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What: Kenny Brown

Where: The Orange Peel

When: Wednesday, March 12

Blues guitarist Kenny Brown looks like he should be driving the tour bus rather than opening the show. He’s tall and gaunt, and sports a ’70s-era winged ‘do — but the man knows what to do with a slide guitar.

Wailing through such chestnuts as “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” and “Walkin’ Blues,” plus a version of “Can’t Be Satisfied” in which Muddy Waters’ lyrics morphed with snippets of other songs, Brown proved that good music is less about rock-god looks and more about down-and-dirty playing.

Brown is best known as blues legend R.L. Burnside’s right-hand man, and backed by Takeshi Muri (bass) and Burnside’s grandson Cedric (drums), Brown did his damnedest to channel Burnside’s churning, North Mississippi country-blues grunge.

The hill-country sound, built around one chord, is the blues’ answer to punk. Which is why Oxford, Miss., label Fat Possum, which signed Brown and other unpolished-gem musicians, merged with the punk-focused Epitaph label: Blues and punk share the same raw energy that cuts through the media-induced fluff and strikes an audience square in the gut. And Brown’s band is, itself, a unique mixture: three ethnic groups (white, black and Japanese) brought together by a bunch of older-than-the-hills folk songs.

This revelation may have been lost on most of the Orange Peel crowd — a predominately white throng executing their “catching fireflies” dance in preparation for headliner The Smiling Assassins (led by Widespread Panic keyboardist Jo-Jo Hermann). Nevertheless, Brown insisted on bringing blues to the masses the old-fashioned way, via screaming guitar and thrashing percussion.

By the time Cedric Burnside laid down vocals on “Skinny Woman,” I was convinced that the energetic, muscular drummer could single-handedly revive the genre — again. His energy infected the audience, which wavered in its firefly dance, perhaps realizing that this wasn’t any jam band — this was some bad-ass North Mississippi blues trio, and the only appropriate response was to stand in one place bobbing back in forth and beer-steeped awe.

Kenny Brown’s set ended — far too soon — with a rousing rendition of “Going Back to Mississippi,” the title track of Brown’s latest album. Considering that R.L. Burnside, now nearly 80, has finally decided to quit touring, it’s good to know Brown and company are there to carry the torch.

— guest review by Alli Marshall

Listening room (album reviews)

Colour, Les Jamehlo (Collapseable Studios, 2003)

If there’s one thing Les Jamehlo collectively hates, it’s the term “jam metal.”

The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to describe the local band’s music without at least touching on these two very obvious influences. Sure, there are elements of jazz, rock and funk in their sound, but the thing that truly distinguishes Les Jamehlo from every other regional improvisational group is the heavy amount of eerily dark metal (plus old-school grunge vocals) that band members inject into their songs.

Semantics aside, Les Jamehlo has found their sound on their debut release, the atmospheric, six-track album Colour.

The album’s most captivating parts are when Les Jamehlo drop all their other experimental themes and go straight for that signature dark-metal. Imagine a hybrid of Tool, Primus and Soundgarden playing a cover of a never-released Man, Or Astro-Man? revamp of a Pink Floyd song, and you’ve got some idea what the album’s opening track, “Circle,” sounds like.

It rocks. It’s grooveable. It’s also — the dark-metal theme aside — an unapologetic jam (the song clocks in at just over five minutes, making it Colour’s shortest track). And it’s this very element that makes “Circle” work.

Other songs, though, are outright forgettable, the melodies too tame and the vocals lacking in power. But even the least entertaining of Colour’s half-dozen offerings are littered with noteworthy musical phrases and extended themes.

To their credit, the group never manages to lose their original sound. Even when they try for sensitivity — like the vocally and melodically soft “Tempest” — it’s their creepingly hollow bass line that keeps the tune sounding like true Les Jamehlo all the way.

In a very real sense, the group has made a remarkably effective, original album. It’s dark, yet melodic, moody, but not unhappy. You can actually chill out while listening to Colour (it’s really that mellow); yet it’s also an uncompromisingly dark collection of songs.

Maybe the band will one day happen upon a music term that satisfies them. Until then, they’ll just have to struggle, along with the rest of us, to find another way to say “jam metal.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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