SOUL, SOUP AND SALVATION: It's been said time and time again that there's no such thing as a free lunch, but apparently someone forgot to tell that to Brian Flagg and the rest of the catholic workers and volunteers at Casa Maria, a local soup kitchen located at 401 E. 26th St. For more than 20 years, Casa Maria has provided free meals to the poor and homeless from 8 a.m. to noon, 365 days a year. In addition to doling out massive amounts of soup, juice and coffee to those in need of a hot meal, Casa Maria also hands out bulging sacks of groceries for families and roughly 500 brown-bag lunches for individuals each and every day. No one in need of food is ever turned away.

Wait a second, you're probably thinking, this here's a music column; get to the damn music already. OK then, here's the big tie-in: About a year and a half ago local veteran singer/guitarist Rich Hopkins (Luminarios, Sidewinders/Sand Rubies) decided he wanted to make a video for the Luminarios song "Tender Mercies," which he had written about the plight of the homeless community. He asked around and all paths led to Flagg, and Casa Maria as the perfect place to use as home base for the video shoot. "I didn't realize at the time that Brian doesn't really just let anybody down there to film, or make a video, but I was fortunate because he knew who I was," says Hopkins. "Brian's been a big-time music fan of a lot of local people here for years. He was like, 'Oh yeah, Rich Hopkins--yeah, no problem.' So that was kind of how I got my foot in the door down there."

Shortly after wrapping the video, the Luminarios embarked on a European tour. Even at that point Hopkins was so caught up in his experiences at Casa Maria that he showed the "Tender Mercies" video at each show and talked about the struggle of the homeless from the stage. He also collected money, which was then distributed 50-50 between a homeless-focused church in Dresden, Germany, and Casa Maria.

It should be noted here that Casa Maria relies on no government agency--city, county, state, or federal--to keep its doors open. Every penny comes from private donations.

Like a lot of people who get involved in a needy charitable institution, with as much gratification as he got from getting to know the people he was feeding, and the people he worked alongside while feeding them, Hopkins found he wanted to do more for Casa Maria than simply put in a morning on the line every week or so. His initial idea was to commit the songs of the people he was meeting onto his digital tape recorder and sell it to make some much-needed cash for the Casa.

"Everybody's musical, right?" he says. "I thought, 'God, wouldn't it be cool to just make a record of homeless musicians, just record their music?' 'Cause you know, you figure there's got to be a lot of good, talented people out there." But as much heart and soul as he found in the material he was recording, he eventually, hesitantly, came to a conclusion: "After a while I thought, 'Well, this is good, but who's gonna buy this thing? So I thought it might be better if I got some people who I thought could sell this thing." Which he did.

The newly released CD, Bread, Soup & Struggle: A Tribute to the Casa Maria; Tucson, Arizona, contains contributions from locals such as Calexico with Mariachi Luz de Luna, Howe Gelb, Al Perry, Nancy McCallion and Danny Krieger of The Mollys, and Stefan George. Hopkins' Luminarios show up with "Tender Mercies," the song that eventually led to the project itself, in both song and video form; and the original idea of releasing the material of the people Hopkins met at Casa Maria is represented by a spoken-word piece by Casa's primary operator Brian Flagg and a song from patron Felipe Jarra. The album also includes contributions from out-of-town notables like Country Joe McDonald (a hero of Hopkins') and ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn.

Every penny from the sales of the discs will go to Casa Maria, as will all proceeds from the CD release party this week, appropriately timed for Thanksgiving night.

On Thursday, November 28, Hopkins, Gelb, McCallion and Krieger, George, and Jarra will all convene, likely with a few friends in tow, at 8 p.m., at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission is $3 and a can of food, and copies of Bread, Soup & Struggle will be available for $10. For more information call 622-8848.

ALL THAT JAZZ: In a day and age when it's not uncommon for either a teen-ager or a sexagenarian to walk up to a record store counter and plunk down 15 bucks a pop for Miles Davis, Bright Eyes, and El-P in one fell swoop (trust me--after a lifetime spent working in record stores, it happens more frequently than you think), those same people are tough to get out of the house, remarkably unwilling to pay less than half as much for a live performance that might change their lives. It's an even tougher sell when the words "experimental" or "improvisational" enter into the sales pitch.

For six years, Steve Hahn's Zeitgeist series of cutting-edge jazz shows have provided a wealth of life-changing tales, often from those who barely dared to enter one to begin with. And for the sixth consecutive year, this week Hahn presents Making It Up (in real time), in which the cream of Tucson's "experimental" crop gets together to "improvise" all night long. This year's installment features: The High on Out Duo, a percussion-, keyboards- and reeds-playin' set of brothers reared on Sun Ra in their native Philly; the Santa Barbara Project, a self-described "Cuban Chamber Jazz" trio that specializes in "various spontaneous interpretations of theirs and others' compositions;" the gypsy/klezmer-meets-dirgy-rock stylings of the Matt Mitchell-led El Creepy; the Haji Akba Ensemble, whose namesake trumpeter has played extensively with the Sun Ra Arkestra, Fred Wesley, Lou Donaldson, and Van Morrison; and a rare live appearance from the Mat Bevel Orchestra, featuring the illustrious Mat Bevel himself on "one string thunder bass and trombone."

On Saturday, November 30, check your fear at the door and head into the Mat Bevel Institute, 530 N. Stone Ave., in time for Making It Up (in real time), which kicks off at 7 p.m. Admission is a mere five bucks, and show sponsor, NYC-based Palmetto Records, will be giving away free CDs all night long. Questions? Call 622-0192 for answers.

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