The Gourds

At the Birchmere There's something special happening when a band can work in covers of songs by ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke and Snoop Dogg and make them all sound wholly new. That neat trick was pulled off at the Birchmere Saturday night by the Gourds, the brilliantly ramshackle country band out of Austin.

Opening for hometown favorites Last Train Home in an hour-long set in front of a nearly full house, the five-piece band played a mishmash of old-timey tunes, clever country, swampy Southern rock, hillbilly jams and outlaw music in the tradition of Texas crooners Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. It adds up to a rough-around-the-edges sound: gritty, thoughtful, fun and without an ounce of flash.

After leading off with ZZ Top's "Balinese," the band charged through material from its new album, "Cow Fish Fowl or Pig," with songs ranging from the spirited ("Hell Hounds") to mind-bending ("My Name Is Jorge"). There were also a few older treats such as "El Paso" and the wonderfully peculiar and Pogues-like "I Ate the Haggis."

The Gourds are more democratic than most bands, with each member given room to shine. Bassist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Kev Russell handle most of the lead vocals, but multi-instrumentalists Claude Bernard and Max Johnston contributed songs as well. Drummer Keith Langford kept the rambling wreck on track.

The high point of the terrific show was the band's cover of "Gin andJuice," a countrified take that Snoop Dogg would have no hope of recognizing as his own. The song segued into Cooke's "Cupid" and the Stones' "Miss You" before rollicking to a close. Who knows -- maybe they have an Eminem cover in them yet.

-- Joe Heim

Martin Sexton

At the 9:30 Club There's something poetic about a Martin Sexton performance during the season of Lent. Sexton's songs -- such as many he performed at the 9:30 club Saturday night -- both rail against and revel in his strict Catholic upbringing, and are delivered with remarkable singing flecked with bits of Van Morrison, Al Green, Robert Plant and Sam Cooke.

It's been nearly three years since Sexton issued an album of new material, and he gave no hint Saturday that he has been writing. Instead he stuck to crowd-energizing favorites: From the snappy soul of "Faith on the Table" to the freedom-of-the-road tapestries of "Glory Bound" and "Diner" to spiraling heartbreakers like "My Maria" and "Where Did I Go Wrong," Sexton was in typically fine form in what he reckoned was "my in-the-city-of-D.C. debut" (he has appeared frequently at Alexandria's Birchmere).

Sexton was without longtime drummer and accompanist Joe Bonadio, making the evening a solo excursion and leaving plenty of room for finger-tap beats on his guitar, vocal imitations of drum kits and guitar solos, the latter rolling off like something from "Frampton Comes Alive."

The night's most strangely thrilling moment came on an encore version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and though it at first seemed he was using D.C. as a platform to get political, he sheepishly explained he was just practicing: Sexton has been invited to sing the national anthem at an upcoming Red Sox game.

-- Patrick Foster

Dan Bern & the IJBC

At the Birchmere Equal parts love and anger, humor and sweat, Dan Bern rolled into the Birchmere Friday night with his band, the IJBC, and rocked like Springsteen for a crowd not much bigger than a Jersey wedding. It's enough to make you thank God he isn't a superstar.

Bern might want a word with the Big Guy while you're on the celestial line. In one wrenching lyric, he sang of begging the Creator to send him back in time to save Kurt Cobain, kill Hitler, rescue Jesus -- to all of which "God Said No." In "One Thing Real," he meets Jesus, who asks to be divested of His cross, remarking: "Two thousand years is long enough for this particular joke." And in a sly little number called "Jerusalem," what starts out like a cockeyed love song, "When I tell you that I love you, don't test my love . . . 'cause maybe I don't love you all that much" -- turns into a foretaste of the Apocalypse, complete with galloping backing from the IJBC, after Bern reveals he's the Messiah and has some surprises in store.

Not that Bern's a monomaniac: His songs range all over the subjects that make people twitch, blush and think. "Jail" showed Bern as a modern Woody Guthrie, recounting a night and a day in the pen. And the brooding, erotic "Closer to You" propelled this reviewer into the lobby to pick up a copy of the album it's on, the new "Fleeting Days," before the spell was broken.

Opener Kris Delmhorst provided a sweet counterpoint to Bern, proving that the western-Massachusetts singer-songwriter's sound has no less integrity than Bern's edgy rock. In the lost-love song "Broken White Line," Delmhorst's dulcet soprano, aided by Steve Mayone on electric guitar, turned lovely phrases like "I hope that you won't rest in peace 'cause that would bore you right to tears."

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Martin Sexton, above, drew on his Catholic upbringing in his 9:30 club show, while Dan Bern, below, had some questions for God at the Birchmere.