Local experimental label Beta-Lactam Ring elevates handcrafted packaging to a mad science.

The wooden box is shaped like a manger and weighs nearly five pounds. I remove two cloth banderoles and open the lid, revealing a paper signed by Edward Ka-Spel, leader of the Anglo/Dutch experimental band Legendary Pink Dots. At last I find the baby swaddled within: a vinyl record, a photo of Ka-Spel affixed to the cover, its opening sealed with cloth and wax.

This oddity is one of only 50 such copies of Ka-Spel's A Birth Marked Conspiracy in the universe. Absurd? Absolutely--but a masterpiece of absurdity. Coveted by collectors around the world, this boxed edition fetches over $400 on eBay. Welcome to the rarified aesthetic of Portland's own Beta-Lactam Ring Records.

Husband-and-wife team Chris McBeth and Heather Billington dedicate themselves to releasing "uncommon music in unique packaging in this age of mass production." Many of Beta-Lactam's releases are limited to 100 copies or less. All are elaborately conceived: often hand-signed, numbered, hand-painted, screen-printed, rife with unusual extras. A recent Noise-Makers Fife CD comes in a box with nails protruding from its sides, limited to 50 copies. A forthcoming Beequeen release comes in 140 LP box sets stuffed with real leaves.

McBeth admits these labors of love carry a certain "pain-in-the-ass" factor. Ah, but it hurts so good--McBeth and Billington have turned their little concern into a well-respected art label in just two years.

"I was finishing my degree in molecular genetics," McBeth says of the label's 2000 birth in Austin, Texas. "Actually, I was going to go to dental school. I always wanted to be a doctor, but also wanted to be an artist."

The drone of academia turned McBeth away from the scientific world. Instead, his obsession with collecting "difficult" music mutated, viruslike, into what he now calls a career.

"After years of scholastic nothingness, I felt the creative juices flowing again," he says. "I wanted to create a micro art label to fuse my interests in music and visual art." He and Billington have succeeded with a vengeance. Else Teicher

Beta-Lactam Ring Records and Radon Studios team up to present a pair of shows this week:

The Shotgun of Khando, Pixel+Dot and Sardonik Grin appear Friday, March 15, at the Jasmine Tree, 401 SW Harrison St., 223-7956. 9 pm. $3.

Smegma, Koonda Holaa and the Beetchees, Sikhara and Nequaquam Vacuum appear Saturday, March 16, at Disjecta Gallery, 116 NE Russell St., 335-6979. 11 pm. $5.

Beta-Lactam Ring Records are available via web order at

The New Deal's live improv attack saves electronica from the DAT doldrums.

Musicians have tried to bridge the gap between electronic and live music ever since digitized beats were born. We had MIDI drums in the '80s, "crossover" in the '90s. Now every frat-rock band adds a DJ to its lineup, attempting to speak to both camps.

So far, it's all been unimpressive.

Enter the New Deal. This Toronto trio redefines the role of live performance within the electronic realm. With a modest setup of drums (a rock-style trap set), bass and keyboards, the Deal performs a self-described style of "live progressive breakbeat house." The operative word is live--no sequencers, no samplers, no DATs, just a 100-percent live performance of heavily layered, bright, thumping house that could move John Ashcroft to dance.

And it's all improvised. The band uses an assortment of loose themes, relying on a complex system of non-verbal cues to signal theme, tempo and key changes. How the hell do they practice this? Well, not at all, actually.

"We've never once rehearsed," says drummer Darren Shearer. "We look at it like, we might as well be playing in front of people while we're rehearsing, since we do it every other night." True--playing about 140 shows a year, as the New Deal does, makes practice seem superfluous.

While the trio identifies with the house scene, its members don't pigeonhole themselves. "We recognize the power of the four-on-the-floor house groove, but we use that as a starting point, as opposed to a destination," says Shearer. Don't be surprised if the groove worms its way through some funk, acid jazz or drum and bass. This stylistic sweep draws a crowd including ravers, jam-band fans and aficionados of old and new jazz. But the reaction of hardcore house lovers offers the ultimate testament to The New Deal's prowess.

"The great feeling is when you see people who haven't seen a band in five years," Shearer says. "And they look at the drums, keyboards and bass, and they're like, 'I don't understand what's happening....' And then they're like, 'OK, so that's what makes that noise in house music.' It's like a rebirth." Dan Engler

The New Deal opens for Herbie Hancock on Friday, March 15, at the Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038.
9 pm. $21.50+ advance (Fastixx). 21+.

Hiss and Vinegar

Saint Paddy's Day! The day everyone (except Shaquille O'Neal) thinks they're Irish. How can YOU justify that temporary shamrock tat on your cheek? Follow our Total Poseur's Guide to Faking It on St. Patrick's Day™, simple steps and key events selected to help "get your Irish up."

STEP ONE: DON'T flaunt your German/Chinese/Eritrean/ whatever last name. DO claim your maternal grandfather was "one-fourth Irish, probably--least that's what my uncle said when he was drunk." Where: Kells (112 SW 2nd Ave., 227-4057), obviously. The pub hosts its huge annual open-air bash and a mind-boggling array of music. Superb trad band Cul an Ti, the Kells Irish Pipers and Canada's Clumsy Lovers play multiple sets through the weekend. See Headout, page 50. 11:30 am-2 am Friday-Sunday. Cover.

STEP TWO: Ramble about tragic history. Try the San Patricio Brigade, Irish-American soldiers who deserted to fight for Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Despite legendary bravery, they got rounded up and executed en masse by the good ol' U.S. of A. Where: The Bitter End Pub (1981 W Burnside St., 517-0179) hosts a "Shamrock Shakedown" starting with Buds of May on Friday evening. Saturday night, Freak Mountain Ramblers headline over Irish sets from Rene Corbin Band and St. James Gate. Sunday, The Dolomites support Jackstraw and Purusa. 9 pm Friday, 1 pm Saturday-Sunday. $10 per day.

STEP THREE: Name-drop obscure heroes. Thomas Meagher fought the Brits in the 1840s. Exiled to Australia, he escaped, came to America, organized a Union brigade in the Civil War, popularized the Irish flag and served as Montana's first governor. Then, while suffering a "bowel complaint," he fell in a river and drowned. Where: The All-Ireland Cultural Society hosts its 63rd annual Paddy's Day Celebration at Holy Rosary Church (376 NE Clackamas St., 691-2078). Ceili music, step-dancing and Guinness-drinking spark this tradition-minded party, where your plastic leprechaun hat may or may not be appropriate attire. 11:30 am-9:30 pm Sunday. Cover.

STEP FOUR: Recount spurious encounters with Irish quasi-celebs: "You guys know I drank with Davy Carton of the Saw Doctors at the Bloody Stag in Tuam, right?" Where: The Green Room (2280 NW Thurman St., 228-6178) goes totally eclectic for the weekend. Jackstraw, Freak Mountain Ramblers and Spigot play bluegrass (arguably sorta-kinda of Irish extraction) on Friday. The Tex-Mex-flava R&B of Iguanas headlines Saturday. Dublin pub-rockers the Druids headline Sunday, supported by Tony Furtado, Sugar Beets and a grab-bag of Celtic acts. 6 pm Friday, $10. 8 pm Saturday, $15. 3 pm Sunday, $10.

STEP FIVE: Inflict a teary, off-key rendition of "The Patriot Game" on your companions. If you remember all (or any) lyrics, you need to keep drinking. Where: Legend has it that Biddy McGraw's (6000 NE Glisan St., 233-1178) pours Portland's best Guinness pint. Certainty has it that Jackstraw, Felim Egan, McGnarley's Rant and Cul an Ti play this most excellent pub Sunday night. 8 pm Sunday. $5 before 6 pm, $10 after.

STEP SIX: Wax poetic on your hopes for peace in Northern Ireland. Where: Moon & Sixpence (2014 NE 42nd St., 288-7802), a British pub, represents for its Irish brethren. Old Time masters Foghorn Leghorn play Saturday night; Cul an Ti and Seamus Egan highlight a daylong Sunday fete. 8 pm Saturday, $3. Noon-2 am Sunday, $10.

STEP SEVEN: Nurse your hangover and wait for Cinco de Mayo, ya freakin' wannabe.

See Headout and Music Listings for more St. Pat's frivolity.