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Esthero
Pure Plex
Grog Shop
May 6

The press likes to point out the odd in their couple. Her: the singer, Esthero, with the self-effacing, emotionless name--a squirmy nineteen-year-old redhead from Canada who cites Bjsrk and Prince as listening favorites. Him: Doc, a.k.a. Martin McKinney; American at the turntables, guitar, and programming--likes KRS-One and Bad Brains.

The tiny singer with the overlarge voice wore jeans, a tank top, and running shoes, which she removed early in the set, preferring to perform in socks. She yelled at the crowd, pontificated about smoking, and had a penchant for sitting on the floor, practically disappearing for all but the front row. Doc stood brooding and sober at the tables, an imposing figure in Adidas jumpsuit and get-down-to-business attitude.

The duo couldn't bring the studio sophistication to the Grog Shop that they display on their debut, Breath From Another. No airy trumpet lines, cleanly plucked nylon string guitar, or tasteful, sparingly used metallic clicks and clacks. But, augmented by a backup band and singer, the music sounded every bit as smooth, integrated, and convincing.

Esthero's voice, though booming, at times washed out the band's fire. A barrage of power chords giving way to pervasive drum and bass opened "Swallow Me," but just as the band lurched forward, Esthero's vocals entered and placated. At other times, Esthero's semi-Bjsrk-inflected voice fit right in with the group's Sade-like, often Latin-flavored soul sound. On "That Girl" and "Lounge," the music--though fleshed out with guitar and keyboard flourish--rested squarely on the three-legged foundation of drum, bass, and Esthero's melting voice. As impressive as it was, her singing did tend to sound the same after a while. By the end of the set, her inflections sounded increasingly mannered and, perhaps, overly familiar.

As for her musical compadre, only twice did Doc pick up his microphone and rap--a belligerent vocal sidebar to the decidedly smooth Esthero. Mostly, the man behind the sound contented himself with subtle, breezy scratching. It lent the songs a definite urban edge, but never transgressed the music's easy flow.

The concert began more than an hour later than the already late scheduled time of ten o'clock. In the packed-crowd heat of the Grog, the largely forgettable Pure Plex--performing to pre-programmed music--fought for attention and lost. A drummer got lost in the din of the beat, and an auxiliary percussionist didn't add much. A saxophone ranged all over without much direction. The rap vocal threatened to interest the crowd for the first time all night, but before long the microphone cut out. The audience, for the most part, treated the group as mere background music before the start of the real show.

--Aaron Steinberg

Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Cobra Verde
Pat's in the Flats
May 8

If you were going to lay odds that neither Ron House's big lungs nor Cobra Verde's tight atmospheric glam could cause a ripple at Pat's, you'd get plenty of action. You'd also clean up, considering that neither House's Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments nor the latest Cobra lineup stirred much of a reaction from Saturday's audience.

It was a promising pairing of bands that once toured together on the West Coast, while Cobra Verde rode shotgun with Guided by Voices shaman Bob Pollard. Both bands featured charismatic frontmen: Slave Apartments' House, longtime landlord of the Columbus punk scene, and Cobra Verde's John Petkovic, who writes an entertainment column for The Plain Dealer. With new bassist Dave Hill (Sons of Elvis) in tow, Cobra Verde was out ahead of its midsummer release, Night Life, while the Slave Apartments offered numerous cuts from an upcoming untitled record.

When things were working, the Slave Apartments showed impressive musical range. "Hell" was a cut that had House shredding the chorus with his big-ass voice, while "Whip a Rose" was a U.K. turn with conviction. When the vocals drifted too off-key, which they did in "Half Step" and "Let Me Whisper in Your Mouth," guitarist Bob Petrick compensated with powerful, melodic playing.

The set was big on energy and emotion, but short on vocal quality. Perfect pitch in punk doesn't exist--nor is it welcome--but House's voice was a little too flat in the Pat's. If the band's sound simply crashed from chord to chord, it wouldn't hurt. The group, however, actually bangs out melodic tunes that require some handling. An underachieving sound that was no match for House's power pipes didn't help. The Slave Apartments muscled through the muddy show as the crowd perfected its stand-and-stare maneuvers.

When Cobra Verde started, the band looked ready for an inspiring night. That threat ended almost immediately when a power amp blew. At first, the distorted sound of Petkovic's vocals was an intriguing effect (imagine singing through a bullhorn), but the swirling sounds of the band eventually overwhelmed his efforts. As one could imagine, it's not pretty when a glam band is made to look foolish, but Petkovic handled things with a cool hand. During repairs (which were highlighted by keyboardist Chas Smith working his mysterious theremin), the vocals were re-routed through a bass amp. The remaining abbreviated set featured the fractured sound of power music and fuzzy AM radio vocals. It ended a rough night for the remaining crowd, which briefly was reminded that catching Cobra Verde at full strength still seems like a good bet.

--Tim Piai

More by Aaron Steinberg

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