POP MUSIC

Neil Michael Hagerty, left, of Howling Hex served up gutbucket rock. Stanley Clarke produced slap-thumb funk.
Neil Michael Hagerty, left, of Howling Hex served up gutbucket rock. Stanley Clarke produced slap-thumb funk. (Drag City)

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Howling Hex

Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, who drove Royal Trux for 12 highly inventive and underappreciated years, laid pretty low following their musical breakup. But like unruly dogs who won't stay in the back yard, they've leapt the fence and are roaming the neighborhood again, albeit in separate packs. Herrema releases "Western Xterminator" with her rock outfit RTX later this month, while Hagerty has his revolving door solo project the Howling Hex up and touring. The Hex -- currently a drum, percussion, guitar, bass and sax conglomeration -- climbed onto Iota's stage Thursday night and wailed for an hour, setting new highs (or lows, depending on your point of view) in the recapitulation of '70s gutbucket rock.

Hagerty led the band on a six-string bass, chording out primordial riffs that his cohorts flushed with over-the-top guitar solos, honking sax and a backbeat so muscular and simplistic that it only could've come from a drum set that consisted of just high-hat, snare and kick drum. The percussionist who single-mindedly attacked a roto-tom and cowbell was only icing on the cake. One song title, "Hammer and Bluebird," perfectly captured the Hex's approach: beauty found by repeatedly punching Grand Funk Railroad in the face.

So, by the time they'd reached the refrain of "How Many Steps Now" ("yeah you got it now / useless vibrations"), Hagerty had whipped his charges into a groove so basic in rock-and-roll DNA that its appeal could only be called visceral. Which seemed to satisfy him, so he simply thanked the small crowd, unplugged and walked off stage.

-- Patrick Foster

Stanley Clarke and Co.

Bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Patrice Rushen and drummer Lenny White weren't quite sure what to call their opening set on Thursday night at Blues Alley: a debut performance or a trial run? No matter. There were some tentative moments and tinkering, but anyone who expected to hear the all-star trio stretch out in an acoustic and unusually cozy setting didn't go home disappointed.

Longtime collaborators in various groupings and sessions over the years, the three musicians are still sorting out a repertoire for their new venture. What they've come up with so far -- a mix of swing and bop anthems, original compositions and pop deconstructions -- nicely balances virtuosic play with interpretative finesse. Clarke, playing upright bass and acoustic bass guitar, dazzled the packed house with a percussive blend of finger-tapped melodies and slap-thumb funk -- that is, when he wasn't smoothly propelling the jazz standard "Invitation" or conjuring Latin lyricism on the self-penned ballad "Tradition."

At one point, Rushen pointed out that it's not often that fans get a chance to hear Clarke performing unplugged in a club, but the same could be said about her. A solo rendition of "A Night in Tunisia," in which Rushen occasionally pitted her hands against each other, like opposing brass and reed sections in a big band, was particularly enjoyable. White, meanwhile, produced orchestral crescendos and plenty of rhythmic thrust, but some of his best moments came when he was simply laying back, lightly accenting a swing pulse. The Blues Alley engagement runs through tomorrow. The trio performs on Monday at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.

-- Mike Joyce


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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