WATT'S UP: Last Monday in Tucson was a momentous occasion for fans of '80s college rock. (Yep, kids--that's what they called it before some marketing genius coined the word "alternative"). The Violent Femmes and Mike Watt, both primarily remembered for their work from that decade, both made appearances in the Old Pueblo on September 21, and the shows made for an interesting juxtaposition between these two '80s legends and their respective careers in 1998.

Sound Bites The 18-and-over capacity crowd for the Violent Femmes show at Club Outback certainly had no complaints, except for the usual, "It's way too crowded up front." But the club's festival seating (read: lack of seating) provided just the party atmosphere the show demanded. Indeed, it was hard to complain about the show itself--an hour and 45 minutes of all the songs the crowd had paid to hear. A greatest hits show, if you will.

Best known for their self-titled 1983 debut album, one of the greatest recorded documents of teen lust and angst, the band took a major risk for their sophomore effort, 1985's Hallowed Ground. That second album revealed frontman and main songwriter Gordon Gano's newfound Christianity, with its gothic and gospel-tinged salute to traditional American folk music. But the record also alienated a lot of the band's fans, who were expecting Violent Femmes II. Apparently learning a lesson of sorts, in the years since the Femmes have put out several albums of mostly lackluster material, while attempting to at least return to the debut's stripped-back style. (To be fair, each of these albums certainly has its moments, as best documented by the 1993 greatest hits collection Add It Up (1981-1993), which also includes some previously unreleased odds 'n' ends).

The Femmes' tremendous staying power was obvious by the amount of showgoers who were barely born when the band debuted in '83; and all seemed to know every word to every song off that album. The band was in fine form, and played faithful renditions of all the hits; the only problem with the show was that they took so few risks. They only pulled out one catalog song that didn't appear on Add It Up ("No Killing," from 1986), and only played a couple of new songs--one of which was already dated, as it was about Jeffrey Dahmer. Perhaps these are just pitfalls of a band that peaks with its first album. At any rate, the crowd went home with smiles on their faces, and that's probably what matters most in the end.

By contrast, Mike Watt's show at Club Congress was all about taking chances. The legendary bassist and founder of both the Minutemen and fIREHOSE kicked off his solo career with 1995's Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, in which he enlisted a different band for each track, comprised of a virtual who's-who of underground and alternative rock heroes. Following the "concept" theme, his second and most recent solo release was Contemplating the Engine Room, an autobiographical rock opera which likens the van-touring days of the Minutemen to three guys stuck on a boat together, documenting the travails met along the way.

Last Monday's performance was the second time Watt has hit Tucson in support of the ambitious album, with one notable difference this time around: As opposed to the show he played in the spring of this year (also at Club Congress), in which pal Joe Baiza filled the guitar slot, last week's show featured L.A. guitar virtuoso Nels Cline.

Cline, who was the guitarist on Engine Room (and who has collaborated with the likes of Thurston Moore, in addition to being a current member of the amazing Geraldine Fibbers), combines a dazzling array of effects pedals with an incendiary, but not too flashy, playing style that's his and his alone. His presence (and possibly the fact that this was the first date of the tour with Cline, as opposed to the Tucson show with Baiza being the final show of that tour) made all the difference as the trio (including drummer Bob Lee) played the opera in its entirety.

Watt's trademark, thundering bass coupled with Cline's sonic guitar wash made for some of the finest ensemble jazz-rock dynamics of recent memory. While brief portions of the show, most notably towards the opera's end, devolved into instrumental wankery (one audience member was heard to ask, "When did Mike Watt turn into the Grateful Dead of punk rock?"), the show was at least gutsy and heartfelt throughout.

And to placate longtime fans, the trio finished out the night with a few oldies, including a cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "The Red and the Black." While the Violent Femmes show often resembled an '80s revival, albeit an enjoyable one, Watt proved truly vital in 1998.

HOT PICK: Drum and guitar two-piece bands seem all the rage lately. Hell, the Arizona music scene alone boasts Phoenix's Les Payne Product, and Tucson's Doo Rag and Twine, all of which are worlds apart musically, if not mathematically. More and more bands are realizing the less-is-more aesthetic--that it's possible to get a mighty big sound by putting fewer people onstage. One of the first bands to receive national recognition and airplay in the drum 'n' guitar realm was Illinois' Local H.

Originally sporting a traditional four-piece line-up, vocalist/guitarist Scott Lucas and drummer Joe Daniels decided to make a go fending for themselves after the other two members quit. In order to compensate for the loss, Lucas plays a guitar equipped with both guitar and bass pickups, which he plays through both guitar and bass amps. The result is a big fat sound that could give most quartets a run for their money.

Soon after the band pared down its lineup, the duo was signed to Island Records on the strength of a demo tape. They released a strong but overlooked debut, Ham Fisted (1995), followed by their 1996 breakthrough As Good As Dead, which yielded the alternative radio hit "Bound for the Floor." ("And you just don't get it/Keep it copacetic.") Although the band has endured its share of criticism for being a Nirvannabe band (and at times, the shoe seemed to fit, though the songs were always stronger and more varied than that of the more blatant rip-offs), their newest release, Pack Up The Cats, should change a few minds about that.

Produced by veteran Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with '70s and '80s luminaries The Cars, Cheap Trick and Queen, the album sports the slicker, not-quite-arena-rock sheen for which he's become famous. Testament to the bigger rock sound is Cats' first single, "All The Kids Are Right," a hyper-melodic ode to playing the occasional crappy show. ("You heard that we were great/Now you think we're lame/Since you saw the show last night...But you won't wear our T-shirts now, anymore.") While the album still shows signs of the Nirvana influence, it's less apparent here than on either of the band's previous releases.

Local H plays the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., on Sunday, October 4. The all-ages show kicks off at 8 p.m. with Stanford Prison Experiment, Super Jesus and Pasta Rocket. Advance tickets are $9, available at CD Depot and Strictly CDs. Call 740-0126 for more information.

LAST NOTES: The Third Stone will be the site for a momentous show this week. Marking the first time that bands from the former Yugoslavia will tour the U.S., Slovenian bands Dicky B. Hardy and Hic Et Nunc will bring their down-and-dirty sounds to Tucson. Both are formidable forces in a thriving punk rock scene in their home region, which has been active for about a decade now. While Dicky B. Hardy features a full-on pummeling punk rock sound, Hic Et Nunc favors a blistering, bloozey, garage punk format that wouldn't sound out of place on the Crypt or Estrus labels.

The two Slovenian bands will be sandwiched by a solo opening set by Al Perry and a night-ending set by Splendida. The show goes down at
9 p.m. Sunday, October 4, at Third Stone Bar & Grill, 500 N. Fourth Ave. Call 628-8844 for details.

Remembered fondly as sidewoman guitarist for late legendary blues artist Albert Collins from 1988 to 1991, Debbie Davies will bring her own band to town this week. While her albums (including the recent 'Round Every Corner, on Shanachie Records) tend to highlight her smooth and soulful blues stylings, her live shows feature originals interspersed with classics such as Freddie King instrumentals and jump shuffles. As she puts it, "As a guitarist, sometimes I just wanna kick some ass." Said ass-kicking is yours for the asking at 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 7, at the Boondocks Lounge, 3306 N. First Ave. Lori Davidson opens the show at 8 p.m. Call 690-0991 for ticket and show information.

And last, but certainly not least, "Queen of Burlesque Swing" Candye Kane returns to town this week. Her career has definitely been moving in the right direction since her last Tucson show, and this performance celebrates the release of Swango on Sire Records. Kane hits town on Friday, October 2, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $6, available at Hear's Music, Yikes!, Zip's University, and Guitars, Etc. They'll cost $8 at the door. Call 740-0126 for more details. TW

-- Stephen Siegel

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