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READY FOR TRIPLE-A, BUT NOT THE MAJORS

Fresh off a tour opening for Brandi Carlile, Brooklyn singer/songwriter Ari Hest heads our way this week, co-headlining a tour with fellow New Yorkers The Damnwells. Hest is out supporting his second album, The Break-In, released last week on Red Ink/Columbia.

Some of the album's credits make it appear rather promising--production by Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Crowded House, a million others), a song co-written with Jayhawk Gary Louris--but it turns out to be fairly typical of the sort of stuff that can be heard by tuning in to The Mountain at just about any given moment. In other words, it's Triple-A-radio-ready, having firmly staked its territory in the middle of the road.

True, Hest has some things going for him beyond the likes of Jason Mraz, James Blunt and others of that ilk. He's got a nice, supple voice--a resonant baritone that is flexible enough to hit something resembling a falsetto--and, when layered as harmonies, it can be remarkably pretty and affecting (as on "Bird Never Flies," the track written with Louris, and especially, on the title track, a swooning Beach Boys homage). It's a voice sturdy enough to give the songs a certain weight they might otherwise lack.

Froom's production can be problematic, though. Yes, he's the guy overseeing those overdubbed harmonies, but he's also the guy who gives The Break-In a too-glossy sheen. It's sometimes difficult to tell whether it's the songs themselves, or Froom's production, that's responsible for a certain blandness here.

Still, for every "Leaving Her Alone," which is so ordinary it could have come from an album by any number of current, yawn-inducing singer/songwriters, there is an "I've Got You," a little string-laden anomaly that recasts Hest as a jazz crooner.

Aside from some great, blue-eyed-soulful vocal work, "When to Quit" sounds a bit like the dross Michael McDonald has been tossing off since he realized his audience was largely composed of middle-aged women who thought he was handsome; but album opener "When and If" has a lovely, forlorn melody that's deftly placed in front of some minor-key acoustic guitar chords (though it ironically loses some of its power during the passage when the electric guitar kicks in).

It appears that Hest will be playing before The Damnwells on the Tucson stop, just as it should be. The Damnwells' music recalls the moment when bands like the Replacements, Goo Goo Dolls and Soul Asylum were just about to jump the shark, but hadn't quite yet. Yeah, it's a bit too slick, but there's enough gritty tenacity, enough authenticity, to overcome it--that, and a passel of great roots-derived rock songs.

The Damnwells and Ari Hest perform at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St., on Wednesday, May 16. MoZella opens at 9 p.m. Admission is $8. Call 798-1298 for more information.


MONSTERS, BEARS AND CREEPS, OH MY!

As evidenced by their debut album, 2006's Fascination (Retone), Monsters Are Waiting are one of those bands that sounds like they couldn't come from anywhere but Los Angeles--more like the L.A. of the '80s, sure, but L.A. regardless. Mixing modern-sounding bass and drums with new wavey chiming guitars and synths, the band's music has critics and bloggers drooling like smitten teenagers. But the real star of the show is singer/keyboardist Annalee Fery, whose voice sounds something like a combination between Juliana Hatfield and The Sundays' Harriet Wheeler, with just a hint of Missing Persons' Terry Bozzio. Trust me; they're better than I've described them here. File under "now wave," maybe?

Monsters Are Waiting perform at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Tuesday, May 15. Local upstarts Mostly Bears and The Mission Creeps open this early, all-ages show. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission is $8.50. Call 622-8848 for further info.


A REAL RAP DADDY

For countless years, there's been an ongoing discussion about who created rap, with dozens of possibilities bandied about, including everyone from Gil-Scott Heron to Muhammad Ali.

One of the foremost names in those arguments has rightly been The Last Poets, three anti-Vietnam, pro-civil rights activists who met in prison in the '60s and learned the art of "spieling," which essentially bridged the gap between poetry readings and rap--especially once the three men were released and began spieling over musical accompaniment. Their debut album, which took all imaginable racial issues to task, was released in 1970. 1970, people! And you thought "Rapper's Delight" was the first hip-hop record!

One of those founding members, Umar Bin Hassan, will perform on Friday, May 11, at Vaudeville Cabaret, 110 E. Congress St., along with locals Isaiah and Ill Styles' Shaun Harris. Things should get rolling a bit before 11 p.m., and cover is $10. For further details, call 622-3535.


LEND A HELPING COVER CHARGE

A pair of benefit shows going down this week demand your attention and your hard-earned dollars.

First up, on Friday, May 11, is the Rainbow Guitars Benefit for the Southern Arizona Legal Aid's Volunteer Lawyers Program, a rather unwieldy title that, basically, means this: A bunch of employees of Rainbow Guitars are bringing their respective bands to the stage in order to raise money for VLP Arizona, a 25-year-old organization that seeks to ensure access to justice for low-income residents of Southern Arizona, uniting those in need of civil legal assistance with volunteer attorneys who donate their time to help them. All money raised at the show will go directly to VLP for administrative and operating expenses. And the venue, Club Congress, is also donating the cost of the sound crew.

Here's the worthy and all-over-the-map lineup of bands you'll see, with descriptions courtesy of participant and Rainbow employee Pete Fine: Army of Garbage, who are apparently going under the name AOG Speedwagon for the night, start off at 8 p.m. (Fine's take: "If Tom Waits and the Muppet Band met in a well-lit alley and played jacks ...") At 8:55 p.m. it's All in Vein, "a mix of originals and '70s, '80s and '90s classic rock/metal including Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Tool and Judas Priest." At 9:50, it's The IODS, followed at 10:45 p.m. by Queen Anne's Revenge (groovy, ethereal originals influenced by Cocteau Twins, Massive Attack and Portishead). Next up, at 11:40 p.m., is Fine's own Whole Lotta Zep, which he describes as "full-energy authentic Led Zeppelin performed by veteran musicians who grew up with the music." Headlining the event are Tucson's longest-running and most respected hardcore outfit, Gat-Rot. Prepare to be pummeled at 12:35 a.m.

The benefit takes place at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission to the event is a $5 suggested donation. For more info, call 622-8848.

The following day and night, Saturday, May 12, Nimbus Brewing Company will host a bunch of fine local acts looking to raise awareness of, and funds for, the critical genocidal situation in the Darfur region of Sudan. Confirmed performers at press time include Ice-9, the Determined Luddites, Mitzi Cowell, Stefan George, Al Perry, John Coinman, The Carnivaleros, Kevin Pakulis and Flam Chen, plus some possible surprise guests.

Things get rocking at Nimbus, 3850 E. 44th St., at 2 p.m., and keep rolling 'til midnight. For more info, call 745-9175 or head to savedarfur.com.


THE OLD AND THE NEW

Formed about 70 years ago, at Talladega's Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, the odds were stacked against The Blind Boys of Alabama. Black, blind, Southern gospel singers looking to spread the word weren't exactly welcomed everywhere they went in the late '30s. And yet, along with some replacement members picked up along the way (Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter are the remaining founding members), The Blind Boys of Alabama have not only become something of a national treasure, but remain as adventurous as they've ever been. Recent albums demonstrate them branching out into heretofore uncharted territory for a septuagenarian gospel group. In recent years, they have appropriated cover songs, memorable all, by the likes of Tom Waits (their cover of his "Down in the Hole" wound up as the theme song for HBO series The Wire), and the Rolling Stones, earning Grammy after Grammy along the way, mostly by morphing secular songs into modern-day spirituals in remarkable fashion.

Their most recent album, Atom Bomb (Real World, 2005), took their modernization a step further, as they collaborated on songs with talents such as Blackalicious rapper Gift of Gab, Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo and blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite--plus covered a Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray tune to boot.

Watch your grandfather's gospel veer head-on into contemporary stuff as The Blind Boys of Alabama cross all barriers--age, race, religion, what constitutes gospel music--before your very eyes and ears, at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. All ages are welcome. Tickets are $33 for reserved seated floor, $29 reserved seated balcony, available in advance at the venue's box office, online at www.rialtotheatre.com or by calling 740-1000.


JUST LIKE THE REAL THING?

Rockfest '07 comprises a half-dozen tribute bands (a special breed, to be sure), who'd like to enlighten you as to what it's like to see a facsimile of hard-rock bands past and present. You got yer Zeppelin tribute band (Led Zepagain), yer AC/DC one (Bon/Fire), Van Halen as portrayed by Eruption, Metallica by Creeping Death, Aerosmith by Pump, and Stone Free Experience replicating Jimi Hendrix. It's like a virtual representation of what you might hear on a classic-rock station at any given time. Except a little bit sadder.

Rockfest '07 begins at noon on Saturday, May 12, at the Pima County Fairgrounds, 11300 S. Houghton Road, and runs until midnight. Advance tickets are available at all Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com or by calling 321-1000. Tickets are $16 in advance, and coupons for discounted day-of admission are available at all Tucson-area Domino's, Subway restaurants and Circle K convenience stores. For more info, head to rockfest07.com or call (805) 640-9014.

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