John Cohen & The Downhill Strugglers
If you're into old-time music or, more generally, the preservation and advancement of foundational American art, bills don't get much better than this: Like Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax and the Warners, John Cohen served as a source of salvation for the country's folk music by seeking and documenting it at the source. Some of his musicological work—as well as his long-running advocate for such songs, the New Lost City Ramblers—help form the backbone of what we know about the tunes and tales of this country.
He's joined here by The Downhill Strugglers, a young Brooklyn trio that's picked up on the Rambler spirit and revivified it for this century. The same can be said of Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, a Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist who, like Frank Fairfield, picks and sings these tunes with an intensity that suggests he's just invented them. This show is in The ArtsCenter's small West End Theatre, so arrive early. Thursday, April 11, at The ArtsCenter. $11–$15/8:15 p.m.
Bleached comprises Jessie and Jennifer Clavin, California sisters who learned to play music by thrashing out songs together in their parents' basement. Their indoctrination in the nearby Los Angeles DIY scene eventually led to Mika Miko, their livewire punk band that split after a promising run.
Though The Engines consist of four Chicago jazz heavyweights, two of the members have close North Carolina connections: Bassist Nate McBride was born toward the state's Northwest edge, and trombonist Jeb Bishop—a former Raleigh punk and Angels of Epistemology bandleader—recently returned to the South. This local gig comes near the end of a short run for The Engines, meaning that their elegant compositions that twist and glide with reserved force should be in excellent shape. Each of these players is a bandleader and acclaimed sideman in his own right, so this band is unselfish and engineered to bring out the best of its parts. Monday, April 15, at Neptune's. $7/8:30 p.m.
The outgrowth of a sculpture project, Neptune began in Boston nearly 20 years ago, when Jason Sanford built instruments from metal scraps and parts. That exploratory tendency has yet to expire, evidenced by last year's excellent and menacing LP msg rcvd. On "Negative Reversal," the trio rearranges time, with drums and pulses starting and stopping over the growling drone of a recent Neptune invention, the Feedback Organ. Sanford's organ is an ingenious machine that allows the band to generate, modulate and thus compose with assorted tones of feedback—think your grandmother's chord organ, except with an attitude problem. Neptune exists somewhere between industrial rock and spoken word, power electronics and post-rock, building strange sound worlds of fright and wonder. Drug Yacht is a bullying math-rock trio that began in 1997, quit in 1998 despite local acclaim, and began again last year with renewed purpose and enhanced agility. Saturday, April 13, at Nightlight. $6/10 p.m.
Gretchen Parlato Quartet
The voice of jazz singer Gretchen Parlato sits a bit lower than you might expect, with the soprano component of her register supplanted by a sultry, smoky ease. Indeed, with her rhythmic acrobatics and micromanaged dynamics, she's a constantly surprising jazz vocalist. What's most surprising still is that she's stayed the course, not yet attempting to cross over into R&B with her late-night tone. She respects the jazz songbook by testing it. Friday, April 12–Saturday, April 13, at Motoroco. $10–$24/9 p.m.
New Orleans' Generationals are an indefatigably likable duo who've always seemed on the precipice of major success. They've yet to meet the masses, but they have released a steady string of charming pop-rock, with angled guitars and ensconced harmonies landing new hooks every few minutes. Heza, their latest album, depends more on electronic accouterments—think Passion Pit allure without the effusive framework. These are songs you want to take for a walk on a nice day. With Splashh. Sunday, April 14, at Local 506. $10–$12/8:30 p.m.
"I think everybody goes into music loving it," South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela told The Guardian last year. Maybe that's surprising for a septuagenarian who lived through apartheid and whose music often explores emancipatory themes. But Masekela's rich mix of harmonies and rhythms, anchored by vivacious melodies, reflects that outlook, with the once-oppressed finding inspiration in something the oppressor can never curb. Saturday, April 13, at Carolina Theatre. $39–$59/8 p.m.
Tartufi, Hammer No More the Fingers
San Francisco trio Tartufi makes incredibly involved pop music, with layers of complicated rhythms and gossamer vocals pushing into and pulling out of intricate knots. On "Furnace of Fortune," the highlight of their recent LP These Factory Days, they do this for eight minutes, cresting in brief climaxes that tease at transcendence before the band slinks away. Like a drum circle gone rogue with direction, Tartufi builds heady music from simple surprises. Hammer No More the Fingers headlines, while Canine Heart Sounds—a playful-but-purposeful junkyard folk-and-jazz band that's recently relocated from Duluth, Minn., to Durham—takes the middle. Saturday, April 13, at Casbah. $6–$10/9 p.m.
Har Mar Superstar
One of the strangest-looking soul singers you'll ever encounter, the rotund, balding and sometimes mustachioed Har Mar Superstar seems to live for his lovemaking, heartbroken and/or hilarious music. He's been known to get naked onstage, after all, and he sings with the aplomb of someone who, despite the irony inherent in his voice versus his visage, thrives on this futuristic vintage soul. Thursday, April 11, at Kings. $8–$10/9:30 p.m.
Clash the Truth, the second album from Beach Fossils, feels trapped in the same post-punk/'80s pop amber that once elevated their peers toward the top of the indie rock world. But at best, Beach Fossils still manage to sound sleepy and wide-awake, Dustin Payseur's perpetually reclined voice registering every detail above the restless guitars beneath it. With Body Games. Saturday, April 13, at Kings. $10–$12/9:30 p.m.
After an extended break, the fusion-friendly, pop-jam hybrid Rusted Root returned in 2009 with Stereo Rodeo and, last year, The Movement. And given indie rock's recent incorporation of world music (see Yeasayer, The Dirty Projectors and so on), maybe the time was right for Rusted Root to reinvent themselves. But their mix of roots and rock remains too awkward and forced to allow for the same nimble ideas of bands that have taken similar elements to much better places in the meantime. With Pseudo Blue. Sunday, April 14, at Southland Ballroom. $20–$25/8 p.m.
As you might surmise by its name, Honky Tonk—the latest album from Jay Farrar's Son Volt—bends its ears and hips closer to country, dropping a bit of the rock punch from the band's earlier records. Problem is, Honky Tonk only goes halfway, bending enough toward rock to make the would-be country beauties seem restless and worried. Honky Tonk has its winning moments, but it finds Farrar at an impasse of indecision that suggests the great rock jubilation of old Son Volt shows might not land quite so well this time around. Saturday, April 13, at Cat's Cradle. $17–$20/8 p.m.