All They Need Is 13 Mics

Prefab, compartmentalized, and edited to within a whisker of DJ Clue's beard, sure, but an MTV party never lacks for surprise. At last Wednesday's "$2 Bill" concert at the World, the official performers numbered four: Pusha T and Malice of the Clipse, Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D., and opener Fabolous. By night's end, though, a baker's dozen had grabbed the mic, at a 15-cents-per-cameo clip.

For the late-teens in attendance, Clipse and Fabolous are a dream pairing. Cuddle-thugs younger than hip-hop itself, they know all the hardcore poses from a lifetime of immersion. And with top-shelf producers, they pass for the real. Of the three MCs, Fabolous is most compelling, with uncanny rhyme timing and an intuitive sneer. Not surprisingly, his breakout came on an r&b song, Lil' Mo's "Superwoman." For this clinical set, Mo came out to support Fab, as did Nate Dogg, on "Can't Deny It," and P. Diddy himself, on "Trade It All," star power outshined only by the jewelry on display.

Fab may have rocked the iced-out bracelet, but when the Clipse and Pharrell took the stage, fashion came to the fore. A group of slick black kids in dangling earrings, slim jeans, Prada footwear and the mandatory mesh hats mimicked style-icon Pharrell's every gesture ("They weren't dressed that way on line for tickets," remarked one co-ed cutie). In matching white T-shirts, look- and sound-alike brothers the Clipse inadvertently came off as Pharrell's backup troupe. Les frères Clipse brought rhymes—lumpy performances of "Ma, I Don't Love Her," "When the Last Time," and "I'm Not You"—but Pharrell kept talking that music shit. During "Grindin'," (bombastically dubbed "the beginning of the new Star Trak history" after Pharrell's label), he dropped to his knees, arms splayed, as a sea of loyal Trakkies proffered the Vulcan hand sign. The N.E.R.D. was avenged. —Jon Caramanica

Elvish Is King

"We've had a very difficult week, and that's our explanation," the Mendoza Line apologized midway through their running-on-empty opening set at Brooklyn's cozy Southpaw on Saturday. An absent drummer (Ballard Lesemann of Athens band Hayride sat in), a tardy bassist, and a sick dog at home led to off-key vocals and dragging tempos. "Hungover, listless," Shannon McArdle droned in her Hope Sandoval-with-a-twang voice, an example of the imitative fallacy. Even the presence of Peter Langland-Hassan from Elk City on electric guitar couldn't clear the clouds. But in a way, it was fitting. In the best of times, like on their 2000 record, We're All in This Alone, the Mendoza Line are the ultimate country-inflected-indie troubadours of low-key hostility and failed beauty. "You don't mean a thing to me," sang McArdle, shaking the stage light sparkles off her tambourine. When she picked up a guitar, alone, for "The Way of the Weak," her drawn-out notes delivered steely-eyed resolve, wistfulness, and exhaustion all at once.

After a short set by Aden, power-poppers with strong melodies and weak vocals, the crowd pressed forward for Elf Power! (They should add an exclamation point, or maybe an *NSync asterisk, to signify their transition from twee to rockin'.) Buzzy feedback bubbles popped behind singer Andrew Rieger's scenarios of cheerful menace—apocalyptic land- and seascapes stalked by "creatures," "serpents sleeping underground," and sirens of doom. With lots of tricky starts and stops, they invoked the Pixies, the Flaming Lips, early and late Beach Boys, They Might Be Giants, and fellow Elephant 6ers Neutral Milk Hotel—only louder and faster. Rieger's droll affect was a combination of David Byrne and Pee-wee Herman, while Lesemann, on guitar, contributed a kind of carnival-barker bounce. After only two fiddle and accordion numbers, "That concludes the folk-rock portion of our set," Rieger announced. "Now we're gonna go back to the full-tilt rockers." They even did a Bad Brains cover ("Pay to Cum"), and closed with the new-wavy "Temporary Heart," not to be stilled. —Anya Kamenetz

Cabaret Roundup

If theater is a fabulous invalid, what does that make cabaret? Fewer audiences attend regularly and rooms come and go with unsettling regularity. In the last few months shuttered spots include both Arci's Place and the FireBird Café‚ where accomplished performers not quite at the Oak Room, Café Carlyle, or Feinstein's at the Regency level could strut their sophisticated stuff. One venue, the Julie Wilson Room at the Hideaway, came and went so fast the waiters barely had time to get the first round of cosmos to the tables. Nevertheless, because talent will out even if it needs to delve into its own wallet, cabaret performers continue to make their way in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back progression. This week, for instance, the 13th Annual Cabaret Convention unfolds over six early evenings and one matinee at Town Hall. The moderately priced event is a sampling of a few dozen currently active boîte entertainers. The repast is served by Donald Smith, who heads the cabaret-boosting Mabel Mercer Foundation and about whom it might be said, "De gustibus non disputandum est." And the tentatively good news is that other outlets are cropping up.

According to management, the FireBird Café will reopen just after the first of the year. Arci's Place, which languished on Park Avenue South, will be reincarnated at an as-yet-undisclosed West Side site. Dapper piano man Steve Ross is getting his own room at the Stanhope in November. There are a few unexpected new destinations, such as the series Ars Nova runs one Monday a month, where actors Felicia Finley and Chad Mitchell have spent their Broadway day off wowing patrons. And the arrival of younger artists like joyful rocker David Gurland, sweetly tough belter Karen Mack, and wry, oddball Michael Holland may be the happiest development in the Great American Songbook movement. —David Finkle

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