Dwight Yoakam

"This song was never released as a single," Dwight Yoakam told the 9:30 club audience Thursday night before launching into "The Curse," a track off his 1998 album, "A Long Way Home." "The record company thought it was too bitter." And sure enough, if you listened closely to the words, you'd have heard the country crooner singing about an ex so odious, he wondered if she ever bothered to smile.

Thing is, you could dance to it. Yoakam has never been afraid of a little rock-and-roll, and his swaggering, nearly two-hour set played like a Buck Owens tribute blessed by Elvis. Spiffily dressed in a white-lined, brick-red suit and backed by a tight four-piece band, Yoakam blasted through 29 songs from his 19-year career, including covers of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

Throughout, the rich-voiced Yoakam twisted and struck poses worthy of the King, even briefly affecting a little vibrato on "It Only Hurts When I Cry." But nowhere was the spirit of Presley more apparent -- and appropriate -- than in Yoakam's barn-burning rendition of "Little Sister," one of several numbers that showcased guitarist Eddie Perez's scorching electric solos. Yeah, it was another song about love gone bad. But bitterness has never been so much fun.

-- Tricia Olszewski

High Dials

The hottest bands of the so-called Montreal Invasion -- the Arcade Fire, the Dears, Wolf Parade -- share a propensity for crashing nouveau art-rock, but that city's High Dials turn unabashedly backward for most of their inspiration. During a set at the Velvet Lounge Thursday night, the quintet quaintly flitted through multiple variants of '60s garage rock and English pop, and while hardly innovative, the Dials' performance was at least a pleasant evocation.

The band's new album, "War of the Wakening Phantoms" (Little Steven has been frothing over the disc on his weekly "Underground Garage" radio show) meanders too much, but singer/guitarist Trevor Anderson and the rest of the Dials didn't muck around on stage. Songs such as "Our Time Is Coming Soon" and "Sick With the Old Fire" were crisp and direct, with English whimsy and Kinks-like harmonies. The Dials' drive was supplied by bassist Rishi Dhir, whose propulsive playing underpinned the set's best moments: "Higher and Brighter" and the stabbing "Fields in Glass." If the band's tendency to keep songs going after they'd made their point was a little distracting, it didn't ruin the Dials' time-machine settings.

Opening act Hopewell was a far stronger original presence. Leader Jason Russo briefly played a supporting role in Mercury Rev, and his outfit married some of that band's warbly dreamscapes to blaring, two-guitar chases, making songs such as "Calcutta" simultaneously prickly and compelling.

-- Patrick Foster

National Philharmonic String Quartet

Chia Patino's string quartet "Wild Swans," which received its world premiere from the National Philharmonic String Quartet on Thursday night at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, is inspired by a short poem of that name by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem contrasts the speaker's "tiresome heart, forever living and dying" with a flock of swans "trailing legs and crying."

Patino's quartet interpreted the poem's images vividly, beginning with bird-call glissandi against quiet, static chords at the top of the instruments' registers, followed by a silvery melody with an undulating accompaniment that sounded like wings flapping gracefully. This was swept away by a fierce, churning counterpoint that piled up into wrenching climaxes.

Yet the bird calls persisted throughout, and a voluptuous, desperate melody emerged, played with dusky tone and tremendous poise by violist Michael Stepniak, before violinist Claudia Chudacoff hauntingly reprised the opening silvery melody and the birds finally vanished into the distance. The National Philharmonic String Quartet, for which "Wild Swans" was written, played it with passion, care, and intelligence -- powerful advocacy for an exciting new work.

Bracketing "Wild Swans" on the program were a genial but tentative performance of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major, Op. 71, No. 2, and a searingly intense performance of Bedrich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, "From My Life," that unfortunately missed some of the quartet's gentleness and Czech flavor, particularly in the "Allegro Moderato a la Polka." But "Wild Swans" by itself was enough to make this first concert of the National Philharmonic's weekend-long chamber music festival memorable indeed.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Dwight Yoakam: A little Bakersfield and a little Graceland.