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LIP SERVICE: Featuring members of the late power-country combo Scroat Belly, which released but one excellent slab o' wax in 1996's Daddy's Farm (Bloodshot), Wichita's Split Lip Rayfield dropped the former band's drummer, but kept its intensity, nay, upped it, before taking a decidedly more bluegrass approach to the fields, and reemerged with the new triple-barrel moniker.

The work of the resulting trio can be best witnessed on 1998's self-titled debut as Split Lip Rayfield, all of whose releases can also be found on Chicago's Bloodshot Records. The album showcased a band that completely nailed the tail of post-punk speed-bluegrass--think Bad Livers--right to the donkey's ass on the wall. In essence, SLR took an existing genre--albeit one out of left-center--and mastered it.

In those days, singer/guitarist Kirk Rundstrom handled nearly all of the band's songwriting duties, representin' for the truck-drivin', pinball-playin', coffee-drinkin' pinkneck auto mechanic in all of us. With the release of 1999's In the Mud, Split Lip added a fourth member, Wayne Gottstine, on mandolin and second guitar, allowing Eric Mardis to take on full-time banjo employment. (All members sing, and the bottom end is supplied by Jeff Eaton, who plays the Stitchgiver, a self-fashioned old Ford pickup gas tank with a single Weedwacker string--ask to see his calluses!)

On Never Make It Home, SLR's 2001 entry, the band tempers things a bit. It doesn't sound in such a hurry anymore (much of the loud-fast-rules ethos of punk is gone), and several of the tracks here cautiously approach pure, traditional bluegrass far more than anything they've produced so far. Additionally, Gottstine steps up as an accomplished singing/songwriting foil to Rundstrom, contributing over a third of the tracks on the disc, including the crowd-pleasing live staple "Used to Call Me Baby" and the peaceful easy chill-grass of "Movin' to Virginia."

If you've never seen Split Lip Rayfield play live and you have even the most fleeting interest in bluegrass music, do yourself a favor and see these guys do what they do best: take it to the stage. Appropriately, the show falls on a Sunday; If you haven't been to your respective place of worship for a while 'cause you're scared the good lord just won't find it in his heart to forgive that big-ass pile of sins you've logged, pay your cover and step on in. You're welcome here.

Split Lip Rayfield and Caliche Con Carne perform at 9 p.m. on Sunday, August 12 at 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St. For more information call 670-9202.


HILLBILLY HIPNESS: Speaking of hillbilly bands with killer live shows and a "mature" new album -- it wasn't so long ago that the members of BR5-49 would set up on any vacant street corner they could find in Nashville's Lower Broadway district, and proceed to play their five little hearts out to anyone who gave a damn, doing their best to liven up a horrifically calcified musical town that once pumped out great country music like Dallas did oil.

It didn't take long for the suits to notice. The band signed to Arista in 1996, and spent the next several years recording a string of four releases, two of which were live recordings (an obvious nod to the strength of their live shows), one of which was an EP. Mixing good ol' boy hillbilly raucousness with a taste for the stomp of rockabilly and country swing, BR5-49 generally divided country audiences into two camps: that which saw the band as being frighteningly good at not only paying homage to its traditional country forbears, but also at updating it with rock tempos that never fell into the realm of bad taste, or alternately, that which viewed BR5-49 as nothing more than a band looking to cash in on the chic retro-ness of it all, the hillbilly hipness, if you will.

After fulfilling its contract with Arista, which seemed resigned to maintaining the band's cult status, and dropping the hyphen from its name, BR549 has returned with a new album, This Is BR549, on a new label, Lucky Dog, a subsidiary of Sony Nashville (yes, Virginia, there are Japanese cowboys after all). For production duties, the band enlisted Nashville A-lister Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, Pam Tillis), and the album sounds pretty much like you'd expect: There's not a rough edge to be found in the airtight production, which resembles the overwrought let's-bring-twang-rock-to-the-masses fiascoes of the '80s. See, say, the Georgia Satellites, who might have written some good songs if they had been rendered listenable in production and mastering. Like the Satellites, BR549 writes infectious dirty-South country rock tunes buried in Nashville studio shimmer. Bet those songs'll sound awfully nice live, though.

BR549 performs at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 15 at The New West, 4385 W. Ina Road. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are a fabulously cheap five bucks at the door. For details call 744-7744.


COMEBACK KID: Now that the lindy hoppers of the world have gone back into hiding (read: Swing is dead), Brian Setzer has dis(big)banded his Orchestra and gone back to the well-trodden territory he mines best: rockabilly. Lest we forget, we were first acquainted with Mr. Setzer as frontman of the Stray Cats, who were rockabilly way before rockabilly was cool.

His new trio, '68 Comeback Special, released its debut album, Ignition!, earlier this year on Surfdog Records. While there's nothing as instantly grabbing as "Stray Cat Strut," "Rock This Town" or even "Built for Speed" on it, the record doesn't pull any sucker punches, either. "Hell Bent" succeeds as one of those nice 'n' creepy drivin'-too-fast-to-turn-back-now highway songs, but while the yodeling on "8-Track" must have looked good on paper, its novelty isn't enough to rescue the song from its blatant pandering to retro-hipsters (it is, after all, a song about listening to country music via the most ridiculously misguided medium that's ever been foisted on the music-buying public). Nostalgia works better--lyrically, anyway--on "'59," which, although it namechecks everyone from Grace Kelly to Bobby Darin, everything from Coupe DeVilles to Technicolor, refreshingly comes off sounding like the most modern track here.

Brian Setzer's '68 Comeback performs along with openers Billy Bacon & The Forbidden Pigs at 8 p.m. on Friday, August 10 at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $25 at all Ticketmaster outlets, or for $20 online at www.Ticketmaster.com. For further info call 798-3333.

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