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Best Concert--TIE

George Strait
Mary Chapin Carpenter

READERS' PICK: The readers have something of a country thing going here, along with a mass of other two-stepping, cryin'-in-your-beer fans across the nation. Last October, George Strait, with his countrified good looks, signature big hat and prerequisite tight jeans, packed 'em in--thousands of screaming fans, who probably slipped a few home phone numbers in with all of the roses they heaped on stage. A sometimes-animated Strait broke away from his usual stoic performance, cutting lose with favorites like "Heartland," with his Ace in the Hole Band backing up the country crooner with finesse. When Mary Chapin Carpenter pulled into the Tucson Convention Center last spring we had mighty high expectations. Riding on the acclaim of her recordings, we expected to sit back and enjoy her smooth country-pop and bask in her reassuring, sultry voice and competent back-up band. What we received was an intricate stage set and a high-voltage performance from one of country music's finest. While we could tell Mary Chapin Carpenter and her band had rehashed the same performance countless times, the near-capacity crowd sucked it up. Hits like "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "Passionate Kisses" had people dancing in any open space available while the solemn and introspective "Only A Dream" brought to life the adage that country music is a story set to a melody. Slightly corny--but then so are the songs--you can be sure Mary Chapin Carpenter will be received by Tucsonans with open arms whenever she returns.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Three-Way Tie--Peter Paul & Mary/Yanni/Santana. We weren't at any of these shows, so let's just imagine that all three of these venerable acts were on the same bill. Yep, Yanni was wrestling Santanabackstage for top billing, while Peter, Paul & Mary slipped out on stage to steal the top spot. Before long, all three acts were jamming to "We Are The World--Like It Or Not," and the literal throngs of thousands either put new diapers on their kids, lit up doobies, waxed their BMWs, or all three at once. And this was the runner-up!

STAFF PICK: At a time when so much of popular music sounds derivative and bloodless, John Cale continues to prove that it doesn't have to be that way. Cale's performance at Club Congress last May explored a selection from a vast body of work, most of which was featured on his 1992 release, Fragments Of A Rainy Season. After beginning his set with a solo piano performance of the romantic ballad "Buffalo Ballet," he was joined by the rest of his band, a pedal-steel player and string quartet, for what would turn out to be the most passionate show leveled at Tucson in years. Even the cover tunes were rendered in sublime regard, from Leonard Cohen's powerfully moving "Hallelujah," to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," transforming the '50s rockabilly number to a chilling, surreal dirge. In a tribute to fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" was set to music (what better venue to receive that message than a rock club?). On "Fear (Is A Man's Best Friend)," Cale out-screamed entire acts half his age. It was at once romantic, raw, dark, poetic, edgy and, at moments, nothing short of amazing.

CAT'S MEOW: Ask any one of the 8000 fans who attended Jazz Sundae XVII, starring Tito Puente, and they're likely to agree that this show was the hit of the year. The annual jazz event in October, presented by the Tucson Jazz Society at DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center, was indeed a feast for the ears. The crowd was treated to appetizers while waiting for the entrée. A sampling of straight-ahead jazz was served up by the Tucson Jazz Orchestra led by Tom Kubis. Sizzling salsa followed with the red hot Tucson Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by Luis Torres. The crowd had a voracious appetite for the main course, the Latin jazz pioneer popular for more than 50 years. Tito Puente, full of rhythm and showing no sign of slowing down, was as fiery as ever on the timbales. Although the hungry crowd could not get enough of Puente and his Latin Jazz All Stars, they were more than satisfied. The Sundae was not quite complete, however. Following the banquet came the grand finale at Hotel Park Tucson. Tito and his boys joined members of the Tucson Latin Jazz Orchestra for a flaming dessert with a whole lotta jam, the most exciting jam session of the year!

CAT'S MEOW: April 2 at the Club Congress saw Dave Alvin (The Blasters, X), Peter Case (The Plimsouls) and folkie Tom Russell deliver a moving tribute to the legendary songwriter Merle Haggard, the subject of their collectively produced album Tulare Dust (Hightone Records HCD 8058). Each performer played a set of his own music, with high points like Alvin's on-the-way-to-classic tunes "The King of California" and "Border Radio." The three then came together to perform Haggard songs like "Kern River," "Mama Tried" and "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today." It doesn't get much better.

CAT'S MEOW: They came, they saw, they conquered, and they, uhh, came. North Carolina's premiere swamp surfers, Southern Culture on the Skids, brought down the house June 10 with their roots-rockin' and hepped-up countrybilly. They also fed the anointed masses with fried chicken like latter-day hillbilly Christs passing out loaves on the mountain. But leave it to the now-defunct, but always-to-be-remembered, Downtown Performance Center to put a spin on the evening that even the band still talks about. During the next-to-last song a pair of punks got on stage and commenced stripping. The male half of the pair was too drunk to complete the act, toppled over sideways and spent the rest of the set attempting to masturbate into a shirt, while the more lithesome female revealed bullseye-festooned bosoms to one and all before returning to her place in the crowd. Said SCOTS guitarist Rick Miller after the concert, "You know, I had a dream about tattooed breasts the other night. What do you make of that?"

CAT'S MEOW: A movie house might seem an unlikely place for a blow-out gig. But the Buena Vista Theater, 251 S. Wilmot Road, metamorphosed into a sonic temple this spring as The Cult jammed before 1,192 people at a sold-out show. Smoke hung thickly in the hot sticky air, filled with the smell of sweat, pot and leather. The mood was electric as The Cult belted out its best hits from the most recent CD, The Cult, as well as tunes from Ceremony, Sonic Temple, Electric and Love. At one point, a Native-American fan climbed on stage to give a traditional bead-and-bone choker to lead vocalist Ian Astbury, a proponent of the rights of Native-American nations. Patrick Duffy came down hard on his electric guitar as Astbury twisted and jumped about. We shook our booties 'til it hurt.

CAT'S MEOW: It was a fine Western Music Association tribute to the Sons of the Pioneers, but it was the appearance of the King of the Singing Cowboys, Roy Rogers Jr., that packed Centennial Hall last November. Roy, Jr. told stories about growing up with Roy Rogers lunch buckets, sheets, watches and outfits. Dale Evans talked about hearing the Sons for the first time. But when 83-year-old Roy Rogers, shrunken to the size of Howdy Doody, stepped up to the mike and sang, "I'm Glad to See You're Still Alive and Kicking," he echoed the sentiments of the audience, surprised at itself for being so deeply moved.

Case History

1998 Winner: Los Lobos, at the Rialto Theatre
1996 Winner: K.D. Lang

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