Sunday, Nov. 22

Tori Sparks is a combination of Ani DiFranco steeped in Nashville and the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins hopped up on Red Bull.

Stepping onto the stage for the first time in Tucson, she intimated, "Some people leave when they see one female with a guitar on stage, so thanks for sticking around." She broke into "Cold War" using percussive thumps on her acoustic guitar, intermittently mixed in with her expressive strumming and picking. When her voice reached the low end of her range, she physically sank down for emphasis. She was sassy, confident and a wee bit fidgety, a card-carrying member of the feigning-self-deprecation club.

Sparks' songwriting, punctuated by her come-hither hair flips, proved to be a delicious mix. Her lyrics delve into her past, but instead of wading in regret, she is unapologetic and makes it clear that mistakes won't be repeated. Tori didn't need a backing band; her witty banter and engaging storytelling—such as her detailed account of an almost-doomed gig in New York City, and a song about a session singer from Memphis taking a stand against an oppressive spouse—made for a wonderful performance.

On the other hand, the Sugar Thieves shook Congress like it was a snow globe. This six-piece blues roots band from Phoenix (yes, Phoenix!) has a winning formula: Everyone is exceedingly gifted on their respective instruments; they vary their sound and style; and everyone manages to play a kick-ass solo. It was nearly impossible to sit still.

Co-founding member Mikel Lander sang in a gritty Tom Waits-ish manner and packed a wallop on the slide guitar. Shea Marshall showed off his dexterity on the keyboard and played unforgettable, blistering sax riffs. The rhythm section, consisting of Ray Thiry on the upright bass and David Libman on drums, solidly anchored the band's sound.

Then there's Meridith Moore on vocals. All I have written in my notes about her voice is, "Holy shit!" To elaborate, it's soaked with gospel roots and held fast by a soulful backbone. She's astounding. The Sugar Thieves covered several artists remarkably well, including Robert Johnson, the Shelton Brothers, and Merle Travis, putting their unique twist on some old classics. When they return, it won't be a moment too soon.