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Jack of All Trades 

There's something to be said for real music snobs. These are not the people who simply listen to only the most obscure bands in a certain genre. These are people who love music for, well, the music. They love how it sounds, how it makes them feel, how it was made and what its message is. These are the shameless punk rockers who aren't afraid to put in a little Bob Marley at a late-afternoon barbecue. These are the hippie jam band fans who eat dinner to the sounds of Beethoven and Bach.

And while these are the types of people who might turn down some Tom Petty or John Mayer, they are the ones who'll instantly turn up some Jack Johnson at any opportunity.

Because what isn't there to like about Jack, the good-looking, satin-voiced, ex-surfer, former film student and full-blooded Hawaiian? He's like an indie rock girl's dream, and he's playing the Gorge on Saturday.

Johnson smoothed out the radio waves in early 2002 with his sun-kissed, laid-back debut Brushfire Fairytales. He was everything that the spent singer/songwriter genre was thirsting for: crystal vocals, a reclined attitude and something good to say. His talent crossed the lines of genre and taste, landing his CD in the Walkmans and car stereos of everyone from soccer moms to college radio deejays, not to mention college chicks everywhere.

At that point, success was nothing new to Johnson. Growing up in Oahu, Hawaii, meant he spent his days surfing the frothy coastline. What was a pastime turned into a career, eventually earning him a sponsorship from Quiksilver and national recognition amongst the pros. Success number one. Hot points earned.

Like a good boy, Johnson took off for college at the University of California at Santa Barbara as a film student. He and some friends produced a surfing documentary, Thicker Than Water, which featured Johnson's surfing talent and his early singing career. That film and its follow-up, The September Sessions, gained national attention, even winning an award at the ESPN Film Festival. Success number two. Film students: very hot.

When he wasn't making movies or surfing, Johnson was performing his hand-woven songs around Santa Barbara. He modeled much of his style after Ben Harper's Fight for Your Mind. Before he knew it, Johnson was producing Brushfire beside Harper, who sat in with his lap steel guitar. Success number three. Harper plus Johnson: hottie central.

Two albums and three years later, Johnson is touring on his own and headlining outdoor amphitheaters around the country. And -- get this -- he's touring around the country in eco-friendly biodiesel tour buses. Saving the planet? Hot, hot, hot. (Mike Corrigan)

Jack Johnson plays on Saturday, Aug. 13, at 7 pm at the Gorge Amphitheatre. Tickets: $39.50. Visit www.ticketmaster.com

Sweet Misery Blues | Over the last couple summers, a strange thing has happened to the reunion tour circuit. It's no longer all baby boomers paying $300 a ticket to rediscover the Rolling Stones and Mescaline -- though there is certainly still that. There is now plenty of reunion tour room (and money) for influential indie bands that broke up in obscurity only to find their popularity grow. These tours (the Pixies, Mission of Burma, etc.) tend to be populated less by a band's original fans than by legions of younger generations who discovered the music post-mortem.

The Violent Femmes, who play the Big Easy this Saturday, might be the test case that predicted this strange turn. Discovered on a street corner in Milwaukee by the Pretenders, their first album saw them inexplicably compared to the Sex Pistols and the Velvet Underground. One early critic -- and this is probably the best, though strangest, association -- compared Gordon Gano's lyrics to the writing of William Faulkner.

That would have been a pretty good pedigree, especially in the early '80s, but there wasn't much call for folk in the Reagan Era, and their sound was too far removed from both the facile ephemera of New Wave and the three-chord aggression of punk to score much mainstream success.

Still, those who identified with the novel mix of doo-wop, rockabilly and folk were fiercely loyal, and Gano's dark, pathos-riddled tales of sorrow and oblivion earned the band a steady stream of fans among the youthful rejects of the newly pubescent. So steady was the influx of disaffected youth that their self-titled debut eventually went platinum, but not until 10 years after its release. It remains the only album in the history of Billboard magazine to sell a million copies without ever cracking the Top 200. The angst angle proved to be the band's main sticking point throughout the '90s.

They achieved their closest brush with mainstream success after "Blister in the Sun" (recorded 11 years earlier) became an unofficial theme song for the 1994 TV high school melodrama My So-Called Life. And so it came to pass in those days that most Spokanites of my generation were introduced to the Violent Femmes via KXLY and 93ZooFM.

Not a day went by in eighth grade that I didn't hear, "Gaw, Classmate, 'Blister in the Sun' is the coolest." To which came the reply, "I know, and Jared Leto / Claire Danes is so hot!" These conversations happened right around the time Classmate and his or her friends began stealing money from their parents in earnest and huffing anything that gave off fumes. Classmate represents, in general, just about everyone in school, give or take the theft and household solvent abuse.

Among that generation, the Violent Femmes were an unlikely constant in most people's CD collection. The kids who liked Top 40 stuff -- Santana and Sisqo among others -- listened to the Femmes. The inoffensive protest-rock kids had an album or two as well, tucked between O.A.R. and Ben Harper. That guy who listened to all those bands you never heard of before -- Mr. Bungle, XTC, Captain Beefheart -- he wrote his thesis on the Violent Femmes (majoring in Liberal Studies; currently interning at Hastings).

This trend, it seems, has been happening for years. "As we've gotten older, the average age of our fans has gotten younger," Gano told the Tucson Weekly in 1999. Credit that with the way young people continue to connect with their debut album, which was released when Gano was 18. He had begun writing the lyrics when he was 15. In general, the best songs about the high school experience, for better and (most often) worse, are the ones written without the benefit of hindsight. There's an immediacy to the album that couldn't exist outside the moment it was written, and the record is leant tremendous weight because of it.

But if the Violent Femmes were just the soundtrack to an unhappy adolescence, they wouldn't sell so many tickets, and the faces at their shows wouldn't have laugh lines that cut three generations deep. Put differently: people don't outgrow the Violent Femmes the way they outgrow Green Day and Avril Lavigne because the band has never condescended to an age group or subject matter.

As early as 1984, with the release Hallowed Ground, the Femmes had already gotten past the very specific teen travails that had marked their first album. Gano's lyrics become intent on exploring more mature themes while the band experiments with roots rhythms like bluegrass and gospel. "Country Death Song" deals with faith, murder and suicide in haunting fashion while "Jesus Walking on the Water" is a devotional song that since has found its way into the hymnal of a church in St. Paul, Minn. Whereas the debut album was insular and self-absorbed, songs like "Black Girls" on Hallowed Ground focus on looking outward (and, in this case, destroying racial stereotypes on both sides of the divide).

The Blind Leading the Naked, from 1986, exhibits a movement toward more overt protest rock, with songs like the scathing "Old Mother Reagan." Subsequent releases show a band unafraid to examine whatever troubles affect them and to dabble in whatever musical forms interest them. This thematic freewheeling may not earn them their teenaged throngs initially, but it's what keeps them coming back well into adulthood.

So the Pixies have blown up two reunion tours now, and become the toast of the indie world as they acquaint an ecstatic younger generation with a sound forged in the bowels of the late '80s. That's cool, and well-deserved, but maybe not quite so impressive when you realize that enlisting a new cadre of faithful is something the Violent Femmes have done every summer for the last 20 years. -- Luke Baumgarten

The Violent Femmes play at the Big Easy Concert House on Saturday, Aug. 13, at 7 pm. Tickets: $25. Call 325-SEAT.

Celtic Return | Ever since Canadian Celtic singer and fiddle-player Natalie MacMaster's sold-out performance at Sandpoint's Panida Theater a couple dozen moons ago, devotees of this folk songstress have been scanning the Inland Northwest event horizon for even the slightest sign of a return visit. Well, leave it to the Festival at Sandpoint to provide the fuel to MacMaster's fan fire. The wait is over: Thursday, Aug. 11, MacMaster makes another stop in this panhandle community to kick off week two of the Festival's music offerings with the equally captivating femme folk trio, the Be Good Tanyas.

MacMaster picked up the fiddle at the age of 9 and quickly developed chops that would place her on par with her uncle, influential Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, fiddler Buddy MacMaster. But she would soon expand her Celtic music foundation to accommodate New World popular music forms, particularly Latin, bluegrass and jazz (her 1999 album, In My Hands, features guest vocals by friend and mentor Allison Krauss). Yet she never strays too far from her formative influences as evidenced by albums such as My Roots Are Showing, which earned her a Grammy Nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Vancouver, B.C.-based the Be Good Tanyas open the show. The three-woman group (comprised of Frazey Ford, Trish Klein and Samantha Parton) collide rough-hewn old-time mountain music with a haunting, vaguely modern sensibility. Not to put too fine a point on it, but does "goth-folk" say anything to you?

As a side note (or perhaps the main point of interest for some of you), there will be a complimentary microbrew tasting conducted prior to the concert, starting at 6 pm. It's free for ticket holders over the age of 21. Consider yourselves alerted. And invited. -- Mike Corrigan

Natalie MacMaster, The Be Good Tanyas play at the Festival at Sandpoint, Memorial Field, Sandpoint, Idaho, on Thursday, Aug. 11, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $27. Call 325-SEAT.

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