It was shaping up to be a bad night Monday for Tom Freund at Iota. The California troubadour, who confessed that "I'm in an [expletive] mood tonight," couldn't find his harmonicas. But contracts have to be fulfilled, so Freund and company took the stage -- and pretty much ran with it.

Freund clearly delights in enigma. His vocals could go from laconic to impassioned without such obvious trickery as cranking up the volume. His lyrics were full of curveballs: In "Copper Moon," the title track of his latest album, he mused: "I guess we'll keep this old house on the edge of town / That way I can call on you when you're not around." At times he played his acoustic guitar as if it were electric. And partway through the set, he discarded it to play some funky upright bass.

Freund had fine support from lap-steel player and bassist Drew Glackin, with whom he'd played in the Silos and, recently, Graham Parker's Twang Three, and from percussionist Matt Johnson, who has worked with Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. Bassist John Young also joined the group on several numbers. Glackin and Young were subtle, Johnson aggressive, furthering the sense that Freund delighted in reconciling opposites.

A few songs in, a pleasant surprise: A bartender presented Freund with the missing harmonica bag. Later, during "Business of Knowing," a magnificent jalopy of musical parts -- meditative lap steel, penetrating percussion, brooding vocals -- Freund grabbed a harmonica to wail on a few bars at what sounded like the end of the song. Then the ensemble upshifted into a lengthy, big-rock finish. "I'm not in the business of knowing just what I'm gonna do," Freund sang. So much the better for his listeners.

-- Pamela Murray Winters