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MARCIA BALL BAND 5/15 & 16, FITZGERALD'S "Long tall Marcia Ball," a 15-year veteran of the southern roots-music scene, struck it rich again last year with Let Me Play With Your Poodle (Rounder), a slab of sprightly piano-based New Orleans R & B inspired by the Tampa Red title tune. (In a nice twist on the double entendre, the album is dedicated "to poodles everywhere.") While the album has a few minor missteps--"Crawfishin'" comes off a bit more campy than Cajun--the closer, Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," is pure gold. Ball is famous for gathering together excellent touring bands--the cream of the bounteous Austin crop--and her piano playing has to be seen to be believed. You might also want to catch her next month, when she hits Buddy Guy's in a vocal trio with Tracy Nelson and New Orleans soul legend Irma Thomas.

BLUE RAGS 5/15, FRANKIE'S BLUE ROOM; 5/16, SCHUBAS; 5/17, UNCOMMON GROUND Even the 50s aren't retro enough for some folks--North Carolina's Blue Rags, like the Squirrel Nut Zippers they're often compared to, had to go all the way back to ragtime to find fresh inspiration. But despite Sub Pop's proclivity for kitsch, I'm happy to say that on the Blue Rags' 1997 Sub Pop debut, Rag-n-Roll, there are no photos of band members in period costume nor any endorsements for era-appropriate cocktails; musically what you get is a tipsy, elaborate, cracked combo of old-time musics, played with the chops and sensibility that indicate genuine love for the source material and sung by a guy who really does sound like he's got a few teeth missing. The only fly in the soup is their cover of "Three Night's Experience"--if you spend any time at all listening to this kind of stuff, you never need to hear that chestnut again as long as you live.

TRIBE 8, SCOTT FREE trio 5/15, FIRESIDE BOWL I once read a delightful essay by Gretchen Phillips (formerly of Two Nice Girls), an eyewitness account of the massive culture clash that occurred at the lovey-dovey Michigan Womyn's Music Festival when Tribe 8, an all-lesbian punk band from San Francisco, decided it was time to kick out the jams, motherfucker. According to Phillips, once a number of just-not-with-it types got done accusing the band of promoting violence against women, dykes from all walks of life wound up bonding in a sweaty happy mosh pit. On their fifth album, Role Models for Amerika (Alternative Tentacles), they show off their dark sardonic humor (in "Ta Ta, Ta-Ta's" a breast cancer patient says, "At least dykes think bald girls are neat"), whine about touring, say nice things about "Het Punx," and blast ugly truths about women in prison and teenage suicide, all in a conversational ramble. Chicagoan Scott Free is a different matter--once you get past the title of his new Getting Off (Leather/Western), there's not much room for cuteness, and you're staring right into that great unknown on the other side of the dark glory hole pictured on the cover. It's a striking debut, full of straight-ahead, narrow-eyed, righteous queer rage given extra thrust by the quick-shifting, smart arrangements. On the record, Free plays all the instruments; here he'll perform with a trio.

STARBALL 5/16, DOUBLE DOOR This hard-gigging local trio's debut, Holstein Park (Pussy Cat), is a far cry from the three-song demo that caused me to call them "an all-female force of garage-punk nature" in this column almost exactly a year ago. Two of those tunes made it onto this record, but for the most part, between their tight, expertly fuzzed-out, but predictable changes and the trying-to-be-tough wails of guitarist Tamar Berk and bassist Jodie Zeitler, they now sound like a leaner, meaner version of Heart.

TWO 5/20, HOUSE OF BLUES Was anyone out there really shocked when former Judas Priest front man Rob Halford let slip what Priest guitarist K.K. Downing has called "the worst-kept secret in rock 'n' roll"? The cover story of the current issue of the Advocate is dedicated to Halford's long career and coming-out story (as if anything could be more "out" than appearing onstage with Pansy Division at not one but three pride festivals); the article is fascinating and moving, and those old well-loved copies of British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance sound even better in the clear light of truth. Now that that's all taken care of, the middle-aged, 12-stepping Halford has started a new band, Two. Voyeurs, its debut album on Trent Reznor's Nothing label, is a loud, crunchy, mean-sounding cross between--you guessed it--Judas Priest and Nine Inch Nails. It's a tuneful ragefest well above the industry standard for forks-in-your-eyes music--but its lack of metal purism is probably going to be a lot more offensive to old-school Priest fans than Halford's big news. r ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT 5/21, LOUNGE AX Taking a break from the Foo Fighters' tour, San Diego's Rocket From the Crypt will return to friendly little Lounge Ax for the first time in at least two years--a treat for fans allergic to the traffic, sunshine, and public displays of suburbia out in Tinley Park. And really, the band's ultracatchy, supersynchronized, horn-accentuated ditties--not exactly garage rock, more like airplane-hangar rock--lose something when they're not bouncing off the walls of a small, dark, sweaty room filled with about 300 of your closest friends. According to the band's Web site, its fifth and newest album, which officially comes out June 2, will be for sale on this tour, along with a bonus disc of three more songs. --Monica Kendrick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Scott Free photo by Tim Cosey.

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