Ah, Release
The Stuart Wylen Trio maxes, relaxes.

You can hear the crowd at Jazz de Opus talking between songs on Live, the Stuart Wylen Trio's debut CD. Sounds like people having a good time, with just a little liquor in 'em. It's the perfect accompaniment to the guitar-bass-drums threesome's feline jazz funk, a sound that would pass out if it got any more laid-back.

"We really wanted to capture that feeling of just pressing 'record,' playing and not worrying about it," says Wylen, a guitarist who traded the studio-musician rat race of Los Angeles for the copacetic life of a Portland bandleader. "We're trying to take jazz back to a more organic feel than some of the more academic playing you see these days. We're trying not to let technique dominate feeling."

In pursuit of these aesthetic goals, Wylen gravitates to the classic soul-jazz of the '50s and early '60s, when serious bop lived in common-law bliss with blues and Latin, before that bossy jerk Fusion moved in upstairs. Live's 10 breezy tracks include songs by Les McCann, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but it's not the kind of jazz album that tries to bash you around the head and shoulders with weighty influences.

And thus, it's pretty damn fun. Zach Dundas

The Stuart Wylen Trio releases Live with shows Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11-12, at Jazz de Opus, 33 NW 2nd Ave., 222-6077. 9 pm. Cover.

The Gomez and Morticia of Alt-Country
The Handsome Family's husband-wife team finds beauty out where the pavement meets the dirt.

Portland feels like the Handsome Family's city lately. On Sunday, the sun barely bothered to rise. The crazed and derelict formed the exclusive population of whole blocks, wandering like packs of gaunt ghosts. For Brett and Rennie Sparks, the Handsome Family, this is their kind of territory.

The Handsome Family makes country music that's mostly about the City, or more specifically, about the Country the City paved over. Rennie Sparks writes lyrics of diners and murder, extinction and break-ups, television light and unexplained vanishings, insects and pigeons living in landscapes lacerated by the hand of man. Brett sings those words in a deep, haunted twang. Some compare him to Johnny Cash, which isn't quite right but is clearly meant as a compliment.

They recorded Twilight in Chicago just before moving to New Mexico, and it plays like an urban spook story in 13 lucky chapters. Edward Hopper meets Edward Gorey and unspeakable night lurks beyond the streetlights' glow. Despite all this, Brett and Rennie claim to be fairly cheerful, as you'll see.

Willamette Week: You just ditched Chicago for Albuquerque. How do you think the move will change you?

Rennie Sparks: We actually did Twilight in kind of a rush, because we had to finish it before we left Chicago. I think a lot of the lyrics came about because we knew it would be the last album we recorded there. In Chicago, it seemed like the only time I was outside was when I walked from a building across a parking lot to my car or vice versa. So pretty soon the parking lots started to seem significant--like, the parking lot was my forest.

And Albuquerque?

Rennie: There's a point where settlement ends. When you live in a huge city, you get used to being in an environment where everything is man-made. It makes a difference to me to know there's a darkness on the edge of town.

Brett: When it gets dark out here, it gets dark.

In terms of theme and style, you're about as American as it gets, yet you have a strong following in Europe. Do people there gravitate to different things in your music than Americans?

Rennie: They're obsessed with America, and Hollywood doesn't really give them what they're after. They like the old, weird America.

Brett: They tend to have a darker sense of humor, so they don't think we're the morbid freaks Americans tend to think we are. They see the humor and the hope in our songs a lot more than people here do, which is nice.

Rennie: Yes, totally! I mean, I write about death a lot, but not to make people go kill themselves.

You're tired of being portrayed as the Grim Twins?

Brett: It's become the boring, lazy, Journalism 101 way to write about us as the Gomez and Morticia of alt-country. See, right there, that sentence has about five clichés in it. The people who actually take the time to listen to the music and the words and think about it a little bit get it in a different way than the people who just see the depressed husband and wife singing about creepy shit.

Do enough people get it to make it worth your while?

Brett: It's been gradual, but we've slowly developed an audience of weirdos and shut-ins who understand what we're doing. So, yes, we're doing all right. We're getting less morose. Or, my wife is getting less morose, I guess I should say. Zach Dundas

The Handsome Family plays Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Blackbird, 3728 NE Sandy Blvd., 282-9949. The Willard Grant Conspiracy and the Pseudo Six also appear. 9 pm. $7.

Hiss & Vinegar

Those who think the 82nd Avenue corridor is no laughing matter--think again! A knowledgeable friend reports that the new Wednesday-night comedy open mic at Roscoe's (8105 SE Stark St., 261-9535) is "blowing up," like they say on the streets. Free, too...Congratulations to Alex Steininger, local rock tycoon and head of In Music We Trust Records. He's the proud father of Cleo Elise Brocius-Steininger, born Dec. 22 and thus doomed to a lifetime of "combined" birthday and Xmas gifts...Meanwhile, Steininger's label is behind the new Maroons record, released this week...Local art collective Red76 put its long-running performance series "JRNLS," a monthly attraction at Blackbird, on hiatus because the rising cost of developing Super-8 film has become prohibitive for participating filmmakers...Drum wizard Johnny Schier (Last of the Juanitas, Cosmos Group) has traded PDX for NYC, where he's reportedly playing in a band with Shawn Bosler, once of local rock group Umberhulk.

No sooner does an all-ages club open than some cynics start a deathwatch. Unfortunately, in the case of Joy (3286 NE Killingsworth St.), pessimism proved all too prescient. The no-frills club and gallery, which hosted about one rock show a week during its brief life, called it quits at the end of December.

"If Joy could have broken even financially, we would have kept it open," say owners Sharon Schloss and Jonn Walterscheid in an email. "The main problem was that there was just not enough interest from local musicians."

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission takes a black-and-white view of Balzer's (53 NW 1st Ave., 274-9901), the Old Town nightclub renowned as a Blazer hangout. To the state's liquor czars, the place is nothing but trouble, and they want it padlocked.

The day after Christmas, the OLCC announced plans to scrub the club's license, citing "a history of serious and persistent problems"--a phrase that is the ultimate Mark of Doom in the Commission's big book of the saved and the damned. Twice, the Portland Police Bureau has labeled Balzer's a "chronic nuisance," a decision that played into the OLCC's condemnation.

The commission's account of the bar's history is grim, including thefts, drug confiscations, alleged gang activity and street confrontations between bar patrons and cops. The OLCC claims Balzer's has failed to prevent such brouhaha, curb over-service of alcohol or "change the type of clientele."

That latter phrase leads Ernie Bighaus, the club's owner, to take his own black-and-white view of the situation--in his case, the phrase isn't figurative. Bighaus claims the OLCC has targeted his joint for shutdown because it's one of the few bars downtown where the paleface does not predominate.

"It's simple--I run a black nightclub," says Bighaus (who, incidentally, is a white guy from Coos Bay). "The discrimination against nightclubs that cater to predominantly black clientele has got to stop. It's been going on too long."

The OLCC denies racial motives in the case.

"We have a policy of nondiscrimination," says spokesman Ken Palke. "It's not in the state's interest to discriminate against anyone. There have been other clubs that have had similar problems, and we've dealt with them in similar ways. We're following the law in this case, which took two years to lay out."

The five OLCC commissioners are scheduled to vote on the Balzer's cancellation in early February. Bighaus says he plans to fight to keep Balzer's open.

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