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North By Northeast

Memphis' status as a stopping point along the route to South by Southwest brings a wealth of goodies.

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People like to complain about the dearth of rock shows in Memphis and with just cause. Just looking at indie-rock and punk shows, it seems like more interesting touring acts hit Fayetteville --not to mention obvious concert rivals like St. Louis and Nashville -- than Memphis. But mid-March usually sees things heating up and for one very good reason: Memphis' status as a logical stop between Austin, home of the South by Southwest Music Festival, and the East Coast and Midwest. With the bulk of SXSW shows happening this weekend, there are several bands stopping in Memphis on their way to or from Austin. Here's a user's guide to some of the white-boys-with-guitars action hitting town this week:

Piebald, The Cancer Conspiracy, and Damn Personals

The Map Room

Thursday, March 14th

Piebald are a Boston-based emo band that, from the sound of their new record, the typically self-deprecating We Are the Only Friends We Have (Big Wheel), could well follow scene cohorts such as Jimmy Eat World and Saves the Day into the mainstream. Much of the record is the kind of rousingly emotional, melodic punk-pop that gives the genre its name and reputation, but Piebald also push the boundaries of emo. "Long Nights" begins as the kind of wistful piano ballad that emo kings Jets to Brazil experimented with on their last record. "Rich People Can Breed" is moddish garage-rock that clips along with a pace and sound similar to that of Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic." "It's Going to Get Worse Before It Gets Better" is acoustic. And there's some slick guitar work on other songs that conjures classic rock from Queen to Steely Dan.

Lyrically, the band writes smart, sensitive, and wry: "King Of the Road" is a love song to their tour van that imagines a post-rock future of weight-gain, marriage, and elementary-school teaching. "Just a Simple Plan" is a positive-thinking provocation that opens with a group of prepubescents singing the chorus. "American Hearts" is a state-of-the-union address that finds the hard-touring lads chanting, "Hey! You're a part of it!" then lamenting, "From all I've heard and all I've seen/This place has broken my American heart."

Also on Big Wheel, the Cancer Conspiracy is an experimental, instrumental rock band from Vermont. The band's recent debut, The Audio Medium, presents a meeting ground of '70s progressive rock (Brian Eno, King Crimson, Pink Floyd) and some of the more sonically adventurous '90s indie bands (Bedhead, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise).

Piebald and Cancer Conspiracy labelmates the Damn Personals round out the bill with a '60s garage-rock sound.

The French Kicks and The Vue

The Map Room

Monday, March 18th

Brooklyn's French Kicks are likely to remind some of current New York darlings the Strokes. The band's music, as captured on last year's EP Young Lawyer and the forthcoming sophomore full-length One Time Bells (Star Time), is similarly reminiscent of New York's classic punk and protopunk scene --evoking icons such as Television, the Velvet Underground, and Richard Hell, with a pit of the arty post-punk sound of the band's native Washington, D.C., thrown in for good measure. Like the Strokes, the French Kicks parlay taut, brittle guitar riffs, itchy rhythms, and art-school charismatic vocals into something that sounds old and new at the same time. What separates them from their more celebrated colleagues is the fact that their music doesn't quite have the same horny, boozy energy and that they appear to have a little more going on in the lyrics department.

Like the French Kicks, San Francisco's the Vue evoke a vintage slice of rock-and-roll past without sounding too much like a retro band. On last year's Find Your Home (Sub Pop), the band offered a garage-y blues-rock attack reminiscent of early Rolling Stones, the New York Dolls, and Mott the Hoople. Bands like this are easy to come by on the indie scene these days, but it's a pleasure-intensive formula and the Vue works it for all it's worth. Lead singer Rex Shelverton attacks the music with the sexual bravado of the young Mick Jagger while his band convincingly glams it up behind him.

The Deadly Snakes and The Reigning Sound

Earnestine and Hazel's

Monday, March 18th

The Deadly Snakes and Cherry Valence

Young Avenue Deli

Tuesday, March 19th

The Deadly Snakes are a Toronto-based garage-rock band with local ties. On last year's I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore (In the Red), the Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright served as producer and as a member of the band, contributing a few songs to the project, including the musical salute "West Texas Sound" (also recorded by the Reigning Sound as a single) and the soulful "Make a Fool Out of Me" and "You're All Alone." On the scale of sonic extremity, the Deadly Snakes are a harder brand of garage rock than the Reigning Sound but a bit tamer than previous Cartwright groups the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers. The record itself separates itself from the genre pack by its nice use of a horn section.

The Black-Eyed Snakes and The Tearjerkers

Young Avenue Deli

Wednesday, March 20th

The most compelling of the SXSW stopovers this week may well be the Black-Eyed Snakes, a stomping, electric blues-rock band improbably fronted by Alan Sparhawk of the minimalist trio Low. Possibly conceived as an outlet for the Duluth-based Sparhawk to break free from the chains of Minnesota Nice, the Deadly Snakes are a sloppy and intense outfit that come across like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion minus the minstrelsy bullshit. Mixing originals with covers swiped from Willie Dixon ("Smokestack Lightnin'" and "Mannish Boy") and überwhite sources such as Moby (a great version of Play's blues-spiked "Honey") and the Fall ("My New House"), the band's 2001 debut, It's the Black-Eyed Snakes (Chair-Kickers Music), is a joke that keeps on giving. Once you get over the sound of a solemn, Midwestern Mormon like Sparhawk morphing into "Chicken-Bone George" and bellowing out a raucous slide-guitar moan like "Big Black Train" (and, for Low fans, this may take a while), it all sounds like an elaborate apology from a region that forced Jonny Lang and Shannon Curfman on the world. But it's also a novelty backed up by some really compelling music. The aforementioned take on "Honey" is a coup, but the original cheating song "8-Inch Knife" deserves a songwriting nod from the Handy Awards. The concluding "Cheerios on the Floor" ("This one's for my little girl, 'Hollerin' Hollis Mae,'" Sparhawk announces) is a touchingly silly-sweet finale.

The only question here is how these guys will play in a blues town like Memphis. The Black-Eyed Snakes investigate the hilarious gulf between the gravity of period blues and the inanity of modern white-guy bar-blues bands as only an outsider to the form could. But in a town where most people either take the music too seriously to get the joke or have long since arrived at a conclusion that seems fresh to this band, who knows how they'll play?


Local Beat

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

After a successful debut season last year, the Memphis Botanic Garden's summer concert series, Live At the Garden, returns with a lineup announced last week. The concert scheduled for June 2nd is still pending confirmation, but the rest of the lineup looks like this: Ray Charles on June 21st, Pops With the Plants featuring the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Stax Academy of Music on July 4th, Kathy Mattea with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on August 23rd, Al Jarreau on September 2nd, and Spirit Of the Century, an all-star gospel concert featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama, John Hammond, David Lindley, Charlie Musselwhite, Danny Thompson, and Michael Jerome, on September 26th. Full-series passes are currently available, with lawn seating at $120 per person and table seating from $240 to $360 per person, depending on location. Series packages are available at the Botanic Garden; call 685-1566, ext. 107 for more information. Individual concert tickets will go on sale four to five weeks before a show and are available from New Era Ticketing at www.neweratickets.com.

On Friday, March 15th, at Young Avenue Deli, community radio station WEVL-FM 90 will hold a fund-raising concert to help finance the impending move of the station's broadcast tower. Admission is $8 and the show starts at 9 p.m., with Automusik followed by Vending Machine (Big Ass Trucker Robbie Grant on the solo tip), Bumpercrop, and Snowglobe, who played a great show at the Deli last week to celebrate the release of their debut album, Our Land Brains. Station program director Brian Craig says that this should be the first in a series of fund-raising concerts at different local clubs.

The official lineup for May's Beale Street Music Fest will be out later this month, but some names are already leaking out. The generally reliable pollstar.com currently lists the following as set to play this year's fest: Kid Rock, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Maria Muldaur, Lucinda Williams, and Pete Yorn.

Another great spring festival, Oxford's free, one-day town-square Double Decker Festival, will be held Saturday, April 27th, with a rootsy lineup that will include Big Star, Nanci Griffith, The Del McCoury Band, The Wild Magnolias, and The Holmes Brothers.

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