Califone at Iota

New music based on the exploration of old-time American forms by a new generation of musicians has been getting a lot of attention lately, but it's nothing new for Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella.

The Chicago-based pair began mixing blues and Appalachian strains with electronics nearly a decade ago in the band Red Red Meat and plunged into it fully with Califone, which spun a captivating hour of grooves at Iota on Thursday night.

The lineup around Rutili (guitar, organ and vocals) and Massarella (drums and percussion) has rotated over the outfit's eight-year existence; the current lineup (rounded out by Jim Becker on fiddle, banjo and guitar, and Joe Adamik on percussion) is the most compelling. Officially on the road promoting the CD "Heron King Blues," Califone didn't give it special attention, instead pumping out flowing pieces that hitched Rutili's blues and old-time riffs to a twitchy, freak-out boogie, double-drummer attack.

Newer songs such as "2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other" throbbed under a near-electro beat, while "Michigan Girls" and "Don't Let Me Die Nervous" started with country blues and unraveled marvelously around Rutili's impressionistic vocals, the sound of a radio station disappearing in nighttime static. And though Becker's contributions were stellar all night, he pushed the closing "Horoscopic Amputation Honey" until it collapsed in a delirious heap of twisted blues and distortion pedals, a place where Califone has made a cozy nest.

-- Patrick Foster

Josh Kelley, Toby Lightman

Anew crop of young singer-songwriters seems to pop up every few months. On Thursday night at the 9:30 club, two fresh faces, Josh Kelley and Toby Lightman, treated a modest crowd to their acoustic rock. Lightman played a short opening set with a mature voice that boomed from her tiny frame. Her R&B-styled vocals were distinctive, but after a while her self-centered subject matter sounded like lovesick entries from the margins of a high school notebook.

The mood lightened when Kelley took the stage. The strength of his performance lay in his goofy personality and friendly demeanor. He made up verses on the fly, asking his roadie to bring him some shots during "Pokerface" and bemoaning a broken guitar string in "Old Time Memory." While that spontaneous energy would have been lost in a larger venue -- or in a more full club -- the crowd was just the right size for his performance to be intimate and genuine.

Kelley's only band mate, Ben Peeler, played everything from slide guitar to banjo -- and even a saz, a Turkish instrument similar to a bouzouki. Peeler's acoustic twang added just the right flavor to Kelley's songs to differentiate him from the hordes of solo artists hoping to be the next Dave Matthews.

-- Catherine P. Lewis