duck. Tickets are $15 for both shows. 528-5999. (Bob Burtman)

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Bob Burtman
Jim Caligiuri
Alan Sculley