Helio Sequence

Sometimes a cover song is just a cover song, but sometimes it can reveal much about a band's intentions. The latter was the case Thursday at the Black Cat, where the Helio Sequence performed the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." That song's muscular psychedelia fit well into the Portland, Ore., duo's set, which matched programmed drones and swooshes to Benjamin Weikel's robust drumming and Brandon Summers's assertive guitar and harmonica.

"Movement is the breath I breathe," sang Summers in the kinetic "Harmonica Song," a tune that demonstrated the Sequence's breadth: It melded blues-rock and synth-pop into a whole that was both swaggering and shapely.

Unlike some bands that rely on beats and loops, the twosome never seemed limited by its synthetic accompaniment. The live instruments so dominated the sound that the Sequence sometimes evoked the grunge acts that put the band's current label, Sub Pop, on the map 15 years ago.

Yet there's more to the group's style than was evident in the 40-minute set it played opening for Secret Machines (who were reviewed in these pages in April). The Sequence's latest album, "Love and Distance," also has quieter songs that emphasize the synth-pop side of its personality. Perhaps Weikel and Summers just didn't have time for these tunes, but it's also possible that they haven't determined how to make the gentler material work onstage.

After all, they covered "Tomorrow Never Knows," not "Eleanor Rigby."

-- Mark Jenkins

National Philharmonic Brass

All of the music played by the National Philharmonic Brass Quintet on Thursday evening at Strathmore Hall sounded tailor-made for the instruments. But most of it was originally written for other instruments, particularly the human voice. A series of charming, miniature Renaissance Spanish pieces (including the popular Christmas villancico, or carol, "Riu, riu") were composed centuries before some of the instruments in the quintet -- tuba and euphonium -- were even invented. So were Claudio Monteverdi's richly expressive and deftly contrasted madrigals.

Brahms could have written for brass quintet, but in fact his three Chorale Preludes, Op. 122 (his last completed compositions), were written for organ. No matter: In the hands of trumpeters Chris Gekker and Phil Snedecor, hornist Greg Miller, trombonist David Sciannella and tubist David Brown, these transcriptions were totally idiomatic, phrased with grace and occasionally -- though this is not something we look for in brass-playing -- subtlety. These instruments, and their players, are versatile.

Still the program took on a new verve, a joyful lightness and a fine richness of color when it got to Eight Pieces for Brass Quintet by Ludwig Maurer (1789-1878), the first music composed for this kind of ensemble. Maurer had a splendid sense of both the instruments' capabilities and the intricacies of light classical forms. Similar qualities, plus a dash of pure virtuosity, imbued the Brass Quintet, Op. 65, of Jan Koetsier, which concluded the program.

-- Joseph McLellan

Far out: Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel of Helio Sequence.