SWEET THEMES: Anyone who reads this column with any regularity knows I'm a sucker for a night out that involves some sort of singular unifying element--a theme, if you will. The Wooden Ball, the Great Cover-Up, you know what I'm talkin' 'bout, Willis; they happen so infrequently and they're almost always at least interesting, if not spectacular. Anyway, people like me will be most pleased with this week's musical offerings as we're treated to two theme shows this week, both worthy of our time and money.

People generally celebrate Valentine's Day one of two ways: a nice evening out with that special someone, dinner, a few cocktails, maybe a show of some sort, then off to bed to celebrate the joy that is each other; or, conversely, for those who don't actually have a special someone or whose hearts have been recently broken by him/her, a bucket of fried chicken, a box of bon-bons, some Kleenex and a stack of porn by which to spank it must suffice. No matter which category you fall into this year, Club Congress feels your joy and your pain.

The duality of Valentine's Day will be explored in the First Annual Valentine's Love and Heartbreak Festival. The fest is divided into two nights. The first is set for that most hopeful of nights, Valentine's Day itself, and comprises six bands playing short sets of nothing but love songs. That night's performers are Al Perry and Loren Dircks, Crawdaddy-O, Greyhound Soul, Viva Maria (which includes Dave Slutes, Robin Johnson and Tasha Bundy, in their debut performance), Less Pain Forever, and Chango Malo. Then, the following night, the lovelorn will have their turn as each of the six bands will play songs of heartbreak. That night's performers are the Okmoniks, Truck, the Knockout Pills, Creosote, Fourkiller Flats and Calexico. In love or not, you officially have absolutely no excuse to stay home this weekend.

The First Annual Valentine's Love and Heartbreak Festival takes place at 9 p.m. on Thursday, February 14, and Friday, February 15, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission is $5 for one night, $7 for both. For more information call 622-8848.

Troy Olsen's ongoing weekly Hillbilly Hayride is always a reliable Wednesday night out regardless of whom Troy's guests are that week, but it's those special tribute shows that really get us hot and bothered. Having already toasted the likes of Hank Williams, Gram Parsons and Elvis Presley, this week's Hayride is A Birthday Tribute to Johnny Cash, who celebrates his 70th on February 26. Each of nine acts will perform a few of their favorite tunes by the dude who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die (not really, silly): Stefan George, Gila Bend, Truck, Topless Opry, Mark Insley, Teddy Morgan, Love Mound, Al Perry and, of course, Mr. Olsen himself. Wear black--duh.

The Johnny Cash Birthday edition of the Hillbilly Hayride kicks off at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 20, at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. For further details, call 798-1298.

MUTANT BLUES: Following a spate of 7-inch singles, Auburn, AL's Immortal Lee County Killers released their debut album, The Essential Fucked Up Blues, early last year on Estrus. That collection splits the difference between the heavy guitar riffage and wailing/yelping vocals of Jon Spencer's (fucked up) Blues Explosion and the minimalism of Bob Log and Doo Rag's punked-out Delta blues (the ILCK is also a duo). How appropriate, then, that Mr. Log himself is co-headlining with the band this week. A night of fucked up blues, indeed.

The Immortal Lee County Killers, Bob Log III and Solid Donkey perform at 9 p.m. on Monday, February 18, at 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St. Need more information? Call 670-9202.

NO OFFENSE: It should come as no surprise to anyone that an early incarnation of locals Sunday Afternoon played Dave Matthews Band covers. The six-piece (singer Rick Paz, guitarists/vocalists Joey Unger and Dan Howarth, bassist/vocalist Tyler Tafeaga, saxophonist Ryan Roscoe, and drummer/percussionist Ryan Janac), which celebrates the release of its debut album this week, has obviously drawn a good amount of inspiration from that MOR dweller and others, like Barenaked Ladies. The band specializes in moody, sax-abetted tunes that aim to please the masses while offending no one. Judging from the crowds at their recent shows they've succeeded.

Sunday Afternoon's CD release party takes place at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, February 15, at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. For more info call 798-1298.

THE BAND OF THE GOLDEN ARM: A couple years back a friend of mine with excellent taste in music arrived home from a trek to South By Southwest raving about a twisted jazz combo she'd seen there. Austin's Golden Arm Trio--not actually a trio--had played twice during the festival, once as the "Trio," with six or so members, and once as the Golden Arm Orchestra, with lord only knows how many members onstage. And while I can't remember which of the shows my friend had seen, the thing that sticks out is that, at an event that features somewhere between 800 and 1,000 bands, the Golden Arm Trio was her very favorite.

The band's leader and only permanent member is songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Graham Reynolds, who assembles a rotating crew of sidemen according to what type of sound he's going for at that particular time. While any given show (or album) might feature anything from strings and horns to theremin and drum machine, part of the appeal lies in the fact that you never quite know what you're getting, only that it'll be worth checking out. Fans of the Zeitgeist series of shows should take special note of this one.

The Golden Arm Trio performs at 9 p.m. on Sunday, February 17, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Molehill opens. Admission is $5. Call 622-8848 with questions.

FRANTI STAYS HUMAN: The one constant in the career of Michael Franti has been his far-ranging and left-leaning politics, from the proto-industrial found percussion combo the Beatnigs to the hip-hop leanings of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But it's with his current outfit, Spearhead, currently entering its eighth year, that Franti has truly found a vehicle for his sermons. The group's three albums--the latest of which is 2001's Stay Human (on Six Degrees Records)--address virtually every facet of politics (and socio-politics) imaginable, often drawing parallels between seemingly disparate issues; an example from Stay Human's opening track, "Oh My God": "You can make a life longer but you can't save it/You can make a clone and then you try to enslave it/Stealin' DNA samples from the unborn and then you comin' after us 'cause we sample the James Brown horn?" Such lines are typical of Franti's lyrical prowess, and remarkably, even with all the political outrage, he still manages to retain the sense of positivity that has characterized his output over the years.

Michael Franti and Spearhead appear at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 14, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. The show also features performances from Hamsa Lila, Arjun & Guardians Collective, as well as guest DJs and the Peace Force Circus. Advance tickets are available for $20 at the Casbah Tea House, Café Quebec, and the Creative Spirit Gallery. They'll be $25 at the door. For more details, call 798-3333.

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