Uncomfy niche... Over the last few years, Clandestine has become such a reliable part of Houston's Celtic folk landscape that it's been tempting to take them for granted. Like its contemporaries in Ceili's Muse and Gordian Knot, this rustic foursome is a consistent draw at McGonigel's Mucky Duck (where, incidentally, they play Saturday). So suffice to say, their stew of fiddle-and-bagpipe instrumentals and ruggedly poetic singer/songwriter fare has more than passed muster with local fans.

And while all of that might sound positively bucolic, contentment can breed apathy, and wedging oneself firmly into the city's supportive but insular Celtic community could wind up being as much hindrance as blessing. Still, Clandestine vocalist Jennifer Hamel isn't worried.

"There was this rumor going around that we were breaking up, and I was like, 'Whaa?'," says Hamel. "There's a lot of people around here who thrive on that sort of stuff, and I don't think we'll be taken for granted with [those stories] going around."

Petty feuds and gossip are as common in Houston's Celtic community as they are in any close-knit music scene. That means that those of us on the outside must set aside certain preconceptions regarding Clandestine before we can see the group for what it truly is: a highly melodic acoustic ensemble that's home to some of the finest players around. It's a unit with a vicious eccentric streak, and also one that, while inseparable from its roots, wants to be much more than a pleasing distraction at Irish pubs and Renaissance festivals.

Helping its cause is The Haunting, one of the best homegrown CDs of last year. Released toward the end of '97, the ten-song collection finds Hamel coming into full flower as a composer on the maudlin "Innisfree" (with lyrics cribbed from W.B. Yeats) and the gorgeous opener "Dunlavy's Castle." On the latter, the New York native approximates what it might sound like if Natalie Merchant were visited by the spirit of Maid Marian, her impressionistic melding of history and fantasy a detail-rich revelation. Meanwhile, Highland piper E.J. Jones -- Hamel's former paramour and a fast friend since their school days at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh -- is his usual indispensable self. The same goes for rough-and-tumble fiddle virtuoso Gregory McQueen. Each musician provides unmatched instrumental accompaniment on Hamel's tunes, while filling out the release with rousing medleys of self-penned and traditional material. For her part (however small), newest Clandestine member Emily Dugas jump-starts the proceedings with backing vocals, as well as conga and bodhran slaps when needed.

For good reason, The Haunting has generated interest outside state lines. Currently, Clandestine is mulling over a national distribution offer from a New Orleans-based company -- only there's a slight problem.

"The thing is, they're primarily [into] zydeco and Louisiana music," Hamel says.

Hey, it could be worse: Clandestine could be splitting up.

Jumping the gun... Anyone who tuned into KPFT on January 3 likely heard Milestones host Miles Willis claim that his jazz program was being taken off the air. But that's simply not the case, according to KPFT general manager Garland Ganter. "It's not going anywhere," he says.

After a scheduling meeting with program director Eric Truax earlier this month, Willis apparently came away thinking his program was in jeopardy. The understandably distressed DJ then went on the air with his concerns, asking for listener support. But Ganter gives his assurance that Milestones is safe in its Saturday (6 to 9 p.m.) time slot, so it appears Houston jazz fans can breathe easy.

Release activity... Yes, the release of Jesse Dayton's forthcoming full-length CD has been pushed back yet again. Dayton's label, the local Justice Records, now says the disc won't be out until as late as May.

Billed as a no-holds-barred foray into pure country, the long-awaited follow-up to Dayton's 1995 debut, Raisin' Cain, has been in limbo for months now while Justice continues to get its business affairs in order. Justice founder Randall Jamail is reportedly working on a deal with a major label that would hand over certain distribution duties to the big boys while maintaining the label's autonomy.

Sounds like a sweet deal, but is it attainable? For Dayton's sake, let's hope so. An advance sample of the new material shows a sophisticated, wide-open sound that plays up every one of Dayton's assets, not the least of which is his achy-sweet pipes. On another curious note, the CD has been renamed Letter to Home, after the original title, Hey, Nashvegas!, was deemed too derogatory toward Music City. Says Justice President Gary Moore, "Why burn a bridge before it's even there?" Fair enough.

With new bassist Mike Belile (Big Swifty) in tow, Big Holiday rings in the release of its second effort, This Far, with a show Friday at Instant Karma. The seven-song CD, engineered with polish and restraint by Brian Baker at Sound Arts studio, shows just how far Big Holiday has come from the quaintly clueless folk-pop combo of its half-realized 1996 debut. Reclining on a bed of familiar hooks and mild-mannered, lovey-dovey sentiments, This Far flaunts the baby-boomer makeup of its creators at every turn, right down to the supposed sampling of Crosby, Stills and Nash for the intro of "Carry On." In this case, a little gray around the temples isn't necessarily a bad thing.

-- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland