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This Little Underground

Bao Le-Huu takes on Johnny Knuckles, Portals, ASG, K.G. Omulo and more

Photo: Angelo Malicsi, License: N/A

Angelo Malicsi

Heads up: I’ll be taking a column break next week. No need to riot, occupy or cry, I’ll be back the week after.

The beat

Johnny Knuckles (Jan. 8, Will’s Pub) is one of those roughhewn country guns who’s likely a punk refugee. But with some twangy honey in his voice, his soulful sound is smoother than many of his whiskey-and-gravel-throated peers. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s simple and honest. And that’s exactly what this stuff needs to be.

Speaking of sandpaper soul, alt-country singer Bartender Brian also played. From the start, this guy’s always had the heart. But his chops are getting tighter, his voice more focused. This is the stuff of hard drink, harder feelings and woundingly raw expression. It’s the kind of music that makes you actually pine for heartbreak just for the lacerating catharsis of it. At this rate, he is quickly becoming the local artist that can credibly feed the fix between in-town stops by Lucero and Ben Nichols.

At a recent show (Jan. 11, Will’s Pub), I only caught the last two songs by local band Portals but, holy hell, they were pretty titanic. A blend of post-rock and post-hardcore jacked with enough sludge to really penetrate, these guys manage both expansive ambience and axe-grinding assault. And despite the broad mood palette, there’s something bracingly elemental and high-powered about their live attack.

Clermont’s King Hippo deal in groove-thick Southern metal that’s part growling meathead and part guitar nerd, which unfortunately makes for imperfect bedfellows.

North Carolina headliner ASG is just one of those bands that I’ve never liked as much as I thought I would. I am so down with big, bluesy stoner riffage, but something’s just not completely convincing about them. They’ve always seemed to land on the toolish side of that aesthetic. And although they were a bit better this time around, I don’t know that they’re totally cured of that yet. They’re triumphant and skilled, but they still don’t have the taste level. But maybe now that they’re keeping heavier company on Relapse Records than they did at their longtime label Volcom, these guys will grow some hair on their chests.

Although Akron/Family (Jan. 12, Back Booth) is out there and often baffling, their freaky folk-infused rock is uniquely their own domain. They’re experimental in ways that don’t even fit into the experimental scene. It’s often unrecognizable as such, but their music has pushed folk in directions seldom imagined.

As elusive as their sound is, it’s extraordinarily crafted, with nuance and atmosphere amid the wild weirdness, and such definition gives their eccentricity real bite. Live, their show was a masterful balance between indulging their arty compulsions and fueling the crowd, and it ended how all shows would in a perfect world: total insanity. They’ve always displayed solid musicianship, but never have I seen them both feed and own a crowd like this. When you can cast a spell this mighty, you can get away with anything.

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