For a deity who got his look and theology from Sun Ra and Dr. Funkenstein, Bam appeared subdued Saturday night, sporting a dark sweater, cap, and medallion, moving around only to dig out records from his crates. Not one rap or pronouncement from his mouth as he stood in the back. That duty went to his Zulu brothers T.C. Izlam, Stikee, Mighty K.G., and DJ Power, who all worked the crowd with nothing more than "Somebody say 'Oh yeah!', " "Clap your hands to the beat," "Bass!," and "Word up!"

With some help from DJs Stikee and Hektek, Bam's journey took us through his beloved electro-groove, jungle, ragamuffin, go-go, and salsa, with snatches from his hits, along with "Rescue Me," "Sex Machine," "The Rockafeller Skank," "Walk This Way," "Stayin' Alive," "Flash Light," "Jungle Boogie," and to end it all, Sly's "Thank You." Bam's hectic pace drove the crowd wild for three hours, winding down only for technical difficulties and some slow reggae grooves. Otherwise, the Zulus gladly gave it up twice to break-dancing exhibitions that cleared the floor 'cause "it's all about dancing."

Words to take to heart. When Bam and the Zulus return to the Cooler later this month, be there and shake your ass all over the funking place. — Jason Gross

Ancient Tomes

A pocket of fans hollered for "Honey (Open That Door)" last Friday night at Irving Plaza, but like Ricky Skaggs told 'em, he sold a bus, some amps, and a few other things to make the shift back to bluegrass, so those country hits ain't part of the current program. If this switcheroo sounds like the kind of maneuver that takes place when the hits just don't keep on coming, it is . . . kinda. Over the last six or seven years Skaggs's vibrant neotraditionalism— which helped buttress country both aesthetically and commercially in the '80s— has been plowed aside by the pop-conscious strains of Garth and Shania. But while bluegrass may be a corner the singer has retreated to, it's also an old stone fireplace he's been waiting to stoke.

Though his nasal tenor displayed its usual power, Skaggs claimed his throat was hurting. A Cambridge audience had evidently tried to outsing him on the Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley chestnuts the night before, so Friday his Kentucky Thunder group got extra room to display its pickin' prowess. The seven-piece string band approaches its breakdowns as earnestly as Metallica does its thud. There were moments in "Boston Boy" and "Whiskey Before Breakfast" where

the simple tempos swirled vehemently enough to belie the style's austerity. Chalk it up to a purist's ardor. Skaggs is a mandolin virtuoso who worked with his heroes as a teen— he doesn't doubt the music's power for a second.

Nor does he trifle with its texts. A wry snippet of Lester Flat singing K.C.'s "That's the Way I Like It" was as modern as Skaggs got. He calls his new disc Ancient Tones, and from "Toy Heart" to "Pig in a Pen" to "Rank Stranger," the gig flagged his preservationist persona— don't expect Mutt Lange to add any digital hosannas to that gospel record Ricky the Baptist is cutting in March. Maybe the purist ardor is fortuitous. The blazing instrumental he closed with is up for a Grammy. His Ceili Music label split from Rounder last year, taking Del McCoury with it. Keeping the contemporary at bay for two hours, Skaggs confirmed retrenchment as revitalization, a canny pop ruse no matter how rootsy you make it. — Jim Macnie

Gwen Guthrie 1950­1999

Gwen Guthrie, introduced as "the first lady of Paradise Garage" at the club's closing party, really belonged to her crowd. She delivered her defining club hits— "Padlock," "Seventh Heaven," and "It Should Have Been You" among them— in a style that was intimate and sometimes frisky but never salacious or overpowering. Gwen, who died last Wednesday, was not about diva affectation but rather about mother wit, empathy, and pure bliss.

A native of Newark, Guthrie was a grade-school teacher when her first background vocal session (Aretha Franklin's 1974 "I'm in Love") kicked off a career that combined studio vocals, jingle singing, and songwriting. She penned a series of well-crafted r&b/pop hits, including Ben E. King's "Supernatural Thing"; "Love Don't Go Through No Changes on Me," one of six she cowrote for the first Sister Sledge album; the wry, truthful "God Don't Like Ugly" for Roberta Flack; and an exquisite pop standard, "This Time I'll Be Sweeter," which always seemed to sing itself beautifully, whether covered by Flack, Linda Lewis, Isaac Hayes, Angela Bofill, or Marlena Shaw.

Guthrie's frequent work with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare resulted in two accomplished Island albums, Gwen Guthrie and Portrait. Leaving Island to gain the right of self-production in 1986, she immediately wrote and produced a massive international hit, "Ain't Nothin' Goin On but the Rent." Despite lines like "No romance without finance" and "You gotta have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me," heard by some as provocative, this was really just one more of Guthrie's sly, savvy, and sensible takes on relationships. The week of her passing, the song was on the number one album in the country, Foxy Brown's Chyna Doll.

From her backup sessions to her songwriting, solo records, and production, there wasn't a J-O-B in music at which Gwen Guthrie did not excel. She is survived by a brother and two daughters.

— Brian Chin And Jim Feldman

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