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Front-row reviews

What: GFE w/Ironfist

Where: The Orange Peel

When: Monday, March 3

Until recently, I considered GFE one of the most overrated acts in town. I found their music unnecessarily jammy, their mind-expanding rhymes awkward. So if you’d have told me I’d eventually have a near-complete change of heart, I would have asked you what sort of drugs you were on.

Things change. Take GFE, for instance — the band’s too-loose attempts at a bass line have fattened into a tight-and-together, full-on funk-and-R&B rhythm section.

The group’s MCs have also come a long way. Their rhymes at their recent Orange Peel show were kinetically performed, the mic trade-offs smooth and dead-on.

Backed by a solid band, these MCs five were able to blast out a string of percussive, surprisingly listenable lyrics about God, love, ganja and the open road.

Admittedly, “hippie-hop” is an acquired taste — and worse, none of GFE’s records comes close to representing the energetic merits of their ever-improving stage show.

The Orange Peel concert was captivating — that is, until band members started freestyling and blew it.

Their strong rhymes and great backing music fell apart the moment they ventured into the land of improvisation. Boring, and painful to watch, this erratic spectacle, especially the increasingly obscure rhymes, sucked the energy right out of the crowd.

The no-admission show was, of course, packed. But by the time the freestyling began the only people left in the crowd were GFE’s true believers, perhaps some 200.

The vibe grew more and more lethargic, and club-goers more and more sparse (to be fair, a stronger-than-average security presence contributed to the show’s demise). As the music finally came to a close, a core group of 50 or so dreadlocked kids, clumped in a kind of hippie-hop love puddle right next to the stage, were all that remained.

When all of GFE’s parts manage to gel onstage, the results can be truly impressive to behold.

And when it fails, it sucks — completely and utterly.

But whatever you call what they do — “Caucasian mountain rap” is one take — it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on, because it could only come from a place like Asheville.

What: Benna

Where: Sweet Heaven Ice Cream and Music Cafe

When: Saturday, March 8

Sometime in the anguished-white-male year (1994-’95) bookended by Kurt Cobain’s gunshot suicide and Timothy McVeigh’s fertilizer-truck destruction of the Oklahoma City federal building, I fell in love with girl rock.

While the men of “alternative music” were already headed down that self-love path of ’70s rock and stadium shows, girl bands — The Breeders, Belly, The Juliana Hatfield Three, Veruca Salt and others — were making MTV’s “Buzz Bin” and getting their paper-thin voices and gently strummed guitars heard by a world wary of male egos.

I can’t remember what their songs were about or any guitar hooks, but they offered bedroom ambience and feminine secrets that made me, at 15, simultaneously want to date them and be them.

Benna, whose latest album, What’s Meant to Be (just released on Adult Swim, the label owned by Minor Threat drummer Jeff Nelson), put out her debut in that hallowed year. But caught in a string of jobs held trying to make ends meet in New York, she only released one more album in the 1990s.

With What’s Meant to Be, appropriately funded on babysitting money, she concentrates the sound of girl rock into 14 pop songs that float featherweight into your ear for a comeback effort that far surpasses her earlier, grainy releases.

Benna took the Sweet Heaven stage with confidence. Each song she played — Benna is schooled in the Beatles-pop tradition of Robyn Hitchcock and the Pixies — was striking in quality, while the absence of a band, or even low-lighting, encapsulated her songs, as if each were a crisply-folded love letter (at one point she claimed, “I want to kiss you before I die”).

Benna, who’s too old and been playing too long to stay in that bedroom moment, exhibited some range with a cover of a Schoolhouse Rock tune (her version of “Figure 8″ anticipated that mid-’90s nostalgia), and a working-class fantasy song about a coal-miner relative. And toward the end of the second set Benna, a reluctant folk singer, played an unlikely version of the blues classic “Sitting on Top of The World,” bringing out a shallowness in the song that’s typically obscured by men who tie love and suffering together too tightly.

— guest review by Martin L. Johnson

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