February 5, 2003

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Local Grooves

Blue Eyed Devils
The Legend of Shorty Brown (Mountain View)

They may reside on the peninsula, but the four young fellas who dub themselves the Blue Eyed Devils have their musical feet planted firmly on Chicago's South Side, circa 1939. That's where producer Lester Melrose once rounded up Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, and other blues hotshots recently arrived from the South for RCA Victor's Bluebird label and other record companies. Although it had a direct influence on the electrified post-World War II Chicago blues style fashioned by Muddy Waters, the "Bluebird sound" associated with Melrose has come to take a backseat among revivalists to the rawer country blues styles of the prewar period. "Too urban," "too commercial," the purists complained, dismissing it as hokum.

Born a generation too late to concern themselves with such arcane distinctions, the Devils dive headfirst into this upbeat style on The Legend of Shorty Brown as if they were playing for their rent and lay claim to a largely forgotten slice of Americana in the process. Chris Cotton's deep Delta drawl and expertly picked acoustic guitar lines, Brett Wheatley's harmonica howls, Brett Klynn's two-beat slappin' bass, and the rural rhythms churned up by Justin Markovits on traps and washboard are true to tradition. Yet there's nothing academic about the 11 original tunes on their second CD, all rendered with the joyous ruckus of an old-time fish fry. A three-piece Blue Eyed Devils play Feb. 7, Sweetwater, Mill Valley. (415) 388-2820. (Lee Hildebrand)

Firecracker
Certain Things Last (self-released)

Straight-shooting country is always a difficult proposition in San Francisco proper. Unlike in the rest of the nation, there's no C&W radio to speak of. There's little two-stepping within city limits. Cowboy hats look like rejects from Madonna's three-year-old wardrobe.

That said, Firecracker do a fine job generating pleasant roots rock that would pack audiences in at any respectable juke joint from Austin, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska. The one drawback: this Bay Area fivesome, formerly known as the Darling Clementines, don't exactly inspire listeners with lyrics about love gone wrong, train whistles, and honky-tonks. Why not update those tired conventions: how about songs about missing Muni or living in an old bus near the Bay Guardian office?

Still these unpretentious everyguys do a convincing job putting across their sentiments with polished, trad arrangements, sweetened like iced tea with violins and mandolin, as on "When You Were Around." They manage to muster some energy for "Church Key" before settling down for a touch of Jayhawks-y melodicism, with "Losertown." Maybe I'm the loser for not falling for songwriters Russell Tillitt and Scout's nice-guy hooks – or maybe I just need a little songwriting vérité. Firecracker perform Feb. 14, Slim's, S.F. (415) 522-0333. (Also Feb. 22, Cafe du Nord, S.F. (415) 861-5016.) (Kimberly Chun)