Tuesday night's bill at Iota featured two exponents of Chicago's new old-country scene, Freakwater and Sally Timms. Freakwater outclassed Timms in sheer numbers and--with the former's Janet Beveridge Bean in salmon pantsuit and gray cowboy hat--in country couture. But Timms overwhelmed the headliner with her limpid voice and sheer charm.

It wasn't a bitter contest. The Chicago alt-country set is so small that Freakwater includes drummer Steve Goulding, who also plays with Timms's sometime band, the Mekons, and another Chicago alt-country group, the Waco Brothers. Since Bean and Freakwater's other singer-guitarist, Catherine Ann Irwin, prefer a mournful, Appalachian-waltz style, Goulding didn't get much of a workout. Instead the focus was on Bean's and Irwin's vocals, which sounded authentic--both grew up in Kentucky--if sometimes shrill.

Accompanied only by a guitarist and another musician who switched among dobro, banjo and mandolin, Timms sang a mix of country standards and recent alt-country tunes, interspersed with the droll patter that's a Mekons trademark. The dolefulness of the newer songs was sometimes overstated, but Timms's crystalline soprano rescued them from parody. Whether singing Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton songs or somewhat more dubious alt-country ditties, the British-born singer was utterly convincing in the role of forlorn Appalachian waif--until she told her next self-mocking joke.