MAKING MOUNTAINS: As TW's music editor, I'm often asked, "What do you think of the music scene in Tucson?" It's a loaded question; those curious seem to have an ulterior motive. Often, the question is prefaced with a lament over the state of music in the Naked Pueblo, but if not, the fact they're even asking, having knowledge themselves of this town's musical goings-on, makes me think the query's just a way to bait a negative statement on the topic. Needless to say, my interlocutors never get what they're looking for. And not just because it's my job.

My answer is this: Aside from a thriving underground punk scene, Tucson has no music scene. And I think that's a really great thing.

The benefit of living in a town with no scene is that anything goes. There's no pressure for anyone to fit in, to sound like anyone else. And I believe that engenders a truer form of expression for anyone making music in this town. If Tucson has a calling card at all, it's diversity. Simply put, there are no rules.

And it's because of the lack of rules that bands like Molehill can not only exist, but thrive, here.

For the uninitiated, Molehill is a nine-piece outfit that plays what they refer to as "festive music in the Old World style." It's a downright riveting combo: Gypsy music mixed with touches of klezmer, Slavic and Middle Eastern sounds. And perhaps most refreshing of all, Molehill plays with a verve that makes me want to describe the band in terms most often reserved for punk rock: Molehill plays with a primal urgency that is undeniable. Sure, it helps that their live shows are often aided and abetted by fire performers Flam Chen (with whom they share two members), but after hearing a sampling of their music in recorded form, I affirm that virtually nothing is lost in the translation. The seamless weaving of cello, guitar, mandolin, washboard, violin and percussion is sheer beauty, building upon itself in an ever-expanding frenzy, creating an almost palpable energy before finally climaxing in a fit of dripping noise. It's an experience not unlike great sex.

The ladies and gents of Molehill are about to take a break for the next few months in order to write new material and record a proper album, and they want you to help pay for it. But they're not begging for handouts; they're willing to work for it.

Everybody goes home happy when Molehill takes the floor of the Velvet Tea Garden, 450 N. Sixth Ave., on Saturday, February 26. Every penny earned at the show goes directly toward recording costs. The instrumental epic stylings of Wasabi kick-start the evening at 9 p.m., and you can call 388-9922 for more information.

DEAD RINGER: The spate of Grateful Dead cover bands seems to have ebbed in recent years, giving way to a new generation of jam bands who follow the band's basic tenets, while creating a sound of their own. But just when you thought you'd never get the chance to shimmy to a killer "Scarlet/Fire" again, along comes a group who takes the concept of the cover band one step further.

The Dark Star Orchestra, which hails from Chicago, not only plays faithful renditions of Grateful Dead songs, they play faithful renditions of Grateful Dead shows. Deadheads are remarkable in their knowledge of the Dead's performances; chances are pretty damn good that if you play a bootleg tape of any given Dead show, within minutes someone in the room will identify exactly which one it is. Therein lies the concept of the Dark Star Orchestra.

The band selects a historical Grateful Dead show, then without announcing which one it is, proceeds to reenact it in its entirety (two sets and an encore), leaving religious Heads in the audience scrambling to guess which performance they've selected. Following the encore, the band announces which show they've just played, then proceeds with a bonus encore not included in the original performance. It's all sort of like Grateful Dead performance art, and having heard an excerpt from their re-creation of the Dead's November 6, 1977, show in Binghamton, N.Y., I can attest that they do it damn well. Short of raising Jerry from the dead (no pun intended), this is the closest thing you're gonna get to the real deal.

Catch the Dark Star Orchestra at 8 p.m. Friday, February 25, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $10 at CD Depot, Hear's Music, Guitars, Etc., Zip's University, and the Congress Street Store. For further details, call 798-3333.

SMAK! ATTACK: Edmonton, Alberta's (that's in Canada, for you pathetically ethnocentric types) Smak! will be coursing through Tucson for the first time this week for two shows in support of their new release, Pull (Ash Tray Records), which provides a glimpse of what happens when a good band lacks recording funds. (Note to band: It's all in the mastering, kids.) However, despite the shoddy production values, the band's strengths shine brightly. Obviously highly influenced by the first wave of British punk, Smak! specializes in revved-up, Clash-esque tuneful rock, with the type of chant-along choruses that have been in short supply since the early '80s, instead of, say, the rock steady-era Clash territory that Rancid rips, mines, so well.

And in a really cool move, the group has scheduled two shows in town: one for an all-ages audience and one for those of drinking age. The all-ages show is slated for Tuesday, February 29, at the newly reopened Skrappy's location, 201 E. Broadway Blvd. (the former location of Dillinger's); while the no-minors show, along with openers The Quadratics, hits the basement of the Double Zero at 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 1. For more info on the Skrappy's show, log onto; the number for the Double Zero is 670-9332.

SHOWCASE LOWDOWN: The Second Annual BMI Artist Showcase, which provides a forum for local songwriters to strut their stuff, again graces Club Congress this week on two indoor stages, one electric, the other acoustic. The lineup for the electric stage is Chris Burroughs, Tongue Dried Sun, Greyhound Soul, The Wonder Twins, Creosote and Mardi Gras; while the acoustic stage features Big Bottom, Hector on Stilts, Whatever, Agave and Jon Murphy. Doors open at 6 p.m. Friday, February 25, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $4 at the Hotel; they'll be $6 the day of the show. Call 622-8848 for details.

MAKE ROOM: Call it truth in advertising: with its current eight-member lineup, the 30-year-old band Roomful of Blues can literally fill a room. Having been through countless incarnations over its celebrated history (alumni include such notables as Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard and Al Copley), the band has tackled virtually every blues-based music form that exists: Chicago blues, Texas blues, rock and roll, New Orleans blues, Memphis soul-blues, Kansas City blues and jump-swing, for starters. Still tirelessly touring in support of their newest release, 1998's There Goes the Neighborhood (Bullseye Blues & Jazz), the band makes a stop at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., at 8 p.m. Thursday, February 24. Advance tickets are $15, available at CD Depot, Hear's Music, Guitars, Etc., Zip's University, and the Congress Street Store. Call 798-3333 for further information.

AU REVOIR, AL: It's true -- local music legend Al Perry is leaving Loserville behind to take up a new job, and a new life, on March 1, when he begins managing a youth hostel in San Francisco.

But before he leaves, you'll get one last chance to hear all your old favorites. Al will perform a farewell show this Saturday, February 26, at 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St. Don't miss this chance to say goodbye to the venerable Mr. Perry. For more information, call the club at 670-9202.

During a couple different periods in my life, I became obsessed with Al. There have been times when the prospect of Al's music was the only thing that could inspire me to drag myself out to a bar. Through God's grace and this writing gig, I got to know Al a little bit; he was someone towards whom I'd felt a years-long fascination and reverence. We'd stand on opposite sides of Hotel Congress' front desk, sharing Brian Wilson tidbits and exchanging information on whichever bands we were listening to at the moment. And for some reason, even though I don't know him as well as, say, my friends whose opinions I value highly, Al's advice was sacrosanct, more so than almost anyone else I know. At one point, he told me he was listening to tons of George Jones, and as testament to his conviction, I went out the next day and bought a George Jones box set. That's how much I value his opinion.

Before I got to know Al, here's what I knew about him: that he was one of the best latter-day country songwriters I had ever heard; that he was alt-country when it was still called cowpunk; that he could always surprise me with his virtuosity at the guitar; that he was so famous that, when Pavement appeared on the main stage at Lollapalooza in Phoenix several years ago, in front of tens of thousands of people, singer Stephen Malkmus prefaced "Range Life" with, "Is Al Perry here? Al Perry is from Arizona so we're gonna play this one for him."

After I got to know Al, here's what I know about him: he's a truly wonderful guy. See above.

Obviously, I could go on. I could tell you how I once walked around with "Little Birds" running through my head for over a month. I could tell you how Al will leave a void in this town the size of Texas. But I'll just say thank you to Al for all the years of music and empathy he's provided me and countless others. Next week, in these pages, Al's buddy and co-conspirator Fish Karma will provide a tribute that'll put this one to shame.

Visit often, Al, and godspeed in your new life on the Bay. Now where's that "Little Birds" 7-inch you've been promising me?

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