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311 Hits the Bigtime

By André E. Maillho

AUGUST 11, 1997:  A couple of years ago, when 311 was just another band relentlessly touring small clubs and spreading its organic, funky message across the states, this writer had a piece of advice for potential fans: "See 311 now, because the next time they come through, they're going to play an arena."

It didn't take a soothsayer to predict big things for this quintet from Omaha, Neb., by way of Los Angeles, so I can't take any of the credit. But since first seeing 311 four years ago, it was obvious that the band's intensity, cohesiveness and hybrid fuzz-funk sound were meant for bigger audiences.

In this case, "big" meant 3 million in worldwide sales for the group's third album, 311, and the transition from headlining club gigs to packing arena shows around the country. With the release of Transistor -- which hits stores today (Aug. 5) -- the band demonstrates that it hasn't let its success take the edge off its sound. The disc features 21 songs that hearken back to 311's earlier days, when the pressure to succeed drove the band.

"[Before we signed with Capricorn] was a time when we were all completely broke," says guitarist Tim Mahoney. "It was a total starving-artist situation where you're really hungry. We still are, and we're trying to grow, but back in that time it was like, `We gotta go for it because we didn't have a record contract.' That's still a formidable part of the band."

Looking back, it's easy to see that 311 crossed the great divide thanks to its distinct sound. Mahoney, bassist P-Nut, drummer Chad Sexton and vocalists Nicholas Hexum and SA Martinez have ingeniously fused the syncopations of rap, funk and reggae with two-part vocals and an affinity for changing tempos that keeps things hopping. Interestingly, 311 is just as successful with less-obvious, jazzier grooves, like the ones found on "My Stoney Baby," "8:16 A.M.," "Lose," "All Mixed Up" and, from the new album, "Stealing Happy Hours." And the underrated vocals of Hexum and Martinez deserve more appreciation. Hexum's lament of "So many things that have gone wrong" on Transistor's "Jupiter" is downright sublime.

Whodathunk this would come out of Middle America?

"A lot of people ask, `You've got hip-hop elements, you're white and you're from Nebraska?" Mahoney says. "We had to overcome that, but over time we've just let the music speak for itself, and people have come to understand it."

That they do. So much so that 311 now headlines its own tour with the likes of veteran funkers Fishbone (coming to UNO on Sept. 17). And while the intimacy afforded by places like Tipitina's and the Varsity in Baton Rouge is a thing of the past, 311's live shows still draw the audience into the band's experience, where energy is shared and understanding is achieved.

Mahoney said the live shows are what keep the band moving forward.

"That's one thing we will always continue to do," he says. "Even if this record doesn't have a big commercial success, we're still going to be out playing for our fans and spreading the word."

Amen. -- André E. Maillho


Jack Kevorkian and the Morpheus Quintet
A Very Still Life (Lucid Subjazz)

Those who follow Dr. Jack Kevorkian's exploits in the news are probably aware that the "suicide doctor" is also a budding artist who recently exhibited some of his paintings. So it probably doesn't come as a complete surprise that Kevorkian is something of an amateur musician as well. Regardless of the tastefulness of its album title, the Morpheus Quintet turns in a genteel and refined set, not as adventurous as the Kronos Quartet or as dynamic as Brand X, but with plenty of swing in certain spots, even if more suited to background music than serious contemplation. Kevorkian ably delivers some solid organ work and reveals himself to be quite the flautist, especially on "Summertooth" (a standout) and "In Strange Loops." All in all, it's a diverting enough affair, displaying Morpheus's proficiency as well as its political leanings. And the tunes, while in no danger of making listeners forget Miles Davis or John Coltrane, do carry a certain weight while they offer an unusual glimpse into the psyche of one of the most controversial figures of the last decade. More than the exploitive joke it could easily have been, less than a masterpiece, A Very Still Life proves Kevorkian to be an individual just as complex as the controversial issue for which he's achieved notoriety. Rating: Worthwhile -- K.M.


Geraldine Fibbers at Mermaid Lounge

If you've had your ear to the musical underground recently, you've no doubt heard the sublime howl of Carla Bozulich, former singer for industrial-dance phenomenon Ethyl Meatplow and current leader of the Geraldine Fibbers, a band considered by some critics to be the future of alternative music. The Fibbers whelmed critics last year with Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, an eclectic "instant classic" fusing L.A. punk with tough country overtones. This year, the band follows with Butch, a well-received second offering that's like a concentrated version of the group's earlier work. "Whereas the first album has a sort of floating feel, now I think the chemistry has been boiled down to the lowest common denominator so that you're getting the purest, most uncut Geraldine Fibbers experience," says Bozulich. "The new stuff is really distilled, and the result is that people can hear the true essence of the band at this point." Butch certainly has a more aggressive musical edge, while still retaining the raw, tough personality that put the Fibbers on the map. Helping to refine the band's sound is the addition of avant-garde jazz guitar virtuoso Nels Cline. Upright bassist Bill Tutton, whose bow-slinging licks define much of the Fibbers' sound, remains with the band, as does drummer Kevin Fitzgerald. But the untimely departure of violinist Jessy Greene, who left to join the Jayhawks after recording Butch, opened the door for a Kansas City musician named Leyna Marita P., who seems a natural Fibber. Showtime 10 p.m. Cover $6. -- M.P.D.

Henry Butler at Funky Butt

Thanks to peerless work in a variety of genres, Henry Butler has earned a reputation as one of the finest pianists in a city full of them. But can he tend bar? That question will be answered before and between sets tonight, when Butler (who is blind) will demonstrate his skills with a soda gun and highball glass. "Henry wants to develop another skill in case the music biz doesn't work out," laughs Funky Butt owner Richard Rochester. But no doubt fans will be turning out tonight less to get their drinks refreshed and more to hear Butler lead his group, Orleans Inspiration, through funk and R&B territory. Showtime 10 p.m. Cover $10. -- R.C.

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