Eugene Weekly : Music : 3.29.07

Mofro Rising
JJ Grey and Mofro return to Eugene

Y’all remember JJ Grey: He and Daryl Hance call themselves JJ Grey and Mofro, and the last time they were here, they played to a huge crowd at Secret House Winery in September 2005. Those North Florida boys have traveled a lot of miles since then and released a new CD on Alligator Records, Country Ghetto.

JJ Grey & Mofro and Reeble Jar. 8 pm, Wednesday, 4/4. McDonald Theatre, $14 adv., $16 door

They’ve been on the road supporting their third CD since mid-February, and when I caught up with Grey, they were just leaving Amarillo, Texas, heading to Colorado. Like all of Grey’s music, Country Ghetto was inspired by his hometown in Lochloosa, Fla. “The world has always recognized urban ghettos, city ghettos,” he says, “but nobody’s ever thought about the country ghetto, ever. A classic example of that is what’s going on in Louisiana and Mississippi. New Orleans is torn up and needs help, but so does Mississippi, and nobody’s helping the country ghettos there.”

Country Ghetto rolls from soulful ballads like “Circles” to rump rockers like the opening track, “War,” which is as funk-a-fied as a white man can get. Grey got his family’s gospel group to sing on the track “And The Sun Is Shining Down,” which surprisingly but effectively adds strings to the mix. The title track captures the feel of backwoods Southern life with a foot-stompin’ sing-along beat.

Grey wears his rock, blues and R&B influences plainly on his sleeve; they just don’t all come out at once. Throughout each song he weaves in observations of life in Florida but doesn’t alienate anyone not from there. It’s obvious Grey cares deeply about his connection to his home in North Florida’s swamplands, and he approaches songwriting much as a storyteller would.

“[North Florida] was one of the last frontiers in the U.S. in a lot of ways. Andrew Jackson went down there and took it from the Spanish,” Grey says. “He came back and said, ‘It ain’t worth living there.’ The people who did go there were so sick of everywhere else that they were willing to put up with rattlesnakes, alligators, 100 degree days, hurricanes, malaria, water moccasins, everything!”



From Africa to America — and Back
Soweto Gospel Choir at the Hult Center

In this country, the term “world music” generally refers to musicians from Asia and Africa and their influence upon Western musicians from Lou Harrison to Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel. But it works the other way, too. Thanks primarily to missionaries, one of America’s great musical traditions, African-American gospel music, found its way back to the source of all African-American music: Africa itself. And the prime practitioners of — what shall we call it? African-African-American gospel? — make their Eugene debut (and only Oregon appearance) April 3 at the Hult Center.

Soweto Gospel Choir

Composed of some of the finest singers around Soweto and Johannesburg, the 26-member Soweto Gospel Choir often (but not always) mixes traditional and popular music from around Africa with exuberant American gospel styles and even pop music arrangements (including music by Jimmy Cliff, Otis Redding and Bob Marley). Although it only emerged five years ago, the choir has already won a top gospel music award and a Grammy nomination, scored a world music chart-topping album, worked with Bono and members of Queen and performed for Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and at many charity functions, particularly supporting orphans, hunger relief and AIDS research and prevention. The choir’s concerts present a striking visual as well as auditory experience, replete with multicolored traditional costumes, high-kicking synchronized dance moves and accompanying percussion such as the djembe drum. Even when the group sings in Xhosa and other languages, the ensemble supplies English explanations of the stories behind the songs. This multicultural mix of several of the world’s most ebullient musical styles should be one of the most exciting concerts of the year.

Missonaries also brought American church choral music to Hawaii, where it mingled with the guitar music of earlier colonizers from Portugal and Spain along with the music of native Hawaiians. More recently, the musicians of Hapa took those influences, added yet another mainland musical style — folk rock — and came up with another appealing cross-cultural fusion. The acoustic duo makes one of their regular journeys across the Pacific to perform at the Shedd on April 12. Still more global fusion happens at Cozmic Pizza on March 29 when Portland cellist extraordinaire Adam Hurst returns with his atmospheric blend of Indian, Middle Eastern and Gypsy musical influences in composed and improvised works for solo cello.

Three female singer-songwriters visiting Luna this month claim to have fused folk and jazz. The poppiest, the waifish Jessica Parsons-Taylor, celebrates her CD release on March 29. Natalia Zukerman (whose dad, Pinchas, is a pretty hot fiddler; mom Eugenia can toot the flute) leans more toward the country-blues side; she plays March 31. The most compelling, Austin’s Datri Bean, plays and sings “southern-fried vintage jazz” at the club April 11.

Hot Club Sandwich

For straightahead instrumental jazz, try the retro sounds of Hot Club Sandwich, which plays Sam Bond’s on March 31. This sweet swinging ensemble of some of Seattle’s hottest young jazzers has now been joined by guitarist Ray Wood, who’s been lighting up Northwest stages for more than half a century, and he augments the violin, mandolin, upright bass and guitars to channel the irresistible, high-energy Gypsy swing music pioneered by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in 1930s Paris as well as original tunes and other music in that sturdy style. For a more recent vintage jazz, try Portland’s Dusty York Trio at Jo Federigo’s April 6. This dynamite young tenor saxman has clearly heard a lot of mid-’60s Coltrane and Sonny Rollins (and fellow tenor master, papa Michael York), and he puts those influences to good use in his original pianoless post-bop compositions. He’s a rising young Northwest jazz star.

Another local jazz master, UO prof and saxist Idit Shner, plays postclassical music by Edison Denisov and Ida Gotkovsky with the Oregon Percussion Ensemble at Beall Concert Hall on April 10. And on April 9, one of the great classical flutists of our time, William Bennett, joins another Englishman, the young guitarist Jonathan Leathwood, at Beall to play contemporary American composer Robert Beaser’s delightful “Mountain Songs” (based on Appalachian folk tunes), nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla’s sultry “Story of the Tango” and other contemporary and recent music.

Finally, for a look at the life and music of America’s most performed living postclassical music composer, head down to DIVA on April 1 for a free screening of the film Hail Bop! A Portrait of John Adams by Tony Palmer. From his breakthrough opera Nixon in China to his new opera A Flowering Tree, Adams has been one of the most admired and accessible voices in American music. This 1998 biopic will be followed by a discussion with a representative of the Eugene Symphony.


Local Boy Does Good

Jon Itkin‘s new album, Big Gold Guitar in the Sky, showcases the songwriting skill and raw musicianship Itkin revealed in his debut, Oregon, and blows the lid off a few other hidden talents as well. Formerly a cornerstone of the Eugene alt-rock/Americana scene, Itkin recently relocated to Portland after a stint of recording on the East Coast. That trip began a process of cross-country recording collaboration; with a little help from some professional studio musicians from the Eastman School of Music, Itkin laid down half the tracks for Gold Guitar before returning to the West Coast, where he completed his sophomore effort with the none-too-shabby help of Chet Lyster of Eels and Paul Brainard and Rich Lander of Richmond Fontaine.

Jim Itkin

“It was an adventure making it,” Itkin says, laughing. “I was flying by the seat of my pants, operating dollar to dollar. Every single track, none of it was recorded entirely live.”

Digitally crafting a roots rock album is an endeavor that could have gone stylistically awry, but luckily Itkin’s musical integrity didn’t allow the power of remastering to go to his head. Every rockin’ track on Gold Guitar really is pure gold; soulfully executed, lyrically stunning and punctuated with just the right amount of instrumental flair. While he doesn’t stray too far form his bread-and butter-sound, Itkin is no one-trick pony. He takes a few delightful risks, most notably on the slinky, sexy “Another Man’s Hell” and steel guitar haunted “Factory Moon.”

Itkin bids farewell to Eugene in the boot-stomper “Emerald Valley,” which he describes as a “love letter to Eugene.”

“I get watery eyes every time I come back,” he admits. “I wrote it as a blessing to express how much I loved my time there.”

Welcome Jon Itkin (and backing band Some Like Minded Souls) back to Eugene when he plays with Two Timin’ Three at 9 pm Friday, March 30 at Sam Bond’s Garage. 21+ show. $6. — Adrienne van der Valk



Support Your Local Punks

Saxon Wood, founding bassist of Eugene’s preeminent female-fronted punk band Happy Bastards, wants you to know about his new band, Lunacy. Wood left Happy Bastards in October of 2006, and by December Lunacy was already on its feet.

“I realized the writing was on the wall for me with Happy Bastards,” he says. “I’d been talking to other people about starting another female-fronted punk band, and I kept running into these people at shows and everybody kept saying, ‘Yeah, it’d be great if we were in a band.” Lunacy is Wood on bass, Samantha Smith singing, Alex on guitar and Gabriela on drums. When pressed for last names, Wood jokes, “I can’t pronounce Gabriela’s whole last name, it’s such a huge name no one knows what she’s really called, and punks don’t have last names anyway!” Smith and Gabriela are still in high school.

Though Wood helped start Happy Bastards, they parted on good terms. “They no longer needed me,” says Wood. “Different directions and all that. These people all have energy and they’re optimistic. I remembered why I started playing music in the first place with this band.”

Lunacy has already played a number of shows, and this one is free, although the band plans to pass the hat for donations to help replace stolen equipment. A brand new Marshall stack and speaker, along with a guitar borrowed from the Happy Bastards, were stolen two weeks ago. “We only had [the stack] for six hours,” laments Wood.

Lunacy and Internal Chaos play at 9 pm Sunday, April 1 at Tiny Tavern. 21+ show. — Vanessa Salvia


Lunchbox Heroes

Asylum Street Spankers

When I was small, I had a couple of kids’ records, most notably Spin, Spider, Spin, which a quick Google reveals is actually an educational record meant to make kids feel “empathy toward animal life.” Which explains a few things, at least. (“I Like Lizards”? Why, yes, I do.) It’s safe to say the Asylum Street Spankers‘ new kid-centric record, Mommy Says NO!, has no such subversive qualities — apart, perhaps, from encouraging good times for the musically interested of all ages. The talented Austin band turns its focus to all things childish and childlike; “Boogers,” a ditty that wouldn’t be out of place on “Prairie Home Companion” (and one that comes complete with laugh track), is a particularly endearing take on a kid fascination. Elsewhere on the record, “You Only Love Me For My Lunchbox” namechecks a roster of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon stars, and a rollicking version of Nirvana’s “Sliver” – a ready-made punk rock kid song if ever there was one – is a delight. Though it would take a real curmudgeon to begrudge a group a kids’ record this charming and cheery, the six members of ASS do better than cute with their tightly played yet juicebox-friendly slices of all-acoustic Americana-blues-novelty-lounge-swing-folk-old-time fun (all that and they release their own records, too). Of course, the music isn’t all for the kiddies, and neither is ASS’s show at Sam Bond’s. But with six other full-length records and a fat handful of other releases to mine, the Spankers will doubtless have you pulling from your pints and tapping your toes when you’re not digging in your nose. In solidarity with the booger song, I mean. Asylum Street Spankers play at 9 pm Wednesday, April 4 at Sam Bond’s Garage. 21+ show. $15. — Molly Templeton



Wonder Wall

Seattle’s Blue Light Curtain are working an interesting lineup: There just aren’t that many bands I can think of off the top of my head that include a baritone guitar. The two-girls-and-a-boy trio also uses synths, drums and a drum machine that they playfully (and understandably) refer to on their MySpace page as their fourth member. With a clear line of influence from My Bloody Valentine, The Cure and other droning/distorting bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Blue Light Curtain goes for the wall of sound approach, offering shimmering guitars, dense percussion and reverb-drenched vocals singing vague, repetitive lyrics. Musically, it works beautifully, all lush and moody and languid. But even wrapped in effects and hewing to simple melodies, the vocals don’t always quite mesh with the rich, compelling instrumental parts of their self-titled six-song EP. “Open Up Your Eyes Now” is at its best when Paul Groth’s guitar soars off on a dark, ferocious tear; when he comes in to chant something about being suspended in space, the mood lessens somewhat. The lovely exception is the closer, “We’ve Seen It All Before,” an evocative nod to Galaxie 500 with a nearly perfect vocal part from synth-player and singer Laura Bratton. There is much more to admire here than there is to complain about. Blue Light Curtain plays with The Tiffany Lamps and Liz Pappademas at 7 pm Sunday, April 1 at Cozmic Pizza. $5. — Molly Templeton



Are We Not Men?

Man Man

While they may have a song titled “10 lb. Moustache,” Philadelphia’s Man Man are not quite the strapping hunks you may have bargained for. With all the spazzy irreverence of a pack of adolescents, these boys like to keep things unpredictable. The band’s members, all working under aliases like “Pow Wow” and “Chang Wang,” rip through manic live calisthenics decked out in white tennis outfits and war paint.

By now you’ve certainly picked up that Man Man is a bit eccentric, but what does the band sound like? You’re unlikely to get any straight answers from a band that claims wild boar hunting expeditions, Aztec rituals and the New York Mets as their primary influences. A listen to their 2006 album, Six Demon Bag, places them in an uncharted limbo between Tom Waits’ gnarled carnival shenanigans and the off-center pop of fellow East Coasters Grizzly Bear. When things start to get a little too zany for their own good, ringleader Honus Honus keeps the resulting cacophony of creaky pianos and rattling percussion grounded with his affably soulful crooning.

Man Man plays with Caves and The Tiffany Lamps at 8 pm Monday, April 2 at WOW Hall. $10 adv., $12 door. — Josh Blanchard