When she released her debut album The Virginian in 1997, Neko Case had the pipes and sex appeal to become a breakout country star, but her brains and background would lead her in a less commercial, far more creative direction. With each subsequent record, Case has sharpened her craft and infused more of her musical influences, trimming off a good deal of the twang from her early work and embracing her inner art-school punk. The culmination seemed to be 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood - a brilliant, haunting record in which Case's lyrical chops finally matched the much-ballyhooed canyon-wide range of her voice. Her least country record to date, Fox Confessor also appealed to many fans who had known Case better for her spunky vocals with the Canadian power-pop outfit the New Pornographers. For much of the past year, Case has been touring alternately as a solo act and with the Pornographers, who released their fourth LP last summer.
Case herself has the much-anticipated follow-up to Fox Confessor on tap for 2009, so fans can expect to hear sneak previews of many of those new songs during her latest show at the Beachland (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124), a club she's played numerous times. As a special bonus, Case's opening act is Giant Sand, the band that essentially started the Arizona alt-country scene to which Case now ostensibly belongs. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and tickets are $30. - Andrew Clayman
Word is, Hayden found 2004's Elk-Lake Serenade a bit too far toward the morose singer-songwriter side of his sound for his liking. The result is that he's added some blippier moments to his new record, In Field and Town, using a bit of electronic percussion and whatnot here and there on tracks like "Where and When" and "Worthy of Your Esteem." No matter the intent, Hayden seems inexorably drawn to singer-songwriter sounds, and the bulk of the record is piano-driven and poppy. Tracks like "The Van Song" or "Damn This Feeling" wouldn't sound at all out of place on Hayden's earlier records; that is to say they are folksy and fine with a solid sense of melody. Ultimately, Hayden's attempts to shake the morose singer-songwriter sound have only served to prove that the guy is one morose singer-songwriter through and through. In concert, he has more than a decade's worth of tunes to draw from, and while he often takes a self-deprecating stance, the songs are all, well, pretty morose. And I mean that in the best way. Chris Allen opens at 8 p.m. at the Grog Shop (2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216.321.5588). Tickets: $8. - Chris Drabick
Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials
Chops surely matter, but personality has always been the trump card of the best blues performers. From the mean old country papa that was Howlin' Wolf to the smooth-talking loverboy conjured by Bobby Bland, a bluesman's image has always been key to his closing the deal. It stands to reason then that a purveyor of blues of a high-octane variety would play the party animal par excellence with a duck-walk off the bandstand and through the crowd. Chicago slide guitar hitman Lil' Ed Williams' on- and offstage extroversion is as relentless as the fearsome drive of his band's stripped-to-the-bone sound.
Mentored early on by his late uncle, Windy City slide ace J.B. Hutto, Williams is even closer kin, sonically speaking, to the late Hound Dog Taylor. Just out is Full Tilt, his band's seventh full release, on which the musical party is further graced, as usual, with Williams' plain-spoken street-corner lyrics. Alongside a stack of highly charged originals is a balls-out Chicago retrofit of the Motown classic "First I Look at the Purse." Be forewarned: Ed's blues is for butt-shakin', not head-nodding. The show starts at 9:30 p.m. at Brothers Lounge (11609 Detroit Ave., 216.226.2767). Tickets: $12.50 advance, $15 day of show. - Duane Verh
Dana Fuchs gained a new group of fans with a role in last year's Beatles hodgepodge Across the Universe. She played Sadie, who soulfully sang "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" in a way that would have made the Fab Four blush. However, Fuchs started her music career long before director Julie Taymor tapped her for Sadie. After growing up in rural Florida, Fuchs left her small town for New York City at 19 and worked her way through the city's blues scene. She eventually teamed up with guitarist Jon Diamond, and they formed the Dana Fuchs Band. Fuchs started writing her own music, a combination of blues, country and rock, and in 2003 she released her debut album, Lonely for a Lifetime. Fuchs' voice is deep, throaty and ragged, like she just finished smoking a cigarette. Each of the 10 songs on her debut sound full-bodied, whether it's the soulful "Songbird (Fly Me to Sleep)," the country "Tell Me I'm Not Drinking" or the album's title track, which is chock-full of rock star bravado. When Fuchs lets out a wail at the beginning of "Hiding From Your Love," you'll understand why Taymor picked her to play the sexy Sadie. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. at Beachland Tavern (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets: $10 advance, $12 day of show. - Brittany Moseley
Why is there an aspect of Japanese culture that tends to embrace the extreme? The approach of artists like the Boredoms, Ruins and brutal electronica wizard Merzbow favors the uncompromising and the provocative, to put it mildly. Though inspired by more "conventional" noise-mongers Venom and Celtic Frost, Japan's premier black metal combo Sigh embodies a similar tack. Founded in 1989, Sigh's '90s direction built on its metallic thrash base with aspects of symphonic classical music and even jazz. While delightfully bombastic and demonically fast, Sigh keeps a conjectural (and self-aware) eye on the horizon, refusing to merely rest on laurels - its 1997 disc Hail Horror Hail includes the disclaimer "every sound on [the] album is deliberate, and if you find that some parts of the album are strange, it isn't because the music in itself is strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced on this recording." (Frank Zappa would've been proud.) The band's first full U.S. tour coincides with the release of its mini-album A Tribute To Venom (The End). Unexpect opens at 7 p.m. at Peabody's (2083 E. 21st St., 216.776.9999). Tickets: $14. - Mark Keresman
My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult
Best known for its performance-art and fetish-themed live shows featuring scantily clad backup singers known as the "Bomb Gang Girls," My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult has seen its popularity wane over the years. But the band is determined to relive its heyday at least once more. For its current tour, Thrill Kill Kult has decided to treat fans to a greatest-hits set, drawing mostly from its early Wax Trax days. The band changed its line-up recently, but the two founding members, Buzz McCoy and Groovie Mann, are still alive and kicking. The Bomb Gang Girls have been brought back to some extent too, with Pepper Somerset singing backup vocals as well as gyrating and cracking her whip at anyone in the audience within reach. This tour is the first time since early '90s that the band will showcase all of its classic tracks in one set. It's even going so far as to mimic the look of one of its 1989 road shows: the "Inferno Express" tour. Expect to hear such favorites as "Sex on Wheels," "Cuz It's Hot" and "Daisy Chain 4 Satan," with a liberal sprinkling of booty shaking, leather corsetry and freaky sexual shenanigans. The show starts at 8 p.m. at Roc Bar (1220 Old River Rd., 216.771.6655). Tickets: $13. - Lois Elswick Dressy Bessy Denver's Dressy Bessy is a bit like the cute child actor who grew up to be an action star. In the band's early days, it was relatively easy to size it up on point with preconceived notions. It was named after a 1970s Playskool doll, released its records on the cutesy Kindercore label and had direct ties to indie-pop's legendary Elephant Six Collective (guitarist John Hill also plays with the Apples In Stereo). Plus, singer-guitarist Tammy Ealom has a Twiggy-like retro preciousness to her style that only helped seal the deal. For fans that were pleased with Dressy Bessy's appropriately bubblegum-pop sound, however, some surprises loomed. After amping up the guitars a bit on its 2003 eponymous album, Ealom, Hill, bassist Rob Greene and new drummer Craig Gilbert officially dropped the cuteness for good on 2005's Transdreamer Records debut, Electrified. Slicker, heavier and funkier, the new Dressy Bessy lost some of the twee contingency, but the smarter fans recognized an evolution rather than a misstep. And no one can deny that Ealom still knows her way around a good pop hook. To experience the next phase of Dressy Bessy's maturation, you can check them out at 9 p.m. at the Grog Shop (2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216.321.5588) and pick up their brand new album, Holler and Stomp - the band's most danceable, beat-heavy effort to date. - Clayman
Somewhere along the way, punk lost its experimental mojo, and metal grabbed that shit up, sparking a hybridization process involving more stylistic snipping than Tommy Chong prepping a prize batch of Kush for the Cannibus Cup. This bill features three of the more adventurous, forward-thinking denizens of metal's next wave. Sweden's Opeth has been at it since 1990, migrating from storming death metal to more textural environs. While still capable of demonic rumble, it's just as likely to spin off in a prog-folk direction reminiscent of airy-minded '70s acoustic noodlers Renaissance - particularly on its latest, Watershed, written after the departure last year of guitarist/co-writer Peter Lindgren. It leans left on the delicate/brutality continuum, producing an often-pretty, plaintively atmospheric tone that's keyed its most successful American release to date. Opener High on Fire features guitarist Matt Pike's gnarly guitar curls carving knotty muscles like steroidal sonic scalpels. The trio approaches Motšrhead's chest-caving intensity, then slows for windy slow-churning epics billowing like smoky clouds of sativa. Another opener, Baroness from Savannah, Georgia, recalls '90s alt-rock, twirling chunky, distorted post-punk angularity around a meaty bottom-end that sounds like Railroad Jerk with the Melvins in hot pursuit. The show starts at 8 p.m. at the House of Blues (308 Euclid Ave., 216.523.2583). Tickets: $20-$23. - Chris Parker
Like fellow American Idol alum Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood initially scored with a big voice and an even bigger talent for giving music fans exactly want they want in their pop stars. In Underwood's case, it's revved-up country songs about thanking Jesus, making babies and occasionally getting even with cheating exes. But where Clarkson butted heads with her record company over last year's difficult and underrated My December, Underwood's sophomore effort, Carnival Ride, sticks pretty close to her original game plan. It's an easy album to like ("All-American Girl" is hook-filled country-pop at its fluffiest) and dislike (she forces "Last Name"'s hard-ass barroom stomp). Most of Carnival Ride's tracks were written by a committee of Nashville pros - with Underwood herself helping out here and there - which suggests that she's still perceived as a commodity, rather than as a viable artist, by her record company. She's an investment, but she's also one of Idol's genuine triumphs. And it's probably only a matter of time before she makes her own My December. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. at the Wolstein Center at CSU (2000 Prospect Ave., 216.241.5555). Tickets: $33-$53. - Michael Gallucci
Ha Ha Tonka
Hats off to any band that can pull of four-part, a cappella harmony in the middle of a rock show. Even more kudos to a band that can pull off the aforementioned stunt and sound smooth and powerful in the process. Ha Ha Tonka came through town in early summer as the support act for Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. They proved themselves a force to be reckoned with, exuding a confidence that seems rare among younger bands. When a guitar string broke, the Springfield, Missouri, natives dropped their instruments and burst into "Hangman," a gospel-tinged a cappella tune that most bands wouldn't dare attempt outside the studio. In addition to gospel, folk storytelling permeates Ha Ha Tonka's brand of Southern rock. As they tackle issues like religious allegiances (their most recent album is called Buckle in the Bible Belt) and problems with meth in rural America, the band spreads stories of its hometown realities across the country. Despite the dark themes, these boys are in it for the fun. They open for Backyard Tire Fire at 9 p.m. at the Grog Shop (2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216.321.5588). Tickets: $8 advance, $10 day of show. - Danielle Sills
Oklahoma's Evangelicals are bringing their monster ball to town. The band's sophomore album - The Evening Descends - is a Frankenstein of rock misfits, stitching parts of Pink Floyd, Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy into an 11-song set of glammy goth rock. The four-piece's musical theater has been self-described as Marvin Gaye meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is spot on. "I've always liked the theatrics of bands like the Misfits and the campy elements of things like Halloween," says the band's singer and songwriter Josh Jones. Hymns like "Party Crashin'" and "Paperback Suicide" are wonderfully warped, moon-powered macabre music, a ghoulish foil to hometown mates like the Flaming Lips and Chainsaw Kittens (all bands are from Oklahoma City and its college suburb of Norman). Jones' high-pitched croon (like Grandaddy's Jason Lytle) adds to the oddball atmosphere, singing about skeleton men, drugs, the devil, bloodstreams and "strange things that keep happening." The cheesy theatrics of the music is definitely not for everyone, but the party promises to be interesting. "The worst thing you can be as a band is boring," says Jones. "That's one of our main goals. We don't really care if we suck too much, as long as it's not boring. Then we feel like we're succeeding on some level." State Bird and Beardo Bandini open at 9 p.m. at the Beachland Tavern (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets are $7. - Keith Gribbins
Ostensibly a tour in support of last year's Taking Chances album, Celine Dion's year-long, planet-spanning road show is really a chance for the singer to take her successful Vegas spectacle to folks not partial to $5.99 buffets and clanging slots. Never mind that her choice in cover songs is questionable (she pulls out James Brown's "Sex Machine" in concert) and that she boasts the most annoying French accent since Inspector Clouseau's. Dion's the closest thing we've got to a Sinatra-style superstar these days. She's dueted with genre benchmark Barbra Streisand and watersports enthusiast R. Kelly. She has her own line of perfume. And she sang that damn Titanic song. Dion has always aimed for the cheap seats, even when she was playing small theaters 15 years ago. So you can expect plenty of big at her concert this week, with multiple dancers, various set and costume changes, Godzilla-size video screens and a catalog of hits that goes back almost two decades. Dion plays Quicken Loans Arena (One Center Ct., 216.241.5555) at 8 p.m. Tickets: $27.50-$185. - Gallucci
Live performances are how most musicians prove their mettle, and on his latest CD, Last Train to Nashville, the Louisiana-born guitarist shows that he is definitely at the top of his game, both as a performer and as a songwriter. Recorded during a single night in Nashville during the spring of 2007, the set kicks off with "Night Train," an electrically charged shuffle that sets the tone for the entire disc; Benoit has a strong singing voice and matching guitar skills, and he takes full advantage of that even in mellower numbers. The bluesman is also recognized for his activism on behalf of the country's wetlands - back in the spring of 2005, he and other fellow musicians (keyboardist Dr. John among them) warned of the danger that a hurricane might bring to the area in case the levees broke, foreshadowing the tragedy caused by Katrina's onslaught three years ago. The show starts at 8 p.m. at Wilbert's (812 Huron Rd. E., 216.902.4663). Tickets: $15. - Ernest Barteldes
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