Rai Fidelity

Hakim, the Egyptian Lion, belly danced to the pulsing beats and unstoppable hooks of his sha’bi love tunes, while Khaled—who headlined the bill of Islamic pop last Friday at the Beacon—stuck close to the mic stand. His only apparent concessions to live performance were an Elvis-like leg wriggle and a pixie smile, but the King of Rai’s intoxication runs deep, in the orgasmic ululations of his vocals: the widening and narrowing of his vibrato with each shift of emotion, the call and response between the higher notes’ almost feminine swoon, and the urgent, masculine rumble of his bass notes. He made teasing declarations of love in “Didi” and “Aisha” and lamented his homeland in “Wahrane,” alongside a trio of slugging horns, serpentine rock-guitar lines, contagious Middle Eastern rhythm patterns, and—most sublimely—in tandem with guest artist Simon Shaheen’s soaring violin.

Rai, an amalgam of Moroccan, Spanish, French, American, Jamaican, and Bedouin influences, was born in the seamy bars of Oran, a low-rent Algerian port city. It’s rebel music—hence the barrage of bodies propelling themselves onto the stage to dance at the feet of the maturing bad boy, or wrap a proprietary arm around his neck. Friday night was a healing of sorts, since rai singer and Sting collaborator Cheb Mami’s show here was canceled after September 11. Four months later, this trio of “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (to borrow Shelley’s words) bridged a gulf between classic Islamic music and Western pop. —Elena Oumano

Bovine Growth Harmonies

The Captain Beefheart Project packed the Knitting Factory on February 9 with both curious beginners and bellowing geezers. The four-and-a-half-hour multimedia seminar—a sort of Don Van Vliet 101—covered everything from his 1966 beach-party appearance on TV’s Where the Action Is to the domestic debut of Fast ‘n’ Bulbous. The horntastic new septet arranged by saxophonist Phillip Johnston featured former Beefheart guitarist-manager Gary Lucas, who also served as the evening’s reminiscing MC.

Having retired from music to a quiet seaside life of painting and sclerotic infirmity, Don Van Vliet, the 60-year-old growling grandpa of arty alternarock, don’t need no stinking tributes—but I bet he would have enjoyed this one anyway. Originally an intimidating rock-star wannabe, Beefheart mutated into an all-American original by pushing his love of the blues and avant-garde jazz to the limits of endurance—at least for his terrorized Magic Band members—on the 1969 masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. After a couple of dazzling Lucas solos and superfluous readings by Beefheart biographer Ken Barnes, the all-instrumental Fast ‘n’ Bulbous slammed into Trout Mask‘s “Pachuco Cadaver,” replacing Beefheart’s vaguely licentious Howlin’ Wolf vocals (“She wears her past like uh present/Take her fancy in the past”) with rich, brassy harmonies that illuminated the epigrammatic contours of the composer’s earthy expressionism.

Fast ‘n’ Bulbous didn’t try to replicate the Magic Band’s unique deployment of parallel themes in differing tempos and keys. And while I missed John “Drumbo” French’s almost linguistic drum parts, I fell completely for the rampant party spirit that pervaded “Veteran’s Day Poppy,” “When It Blows Its Stacks,” and “Tropical Hot Dog Night.” The band’s joyful noises did justice to Beefheart’s nature-boy ardor for flesh and grit, in anticipation, let’s hope, for some after-school specials down the line. —Richard Gehr

She’s With the Band

Every band should have a Kelley Deal in it. Combined with bashful charm, the Breeders guitarist’s ineptitude makes her incredibly lovable. She’s the ideal rock personality—a fan with family ties. “Kim found me in the womb—’Hey, wanna be in my band?’ ” she quipped at Bowery Ballroom last Saturday. Kelley had so little work to do during songs that she smoked, drank ginger ale, and blew her nose between solos. She bobbed her head and hung out. Clearly, she hasn’t spent the Breeders’ eight-year hiatus practicing. But chops or no, she’s lived more of a rock-star lifestyle than her twin sister, Kim, who writes all the songs. All go-nowhere side projects and drug problems (presumably in remission now), Kelley’s a pretty good Behind the Music episode waiting to happen.

Erasing the line between audience and group, she came to the mic before the show to ask if some friends had arrived, and delayed the set to strike up a personal conversation with “Cookie Man” (a guy known for bringing baked goods) and marvel over another fan’s hickey-covered neck. The fans get to live vicariously through her, wondering if they could do any better. They’re pulling for her. That’s why everyone cheered her solos.

Kim, for her part, ran off with the beat and the dynamic song structure after the Pixies’ 1991 breakup, and ever since has written asymmetrical pop she struggles to sing with a tobacco-flavored rasp. No rock vocalist gasps as distinctly as Deal. The band’s razor-sharp hour-and-15 set leaned toward 1993’s Last Splash, including pogo classic “Cannonball,” a few unnamed studio-fresh tunes in the same vein from an Albini-fashioned comeback due in May, and the Amps’ one triumph, “Tip City.” The new songs kept up the waning Pixie/Breeder tradition of interlocking guitar play and off-kilter soloing—tricks that underscore the pleasure the band must get out of playing them. Still, the more trouble a song gave them, the more satisfying it was to see them bring it off. Kim never could nail the high notes on “hour by hour” in the chorus of “Iris,” not even on CD. So Kelley belted it out instead. Why not? She wasn’t busy at the time. —James Hannaham