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Friday, August 20, 2004; Page C03

Mutual Admiration Society

Though occasionally billed as a supergroup, the Mutual Admiration Society doesn't come off as such. It's more of a traveling fantasy camp.

The MAS lineup that appeared at a sold-out Birchmere on Wednesday did include one legitimate superstar, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and some fine featured players, including Pete Thomas, drummer for Elvis Costello's former band the Attractions, and the avant-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. But Wednesday night at the Birchmere, most of the cast -- particularly Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket, who put the ensemble together -- looked happy just to be on the road with Jones.

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And Jones, who never got such an invite from Robert Plant or Jimmy Page when they toured together over the last decade, looked happy to be on the road with anybody.

There were some fine musical moments during the two-hour free-for-all. Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile, among the more talented pickers of his generation, fleetly plucked through his band's "Ode to a Butterfly." And fellow Creeker Sara Watkins showed herself to be the troupe's best vocalist on Keith Whitley's "You Don't Have to Move That Mountain." Jones reminded fans that he'd had a flair for the acoustic even during his heavy metal heyday by strapping on a mandolin to join Creek guitarist Sean Watkins as they giggled through an instrumental version of "Going to California."

But the night also had many moments when the whole concept seemed yucky. Phillips somehow got Jones -- a guy who co-wrote "Rock and Roll," for heaven's sake! -- to hold down the bottom end while he crooned Toad's wimp-rock radio smash, "All I Want." Much worse, Phillips projected no irony while meekly re-creating "Gallows Pole," a track off Led Zeppelin's third album that ranks among the heaviest unplugged tunes ever put to vinyl. As fans filed out of the club, they were handed a free CD sampler of MAS's studio work that opens with a track written by Phillips called "Thankful." He should be.

-- Dave McKenna


In front of a light show that featured controlled patterns and clear-edged designs -- not the full-on fog of the '60s -- Gomez presented its own dynamic, high-energy take on psychedelia at the 9:30 club Wednesday.

The British band employs the tools of its rock forebears, including an arsenal of guitars and a pair of drummers. But its sound is an eclectic modern blend that crosses generations. The group may be known by some only for its Beatles cover, "Getting Better," heard on electronics ads, and its latest single, "Nothing Is Wrong," boasts a cheery chorus: "We're not here to judge you / We want to be your friends now." But when Ian Ball sang this chorus Wednesday, he was backed by an assault of blaring guitars over a steady, menacing rhythmic pulse. The voice and lyrics were kid-friendly, but the aggressive sound was definitely a bridge to listeners who'd been speaker-hugging since the Gomez boys were toddlers.

The group shifts styles with a chameleon's ease. "Rex Kramer" kicked off with a discordant skirl of guitars and keyboards, including a shimmering aural effect like the slow-motion echo of a gunshot. On "Free to Run," Ben Ottewell (who also sang lead on "Kramer") moved from an Eddie Vedder-esque wail into a loping, almost country-style melody, then later into a bold anthem that drew hand claps from the lamentably underfilled club. "Ping One Down" started off like "Peter Gunn" and ended as a jazz-rock rage worthy of the halcyon days of the Fillmore. And the waltz-like "In Our Gun" featured Ball doing his best Nick Drake, breathy and lulling, before the fuzzed-out guitars kicked in. For rock fans, Gomez surely is the one band to have when you're having only one.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Hawaii Music Festival

The Aloha! Hawaii Music Festival at Wolf Trap on Wednesday night wasn't billed as a three-hour island-hopping excursion, but it could have been. Certainly lots of folks in the crowd, draped in leis or wearing floral print shirts louder than the music itself, went home happy.

The cross-generational performances quickly dispelled notions that Hawaiian music begins and ends with Don Ho. The opening set by four young musicians -- Keoki Kahumoku, David Kamakahi, Patrick Landeza and Herb Ohta Jr. -- combined guitars and ukuleles in such progressive string band fashion that it didn't seem odd at all to hear the ensemble interpret Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" as if it were a bluegrass tune. David Kamakahi then joined his father, renowned singer-songwriter Dennis Kamakahi, for an enjoyable series of uke and guitar duets, influenced by everything from Hawaiian themes to Cajun, mariachi and vintage country tunes.

For sheer virtuosity, however, nothing rivaled the solo set by slack-key guitar master Led Kaapana. Using altered guitar tunings, Kaapana unveiled a series of imaginatively arranged pieces, ringing with open string notes, shimmering harmonics and jazz-like chromatic runs.

The closing set by the Brothers Cazimero was something to see and hear. The siblings -- bassist Robert and guitarist Roland -- were joined by several guests, including the Royal Dance Company and hula charmer Leina'ala Kalama Heine. Over the past 25 years, the brothers have developed a highly distinctive repertoire and a handsome vocal blend. Traditional folk tales and fables were colorfully choreographed, and plenty of time was reserved for crowd-pleasing diversions, including "The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai."

-- Mike Joyce

Lori McKenna

Coming from someone who is so quick to giggle in the middle of a song, Lori McKenna's frequently dark lyrics ("I'm not a winner / I am just brilliantly bitter," she sings in "Never Die Young") seem incongruous.

That somberness pervaded her music Wednesday night (her most recent album is "Bittertown"), and her folk tunes often had a blues feel, as on the melancholy "Pour." But although her music wasn't always cheerful, the cozy setting of Jammin' Java allowed McKenna to display her congenial personality as she divulged everything from her favorite songwriting spot (her kitchen) to her guilty pleasures (Jessica and Ashlee Simpson's reality shows, as well as VH1's "Behind the Music").

McKenna's rich alto had more twang than would be expected from someone who was born and raised near Boston. And, as with most folk singers, her subject matter focused on things familiar to her, such as the tensions of small-town life ("They marry young in these parts / They work in the factory," she sang in "Bible Song").

McKenna even launched into the morose Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt," revived by Johnny Cash last year, but she stopped after the first line of the chorus with a laugh, saying, "I forgot the chords!" As she worked them out with her accompanist, Lorne Entress, she quipped, "This is just like an Ashlee Simpson episode!" and restarted the song more confidently.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

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