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December 08, 2011

The Nighthawks
The Nighthawks have always been part of a holy trinity—with NRBQ and The Fabulous Thunderbirds—of great genre-crossing American barroom bands. They also match NRBQ at baffling casual fans with a changing line-up. The once-legendary rockers are now down to Mark Wenner as their sole founding member. At least he's maintaining the illusion of a veteran act by keeping his touring band full of impressive old-timers. It's also a particularly apt time for the Nighthawks to be headlining this year's Blues Ball. 2009's American Landscape saw the band still exploring every route between roadhouse rhythms and jazzy rock & roll. The past two years, however, have seen them backing Hubert Sumlin and embracing traditional sounds on the live acoustic album Last Train to Bluesville. That one finally got them honored in Memphis at the Blues Music Awards after 32 years of being ignored. Now they're legit. (Saturday, December 10, The Barking Kudu)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
It's the year's last Birmingham show for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with this Habitat for Humanity benefit counting as a victory lap for 2011's Alabama-fueled Here We Rest. The album's obvious markers are a Candi Staton cover and the title based on the original state motto. There are also some subtler ways that the former Drive-By Trucker secures a future plaque in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He shows some amazing restraint in balancing his songs; he maintains an acoustic starkness but also allows his amazing backing band to exhibit some soulful raucousness. Those extremes overshadow some true lyrical depth. He manages to write a song called "Codeine" that holds up to the one by Buffy Sainte-Marie—but it would've been more about Alabama if he'd called it "Sizzurp." (Saturday, December 10, Workplay Theatre)

Eliot Morris/Ryan Horne/Lee Anna Culp
It's always nice to see these humble bills where musicians get together on the way home for the holidays. Birmingham guy Eliot Morris has relocated to Memphis, where he continues to write busy folk songs that sound capable of tilting toward rock. That's probably a moot point for this acoustic show, but at least Morris has lots of holiday songs to offer. Ryan Horne—stopping by from Atlanta—used to be a country cornball with an El Lay attitude and some inspired touches. Fortunately, Horne leaves behind his twangy fantasies on the new The Whistler and the Majestic, which spills over with orchestral-pop flourishes. Lee Anna Culp moved to Nashville but still put out some of the best local product of the year, with the Beggars EP showing off low-rent catchiness that can't darken a terminally sweet attitude. (Sunday, December 11, Workplay Theatre)

L.A. Guns
It's usually only Southern acts that mark more than two decades of playing The Nick. L.A. Guns, however, keeps playing the clubs as one of the more respectable (and darker) acts from the '80s Sunset Strip hair metal scene. The punky glamsters have mostly been treading water with cover albums that include a take on April Wine and a tune from the Lost Boys soundtrack. The new Acoustic Gypsy, however, is a lovely live set that shows off the unexpected depth of veteran leader Tracii Guns. Sadly, it's still necessary to note that this show features his version of L.A. Guns, as opposed to the other unit that roams America with original vocalist Phil Lewis. Even worse, you're not getting former Love/Hate frontman Jizzy Pearl for this show. He left the band the same week that Gypsies was released. And for the final omen, the band's new vocalist is irritating reality-show star Dilana, whose only real talent is mining the moronic rock clichés that Guns used to avoid. At least they can offer a hot cover of "Little Saint Nick"—if Dilana has bothered to learn it. (Monday, December 12, The Nick)

The Maine
They're coming off a disappointing major-label stint, so The Maine wants you to know that the new Pioneer is a return to their self-financed indie career. It's also a return to the days when major labels couldn't figure out how to jump on an indie bandwagon. The executives at Warner Bros. should've gone after a boy-band version of The Decemberists, but ended up with a band even wimpier than The Fray. Pioneer continues to prove the Arizona act is too callow to be punk and too plodding to be pop. Their only big move is attempting to mature into a cornball jam band that lacks the talent to actually jam. They know a lot of Christmas songs, though. Some of those aren't too bad. (Tuesday, December 13, Workplay Theatre)

Lalah Hathaway (click for larger version)

Lalah Hathaway
We lost Maya Rudolph to comedy, but Lalah Hathaway has spent years living up to her heritage as a soul scion. There have been a few clunkers from the Daughter of Donny—with this year's Where It All Begins featuring a few particularly painful slabs of modern R&B. Fortunately, Hathaway also explores some classic disco and a few fine ballads. It's been that kind of balancing act ever since she signed to Stax for 2008's Self Portrait. Hathaway hasn't made a truly intimate album since 2004's Outrun the Sky. There's a reason that one sells for collector's prices. She never strays too far from gospel, though, so maybe you'll get lucky with Hathaway throwing in some faith-based holiday tunes for the season. (Thursday–Friday, December 15–16, Alys Stephens Center Jazz Cafe)

Dax Riggs (click for larger version)

Dax Riggs/Royal & Toulouse
The prolific weirdo Dax Riggs enjoyed a lot of momentum from 2010's Say Goodnight to the World. The former sludge-metal stooge has become Louisiana's glammy Goth king of the cocktail lounges. That's not nearly as weird as the big change from the locals of Royal & Toulouse. 2009's Skull Orchard was an embarrassing collection of hipster blues that sounded like "The Monster Mash" recreated for the Mardi Gras crowd. This year's Southern Circus has the original trio setting up a major rebound with the help of all their Birmingham pals. The Chamber of Commerce should've sponsored this craziness. The fourteen tracks show off more combined greatness than any BAAM Fest has managed. Milyn Satterfield's ragged vocals neatly tie together leaky burlap bags of psychedelia, hip-hop, swing, funk, and easy-listening. They even pull off a song about a Southern carny that manages to avoid sounding like a musical version of Two Moon Junction. They're also smart enough to tone things down when it comes to lust and longing. (Thursday, December 15, Bottletree)

Street Corner Symphony/The Collective
It's billed as an A Cappella Christmas, so maybe it doesn't matter what we've learned about these two bands on "The Sing-Off"—which, for "Gossip Girl" fans, is a televised competition where a cappella acts try to impress Ben Folds and some guy from Boyz II Men. Maybe all you need to know is that these are swell singers who you wouldn't mind showing up at your door around 8 p.m. for some caroling. Street Corner Symphony is certainly a pleasant bunch of guys, and maybe they'll find time to perform a few original tunes. Sadly, they'll probably skip their take on Tears for Fears' "Mad World," where they make a strong case for Goth doo-wop. The Collective is a bunch of unkempt songwriters who—like the headliners—were assembled for the reality show, but they work together nicely. Besides, it gives Nashville hipster musicians something to do besides jumping on another Ten Out of Tenn tour. (Thursday, December 15, Workplay Theatre)

Webb Wilder (click for larger version)
Webb Wilder
Webb Wilder stays busy as a musical historian, and one of his contemporaries might someday be writing about the veteran hillbilly's Blind Pig Years. Wilder's debut with the blues label was a fine 2008 live album (recorded at Workplay) that served as an impressive career retrospective. 2009's More Like Me showed that Wilder remains an amazing songwriter, with the wild opening of "Ju Ju Man" contrasted with the classic pop of his own "Too Cool for Love," and then followed by a calculatedly uncool surf-rock take on a Roky Erickson classic. That was all just the start of an impressive collection showing Wilder's continuing dedication to twangy Top-40 swamp-psychedelia of an Anglo bent. He's parted ways with some of his longtime musical cohorts, but it's no big deal that Wilder hasn't followed up with another album yet. He's built the legend by releasing only seven studio albums over the past 25 years. (Friday, December 16, Workplay Theatre)

Mike Cooley (click for larger version)

Mike Cooley
The most laid-back vocalist in Drive-By Truckers also has the voice with the most personality. Mike Cooley is the closest thing the band has to a sex symbol, and the guitarist contributed some vital tunes to the Truckers' latest album. This year's Go-Go Boots—pulled together from the same sessions for last year's The Big To-Do—relies on Cooley's classic songwriting to keep the album in a solid country-soul groove instead of rambling into more of a laid-back '70s nightmare. Fans have long traded bootlegs of his occasional solo shows, and he's a regular guy who can easily fill two fine evenings with a mix of his own sharp tunes and some fun cover songs. You might also hear a few future classic Truckers tunes that they won't get around to recording for another five years. (Tuesday–Wednesday, December 20–21, Workplay Theatre) &

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