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Halloween, Sunday, Oct. 31; downtown Asheville.

It seems a number of forces conspired this year — in both darkness and light — to thwart the usually delightful revelry of a good Halloween in Asheville.

For starters, a number of area celebrations shook down a day early on Saturday’s “Devil’s Night,” including the rescheduled Brewgrass Festival, where at least a handful of potentially offensive costumes — a hairy-legged pregnant nun among them — lent atmosphere to that annual bout of beer-guzzling debauchery. I mean, “responsible sampling.”

Meanwhile, with Halloween itself falling on Sunday this year, some heated local debate erupted: Was it morally appropriate for local youngsters to dress up as demons and beg candy on the Sabbath? Add to the mix the hotly contested election looming just two days later, and some feared a weak showing for what’s usually this town’s finest hour of holiday enthusiasm.

But any question about the gumption of our musical trick-or-treaters was quickly laid to rest. It was an enthralled bunch that descended downtown on the 31st, making for a surreal masked spectacle to the backdrop of a slew of downtown shows. Obliged to cover as much of this year’s musical costuming as humanly possible, I embarked on a blitzkrieg of local venues, swerving through a triple-bar hop of remarkably polarized Halloween shows.

Things got under way at The Orange Peel, with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe dropping into town for one of their increasingly legendary, full-tilt Halloween throwdowns. This year was no exception: The fire-breathing, sax-slinging Denson and his small world — one of the funkiest acts since the original Meters — showed a sold-out house why they’re the rightful heirs to the Nevilles’ own crown.

True to the spirit of the ecstatic loonies already assembled at The Peel, the jazz ‘n’ funk sextet appeared during their first set as soul sensations “Sexual Chocolate.” In a nod to a classic Eddie Murphy skit from Coming to America, the members of Sexual Chocolate strutted on stage in baby-blue, butterfly-collared leisure suits, circa 1976, complete with some very-Jheri Afro-wigs.

Denson worked his almost-James-Brown-quality front-man thing through a potpourri of rhythmic disguises, including a deeply satisfying, hilarious opener in Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All,” the original “Fantastic Voyage” and, of course, a spirited run through Rick James’ classic rumpus anthem, “Super Freak.”

It was tough to give up on Denson after such a brilliant, if ephemeral, first set, but duty called me to StellaWeen VII at Stella Blue, featuring the serial-killer antics of Crank County Daredevils and the slamming Kabuki rock of Monsters of Japan.

The wisdom of switching from a hippie-dippy disco party to the ear-bleeding rampage of these local heavies loomed as questionable, but the U-turn reverse from Denson’s slow-ride Eldorado convertible to the souped-up 454 Camaro blowing smoke at Stella was more wicked fun than expected.

Crank County means business: Their flaming cock rock evokes an array of hard rock/heavy metal greats like Moetley Cruee and even Marilyn Manson. But make no mistake — these fiercely unrepentant chauvinist rockers impart their own distinct venom, and they don’t give a flying f••k (as rude-daddy front man Scotty P would say) that nobody around here seems to notice.

Granted, this is a tough town for pissed-off headbangers, but Crank County and their theatrical counterparts in Monsters of Japan serve as a vital release valve for anyone bored with the decidedly un-motley offerings of our local scene.

The trio of Monsters of Japan comes off a bit like Master of Puppets-era Metallica in Japanimation. Dressed in their usual Kabuki face paint and decorative robes, Monsters capped the hard-rocking StellaWeen with an iron-fisted uppercut. The band’s rollicking edge feels a touch more refined than Crank County’s — but remains equally bloodthirsty in the end.

For last call, I headed down Lexington to the shady confines of the Emerald Lounge for an admittedly anti-climactic finish with Electronic Rap Machine. Catching the donkey end of this poorly attended show — the inevitable offshoot of a multiple-choice musical Halloween – I failed to be impressed by the Rap Machine in the few moments remaining of their set.

A local favorite, set to unique instrumentation behind inspired vocals, the Rap Machine will no doubt live to fight again on another, less-crowded day.

Score: On the scary-movies scale, Halloween in Asheville 2004 scores Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Jack-quality, complete with spooky hallucinations, twisted humor, axe murders and a sort-of happy ending.

[Freelance writer and editor Stuart Gaines lives in Asheville and is a frequent contributor to Xpress. He can be reached at youknowthiscity@yahoo.com.]

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