I'd heard tell that Max Johnston of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and Freakwater fame had joined the Gourds sometime during the great October flood to pluck, pick, and fiddle; I'd also heard that Damnation TX drummer Keith Langford had traded places with Gourds traps boy Charlie Llewellin and everyone was as pleased as a pig in a wallow; and that a little plastic mag organ, tossed in an alley dustbin by Richard Buckner, had become an appreciable addition to the new release. When Ghosts arrived I cleared my house and put it on my stereo, but I had made a mistake: I was overeager. After Blitzer, Ghosts sounded like a long exhale. It's a lovely, lazy sort of album, but it's missing the jubilant intoxication that made Blitzer a furlough to remember: the fierce fireside sing-along, the moist public caress, the moonlit skeet shoot, the pre-dawn lament, and the dark crevice under the floorboards where Grandpa keeps his special things. Ghosts made me miss yesterday and remember something my great-grandma used to say: "If you don't expect anything, you can't be disappointed." The Gourds perform at Slim's on Wednesday, March 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8; call 522-0333. And at the Starry Plough in Berkeley on Thursday, March 25, with Don Lennon and the Moore Brothers opening at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $7; call (510) 841-2082.
I did not make the same mistake with Tom Waits. It's been over six years since we were blessed with a new release from the reclusive hierophant of gyre and gimbal, and his choice of turns was anyone's guess. Whatever you thought, Mule Variations is better. In the wrenching narrative style of Heart of Saturday Night, Waits introduces a new cast of unfortunates (Molly Be Damned, Jimmy the Harp, Beaula and Beatty, Old Blind Darby) cursed by birth to wander through backwater towns (Monte Rio, Riverside, Atchison, Placerville) practicing their vocations (hustler, runaway, whore, murderer, hobo, disciple, circus freak), described with his preternatural flair for language (Filipino box spring hog, chain monkey, criminal underwire bra, rattlesnake piccata). The spiny sounds that emerged on Swordfishtrombones and Bone Machine embellish these ballads, making the shadowy antagonist in "What's He Building?" creepier than a cat lady, and the missing "crooked little heart" in "Hold On" very nearly unbearable. While Waits drew together a local cast of talent to create Mule Variations -- notably Oranj Symphonette's Ralph Carney and Joe Gore, Primus' Les Claypool, Sprocket Ensemble's Nik Phelps -- live shows are never a certainty, but VH1 is taping Waits for an episode of Storytellers to be aired this summer. Mule Variations is due to be released on Epitaph (Waits says they have better cars and barbecues than most labels) on April 27 but, since I'm not one to tease, you can get a good earful during the listening party at Cafe Du Nord on Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m. Admission is free; call 861-5016.
Casino Royale, the novel, was Ian Fleming's first venture into the world of James Bond. It had all the right stuff: Miss Moneypenny, M, enemy agents, and Bond Girls. Casino Royale, the oft-forgot made-for-TV movie, was the first Bond on screen. It had Barry Nelson. Casino Royale, the "parody," was filmed 12 years later. It had David Niven, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, William Holden, Deborah Kerr, John Huston, Charles Boyer, and a superfab soundtrack by Burt Bacharach. Casino Royale, the band, re-creates the music of Bacharach, Tom Jones, Herb Alpert, Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra, and the Righteous Brothers. It has members of Charming Hostess, Super Diamond, Herb, 80 Mile Beach, and Baby Snufkin. You can see examples of all Royale varieties at "Casino Royale," the show. It has '60s casino decor, rare slides and videos, mock blackjack tables, and lots of spies at the Cocodrie on Friday, March 26, at 9 and 11 p.m. Tickets are $7; call 986-6678.
Since she arrived in Miami in 1993, Albita has been swarmed by an odd assortment of glitterati -- Quincy Jones, Madonna, Anjelica Houston, and Liza Minnelli, among others. She'd already won the hearts of her countrymen by revitalizing the guajiro songs of Cuba -- traditional music that evokes a vibrant nostalgia, similar to cabaret in Germany or swing in the States. In 1996 Dicen Que was nominated for a Grammy and won Billboard's award for tropical album of the year. Albita was heralded as a modern-day Astrud Gilberto -- the tantalizing vocalist who is unjustly remembered only as the "Girl From Ipanema" in the U.S. -- and her live shows left folks breathless. On her most recent album, Una Mujer Como Yo, Albita stretches out a bit, performing festive dance-floor music that incorporates bomba and merengue. It's flashy, exuberant music that complements Albita's platinum blond hair and wide red mouth. She'll get you moving, then steal your heart, at Bimbo's 365 Club on Saturday, March 27, with Yeska opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $25-27; call 474-0365. Yeska also performs at Amoeba on Sunday, March 28, at 2 p.m. Admission is free; call 831-1200.
-- Silke Tudor