With the overproduced, doubled, tweaked vocals that pass for singing these days -- we're talking to you, Ashlee Simpson and Lindsay Lohan! -- it's easy to forget that the human voice is actually an instrument, as capable of thrilling trills and sexy growls as any violin or guitar. Oh sure, there are singers who are all technique (Mariah Carey comes to mind), able to hit a vast range of notes capably but without a lot of heart. But a crooner who boasts both a great voice and the passion to make it touch the soul and please the ears is rare indeed. Somehow the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Ensemble has found not just one such singer, but a whole crew of astonishing songbirds. And when you hear the group performing classic Christmas and gospel tunes, intoning lyrics touched with a deep reverence for God, it's an experience so intense you'll get chills all over your body. Listen in at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at Slim's, 333 11th St. (at Folsom), S.F. Admission is $15; call 255-0333 or visit www.slims-sf.com.
-- Joyce Slaton
Comedy That Stings
Bobby Slayton must have an understanding wife. Here's a quote from the stand-up comic that illustrates his spouse's forbearance: "On our eighth wedding anniversary, my wife said, You know, you've never told me about your sexual fantasies.' And I said, Well that's because you're not in any of them!'" Caustic? Yes. Insensitive? Sure. Funny? Absolutely. That's Slayton in a nutshell -- he didn't earn his bones for soft and gentle wisecracks. In fact, the easily shocked should probably avoid his shows, in which the acerbic wit holds forth on such topics as the death penalty (he opines that televising state-sanctioned executions would be a great way to discipline unruly kids) and minorities ("I'm not saying that Asian people look alike, but you know one of the easiest jobs in the world has got to be one of those police sketch artists in Hong Kong"). Slayton blows into town for six days of shows starting Sunday at 9 p.m. at the Punch Line, 444 Battery (at Clay), S.F. Admission is $12-75; call 397-4337 or visit www.punchlinecomedyclub.com.
-- Joyce Slaton
Theatrical notes from underground
Besides crossover artists like OutKast, Public Enemy, and LL Cool J, I admit I'm pretty clueless about hip hop. And my knowledge of Jewish traditions is limited to a few guest-starring spots at the Passover table. So when I heard about a theater production narrated by a traditional Jewish storyteller and set to a hip hop soundtrack, I was intrigued.
Backed by an accomplished band of hip hop, klezmer, and classical musicians, The Bright River: A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife is a portentous saga that explores such concerns as panhandlers, public transportation, and the war in Iraq. In creating this multicultural narrative, writer/performer Tim Barsky drew from a diverse blend of artistic forms, including beat-boxing and street theater.
Loosely based on Dante's Inferno and set in modern-day Berkeley, the story is narrated by a deceased detective named Quick. The ghostly gumshoe is in search of the soul of a girl who killed herself after her lover died as a soldier in Iraq, and on his quest he travels the East Bay's seedy underbelly by bus, subway, and cab. The highlights of his music-driven journey include a meeting with a raven that results in a "Conference of the Birds," a beat-boxing magnum opus emulating birdcalls and wings flapping.
Take a trip through the underworld with him Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. (the show runs through Jan. 1, moving to Berkeley's Julia Morgan Center for the Arts on Jan. 5) at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), S.F. Admission is $12-35; call 285-8282 or visit www.atjt.com.
-- Jane Tunks
Santa Cruz prog-rock outfit Zdrastvootie makes raga-influenced space-outs -- fans often mention Captain Beefheart by comparison -- but the band insists that Fluxus, Robbie Basho, and free jazz are all influences, too. There must be something funny about the town that also spawned Comets on Fire and Six Organs of Admittance. The trio appears here as part of a Holy Mountain Records showcase with Steven Wray Lobdell and Residual Echoes at 10 p.m. at the Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk (at Post), S.F. Admission is $6; call 923-0923 or visit www.hemlocktavern.com.
-- Hiya Swanhuyser
A Lovable Beast
The African-American Shakespeare Company's latest production, Beast, tweaks "Beauty and the Beast" with a monster/prince who sacrifices good looks for love, a not-so-sly critique of today's ideology of perfection. It runs through Jan. 2 at Zeum, 221 Fourth St., S.F. Admission is $10-30; call 762-2071 or visit www.african-americanshakes.org.
-- Michael Leaverton