-- Silke Tudor

Preacher Boy & the Natural Blues
The infectious energy and sod-under-the-fingernails grit of Preacher Boy Chris Watkins' music makes a strong case for grounding modern electric blues on acoustic bedrock. The leader's whiskey-scarred vocals (mined from the same gravel tracks as Blind Willie Johnson or Tom Waits) and core string-picking (on a gang of instruments from National Steel to mandolin) ensure a rural earthiness amid his group's urban rhythms and amped-up bass and guitars. But just as the early bluesmen struggled to maintain community by trying to reconcile the raunchy rep of the entertainer's life with the "right thing" of the church, Watkins faces similar disharmony among some of the elder brothers on the circuit who challenge the authenticity of his pale-faced blues. This is a lowdown shame given Watkins' full-range commitment to the music and vigilant props to legendary figures like Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson. Preacher Boy and a revolving lineup of respected locals (at times including virtuosic reed player Ralph Carney, harp player Big Bones, and guitarist Jim Campilongo) burn through generations and geographies -- from Kansas City to Mississippi to Appalachia to New Orleans -- with a rare naturalness. Be assured: This is the real thing.

-- Sam Prestianni

The Supernaturals
Just as the East Bay R&B revival group the Loved Ones were becoming poster boys for the '60s eternalizers at KFOG, bandleader Bart Davenport stripped the wall bare and whitewashed it, clearing the way for a new work in progress. Not so relentlessly period-piece as the earlier band, the Supernaturals have worked out a blend of soulful vamps, original pop chestnuts, and imitation bossa novas that has earned the group a regular spot on the monthly calendar at the fancy-shmancy supper club Bruno's. Guitarist Xan McCurdy, another former Loved One, is masterful at keeping cigarette smoke out of his eyes while coaxing cafe stylings from his instrument. The group's incorporation of organ and trombone has opened up a gusher of peppy possibilities. "For the turn of the century, music has to take on a more magical quality," Davenport says. He's conscious of that portion of his audience that was just beginning to feel comfortable with the Loved Ones when they were taken away: "I knew that my credibility was totally on the line. If you break up a good thing, you had better do something great." Thus far, he's proven his instincts impeccable.

-- James Sullivan

Hard Rock

The Clarke Nova
Demonstrating a metallic chordal attack stripped of the one-string galloping that too often passes for riffs among actual metal bands, the Clarke Nova knows that hard music hits best when big, dumb, and direct. Frontman Matt Jervis is a screamer, not a singer, and proud of it. His lyrics (like those from "Chocolate Bar") seem drawn directly from some primal meld where eloquence is for sissies: "You treat me like you think I'm stupid/ But you love me 'cause you think I'm stupid/ What am I supposed to do?" Not that there's not a brain at the Nova's heart, or some equally screwed-up anatomy that couldn't survive outside of mixed metaphor. The tasty spy-movie noodling that opens ... Finally hints at surveillance and sedition, revealing the band's dumbness to be the clever sort.

-- Meltya Chabit

Mensclub
Ten reasons to listen to Mensclub instead of Grand Funk Railroad:
1) A sweaty 25-year-old guy with his shirt off is more visually appealing than a half-naked 45-year-old.

2) They have big hair, but without receding hairlines.
3) They would never write earnest peacemongering lyrics like: "If we had a president that did just what he said/ The country would be just all right and no one would be dead."

4) At least one of them used to be a bike messenger.
5) They do the riff-rock trio jam thing to a T, but also pick up the pace for today's lively "point-and-click" generation.

6) They do songs about '70s bumper stickers: "Ass, Gas, or Grass (nobody rides for free)."

7) If you're getting tired of Grand Funk's monosyllabic names of "Mark, Don, and Mel," you can settle into the refreshing variation of "Ron, Tom, and Jon."

8) They do a tribute to Grand Funk called "G.F.M.C. (Grand Funk Men's Club)." You don't see Grand Funk reciprocating.

9) Instead of hacking their way through '50s oldies and Stones songs, Mensclub wisely avoids cover tunes.

10) Their CDs are more expensive -- no "Nice Price" stickers -- which makes a more impressive gift.

-- Johnny DiPayola

M.I.R.V.
Never mind the cheeky allusions to lawn bowling, the songs about goat suckers and monkey boys, the snappy metal riffs, the stirring (and incongruous) ballad from the Old Country, or even the fact that they're hosting this year's WAMMIES awards ceremony. What makes M.I.R.V. such a worthy ticket is that they're 1) funny, and 2) capable of writing and playing good, hard music. Had you asked that of any other wacky sorts whose careers centered around the union of humor and metal (such as Gwar, Ugly Kid Joe, or Scatterbrain, if you remember the names), you would have drawn stares as vacant as the premise. Yes, booger and boobie jokes can be good for the occasional titter, but as a shtick -- a sole basis for performance -- they rapidly form a cold, stale crust. Perhaps the beauty of a M.I.R.V. live show comes from the lack of any solid (and limiting) shtick; their piss-off irreverence would prohibit such pomp. Maybe they even wear those Hawaiian shirts around the house.

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