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PERFORMING ARTS

Thursday, November 16, 2006

. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

What does the future hold for America's tortured young rock stars? Mascara-clad emo bands hoping to age gracefully should check out the Texas rockers . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. The Austin troupe gave an animated, albeit uneven, performance on Tuesday at the 9:30 club -- one that rarely sacrificed dignity for theatricality.

Trail of Dead has been making a racket for over a decade, but its flair for the melodramatic takes on a new relevance in an era where bands like My Chemical Romance are marching up the charts with histrionic, heart-on-sleeve anthems. The set offered bombastic renditions of older tunes, including "It Was There That I Saw You" and "Another Morning Stoner," but was light on cuts from the band's new album, "So Divided" -- a fitting title for the disc and the performance, too. When Trail of Dead's post-punk clamor wasn't firing on all cylinders, the set wandered off into territory that only middling jam bands dare tread.

Opening act the Blood Brothers never lacked such focus, siphoning their post-hard-core din into sharp outbursts. Incited by the nonstop shrieking of vocalists Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie -- and Whitney's shaking his bleached coif like a wet dog -- their young fans moshed fervently but didn't stick around for the headliners. Who's got time to worry about aging gracefully on a school night?

-- Chris Richards

Guarneri String Quartet

The Guarneri String Quartet opened the Kennedy Center's Fortas Chamber Music Concerts on Tuesday with a challenging program of late Mozart, Janacek and Debussy. These estimable musicians have been before the public for more than four decades with only one change in personnel. Their musical standards remain exceptionally high, though their individual instrumental skills have eroded somewhat.

In Mozart's K. 590, Peter Wiley's urbane, polished rendition of the soloistic cello part provided an unflattering contrast to violinist Arnold Steinhardt's slightly loamy sound. The ensemble was faultless, as always, but to these ears they misjudged the second movement, playing it as a buttery Andante rather than Mozart's artless Allegretto. The quartet's collective fingers did not hit every mark in the finale, and dynamic contrasts were somewhat perfunctory.

Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" quartet (his first) is a mercurial, kaleidoscopic piece, requiring constant hair-trigger changes of tempo and mood throughout its four movements. The Guarneri had the full measure of its challenges, even if there was imperfect unanimity when passing motifs back and forth. But they did not stint in effort or intensity, and the music made its full effect, baleful and poignant.

Though they must have played Debussy's masterpiece several hundred times over the years, the quartet still attacked it with suavity and freshness. There were some intonation issues (usually in their double-stops), but the old magic was often there, particularly in the effulgent slow movement.

-- Robert Battey

Robert Earl Keen And Chris Knight

Chris Knight set out from Nashville at 4 a.m. Tuesday to make his opening slot at the Birchmere -- a numbing drive that might have accounted for his irritably telling the audience to pipe down. Given that the headliner was Robert Earl Keen, who drew a sold-out audience of rowdy Texas music fans, the cause was lost, anyway.

But Knight, an earnest singer-songwriter accompanied by an electric guitarist, generated enthusiastic response to his gritty odes to blue-collar America. Some of the imagery is the stuff of cliches -- dogs, Bibles, farming -- but Slaughters, Ky.'s favorite son has lived it. The songs come across as honest if at times a bit dreary.

Knight saved the up-tempo material for last, finishing with a strong triumvirate of "To Get Back Home," "It Ain't Easy Being Me" and "Framed," leaving the audience warmed up for the main event.

Keen, who was showcased in the Birchmere's standing-room-only bandstand instead of the dining hall "listening room" -- the better for singing along -- put fresh spins on 20-year-old songs and inspired the legion before him to wave beverages over their heads during every chorus.

The smooth pedal steel segue between "Feelin' Good Again" and "Gringo Honeymoon" -- two Texas music classics that deserve a wider audience -- was one of those rare live performance moments that cause the breath to catch and the heart to lift. And then the waving of the beverage.

-- Buzz McClain

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