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Performing arts

Monday, December 6, 2010; C05

Warpaint

The band that headlined at the Rock & Roll Hotel on Saturday night calls itself Warpaint and plays music rooted in late-'70s post-punk. Like most other contemporary post-punk revivalists, however, this all-female Los Angeles quartet has divested the style's fury. The group's 70-minute set was occasionally raucous and frequently sultry, but far from warlike.

What Warpaint derives from such precursors as the Slits, Television and Talking Heads is its aural spaciousness and iced-down approach to reggae, soul and Afropop. The prominent bass and scratchy guitar of songs such as "Undertow'' offered funk's timbres without its swagger; the encore, a semi-original titled "Billie Holiday,'' took some lyrics from "My Guy,'' Mary Wells's 1964 hit, but none of its drive. Rather than the immediacy of classic Motown, Warpaint specializes in the distant and the dreamy - but with a potent rhythm section to keep the wispy riffs from floating away.

Democratically, the group spread across the stage, with all four musicians clearly visible. Singer-guitarists Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal flanked drummer Stella Mozgawa (who sounded more assured than on the band's debut album, "The Fool'') and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg. Although sometimes two or more members sang together, often only one musical element was highlighted. Pieces of the sound would drop out, and Wayman and Kokal rarely played guitar at the same time.

Assisted by generous servings of reverb, this skeletal style didn't sound thin. And the sprawling, unpredictable structures endowed even the lesser material with an intriguing tension. But Warpaint's skill at dismantling songs wasn't matched by its ability to put them back together. The climactic "Set Your Arms Down'' worked best, building in a rollicking crescendo before gradually receding to vapor. A few more such payoffs would have enhanced a show where the emphasis on supple rhythms and shifting forms just might have been mistaken for a lack of memorable tunes.

- Mark Jenkins

21st Century Consort

Maybe it's not too surprising that we're fascinated by water - we're mostly made up of the stuff, after all - and composers in particular have always been drawn to it. Perhaps that's because water is so much like music: constantly in motion, with profound depths and astounding power under a surface of infinite variety. Whatever the reason, water is still inspiring some of the most interesting music of our time, as the 21st Century Consort demonstrated in a remarkable concert titled "Unruly Landscapes," at the American Art Museum on Saturday.

Loosely linked to "The Pond," an ongoing exhibit of photographs by John Gossage, the program opened with "The Stream Flows" for solo violin, by the Chinese American composer Bright Sheng. It was likable enough, if traditional Chinese melodies tarted up in a modern idiom float your boat. Much more satisfying was David Froom's Piano Trio No. 2, "Grenzen" - a piece so full of life that it almost bursts out of its skin - which received a spectacularly energetic and focused performance from Elisabeth Adkins on violin, Rachel Young on cello and Lisa Emenheiser at the piano.

Emenheiser is so little that you half expect her to be blown away by the first strong breeze, but she brought volcanic power to Alan Mandel's "Steps to Mount Olympus," whose title sums up its outsize gestures and almost romantic thundering. Far more involving was Emenheiser's reading of "Thoreau," the last movement of Charles Ives's "Concord" sonata. Not every pianist can make genuine sense of this confounding work, but Emenheiser infused it with delicate, ephemeral poetry; even Ives would have been impressed.

The real high points of the evening, though, were two gorgeous works by West Coast composer Donald Crockett. There's a great naturalness and effortlessness in Crockett's writing, and "to be sung on the water" - a hymnlike duet performed by violinist Adkins, with Abigail Evans on viola - had a kind of distant, otherworldly glow, like nymphs singing from some underwater realm. His Horn Quintet, "La Barca" (with Laurel Ohlson on horn), was far closer to the surface, but no less beautiful - a work of relentless inventiveness from a composer we should hear more of.

- Stephen Brookes

Turtle Island Quartet

At 25, the Turtle Island Quartet exists in a constant state of renewal. Its founding members, violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer, welcome young second violinists and violists who are attracted by the sort of technical and improvisational opportunities the standard classical repertoire doesn't offer. They bring new ideas, new music and amazing skills to the group, stay several years and then move on.

The quartet's Silver Anniversary Celebration at the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Saturday, for instance, gave its newest member, violist Jeremy Kittel, a terrific showcase for some of his stuff - a soul-searing blues cry in the opening arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's "Have You Ever Been"; a delicate interweaving with two guest players, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and guitarist Mike Marshall, in a jazz version of "Angels We Have Heard on High"; and an enthrallingly intricate improvisation in the group's version of Miles Davis's "Milestones."

What the Turtle Island Quartet artists have with their repertoire of nonstandard sound-producing techniques is the ability to re-create the best jazz, rock, bluegrass and the rest in sonorities that are rich, transparent, balanced and blessedly lightly amplified. This program was a retrospective of the music that this group has made its own over the years. There was an arrangement of John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," with Chestnut spinning droplets of notes over the percussive chugs of the violins and the basslike thumping of the cello, along with a joyous rendition of "Crossroads" and Marshall's down-home-sounding bass mandolin version of "Gator Strut."

Chestnut's pensive leads in arrangements of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" wandered from sweet to astringent, and were both gentle and crystalline. Balakrishnan's "Monkey Business," a commentary on Darwinian controversy, came the closest, stylistically, to classical idioms and rounded out a program that featured astonishing versatility.

- Joan Reinthaler

The Walkmen

If Friday night's sold-out 9:30 Club show by the Walkmen didn't have much of a palpable sense of occasion about it, perhaps it's because these guys are just too head-down professional to allow any giddiness to creep in. Never mind that this was to be their final gig of a successful year; never mind that it was a sort of homecoming, to boot: Four-fifths of the Brooklyn group grew up together here in Washington. Though absent sentimentality, it was a captivating evening of jaundiced, grandly put millennial indie sulk (with a some 1950s Sun Records DNA), of which the band retained complete control from the moment it kicked the party off with a booty-quaker called - er, "While I Shovel the Snow." It comes next to last on this year's confident "Lisbon" album. And it's a waltz. Two of the guys played triangles on it. "Half of my life I've been waking up," goes one line.

With that whisper of a tune, the group compelled the attention of the room and never gave it back. The Walkmen's best trick is the way Matt Barrick's fast-flurrying drums, Paul Maroon's surfing-the-Arctic-Sea guitar and Hamilton Leithauser's wraithlike vocals seem initially to be performing different songs, then fuse together with an immediacy that snaps your head back. The set would find room for two-thirds of "Lisbon," gathering in tempo and volume with the ferocious "Angela Surf City" and "Blue as Your Blood," a number that bridges the band's poles with coal-fired Johnny Cash verses and stratospheric U2 choruses.

Performing in a tweed jacket, trousers and a button-down, frontman Leithauser looks more like an adjunct professor than a rock star, but he's got a voice that shrinks big spaces, and the elusive quality of presence. By the time he brought on a four-piece horn section to lend a bent, regal sway to "Stranded," we'd have happily let him bum us out all night. Later, heavy-footed encores of "The Rat" and "Little House of Savages" reminded everyone that the Walkmen is still an aggressive rock band, but it didn't need 75 minutes of runway to show us that. This outfit is capable of vertical takeoff. It boils at room temperature.

- Chris Klimek

Barnes & Hampton Celtic Consort

The ancient Celtic tribes roamed far and wide, leaving their traces in languages and music from the British Isles and the Iberian peninsula to Central Europe and Asia Minor. On Saturday, the Barnes & Hampton Celtic Consort focused on the British and Irish segments of Celtic musical culture, an inheritance gradually blended with elements of other ancient societies. The ensemble's engaging, reflective afternoon marked the 25th anniversary of Dumbarton Concerts' annual Celtic Christmas event at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown.

Alternating on a bevy of instruments - some quite ancient in lineage - the consort performed a broad sampling of Christmas songs and dances, all of them marked by continually pulsing rhythms and touches of wit. (And it was easy to recognize rhythmic and melodic styles eventually passed down to Appalachian musicians.) There was the traditional, wassail-filled "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance," picturing a drunken Christmas brawl. Other arrangements dealt with sacred Christmas subjects, as in the hushed "Blessed Be That Maid Marie."

The wide assortment of music was matched by continually changing combinations of instruments, some little known today. Linn Barnes explained how he strapped himself into the uilleann pipes (Ireland's version of the bagpipes). He also played a "lutolin": a hybrid mandolin-lute that he invented. Allison Hampton soloed on the Celtic harp, and Joseph Cunliffe played everything from a tiny sopranino recorder and high-pitched whistles to a resonant bass saxophone. Steve Bloom joined in with a bodhran (an Irish frame drum), tambour (a cylindrical two-headed drum) and cymbals. WETA's Robert Aubry Davis spiced up the Yuletide mood with jauntily read narratives and poems depicting wintry landscapes of long ago.

The consort performs again at Dumbarton Church on Dec. 11 and 12.

- Cecelia Porter

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