The problem with most makers of electronic dance music is that they're boring to watch. Sure, superstar DJs exist -- rich, indolent dudes with eccentric facial hair who reign over the hipster enclaves of Ibiza and Miami -- but they're famous in spite of themselves. They're known for the sounds they create, not the way they perform -- and, with the exception of expat electroslut Peaches and a handful of her filthy friends, there's no strutting, preening or pouting, no clutching at crotches, no swinging of Strats, no humping of microphone stands. Eminem was lying when he told his boyfriend Moby to "let go, it's over, nobody listens to techno." Techno's everywhere -- selling cars, filling clubs, classing up the sushi joints, whipping up the step-aerobics classes -- but you're not gonna see its creators airbrushed, supine and half-naked on the covers of Spin and Rolling Stone.
It's not that these guys (and, very occasionally, gals) can't command attention because they lack personality; it's just that the focus shifts from the performers to the audience. People don't go to dance clubs to stand around slack-jawed with their arms folded, gaze at the Dionysian gods onstage, jam out to the totally killer chordage. People go to dance clubs to dance, to see and be seen, to get down with the beautiful youth in their sparkly raiment. They're checking out each other, not the nerd in the booth who's hunched over his turntables or computer.
The relative anonymity -- or marginality -- of the modern dance-music star tends to alienate rock fans, accustomed as they are to more vicarious pleasures. They want their stars to be stars, goddamn it, all fascinating and fuckable, not paunchy geeks, all UNIX-literate and bespectacled. That's what makes Urban Jazz Naturals the ideal gateway drug for those of the rockist persuasion. The popular quartet melds jazzy house, chilly lounge, soulful funk and twitchy electronica into a sophisticated but not overly cerebral sound that's all its own, one that gets crowds moving but also makes crowds watch. During the 2002 RFT Music Awards show, frontwoman Dawn Weber bounced around the Pageant stage like some animé Pippi Longstocking, blowing her trumpet and flügelhorn, singing and dancing and leaving long lines of thumping hearts in her pixie-dust wake. She's got style to spare, and her three bandmates -- programmer/sampler/sound-manipulator Don Tinsley, keyboardist Mo Egeston and programmer/synth-tinkler/guitarist Christian Oncken -- are also fun to watch, although not quite as charismatic as Weber (in all fairness, Jesus probably wasn't as charismatic as Weber). In any case, UJN actually perform everything they play, which is, at least in this context, something of a distinction in itself.
Their self-titled five-track CD/EP is a slinky, sexy little thing, studded with deep beats and unexpected atmospheric touches, the kind of disc that slips easily from the car stereo to the party boombox. To celebrate its release, UJN performs at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room on Saturday, February 8. Also on the bill is Weber and Egeston's other band, Vargas (formerly Vargas Swing), a sextet specializing in jazz, Latin music, soul, funk and rock. See www.urbanjazznaturals.com for more information.
Alt-country aficionados might as well camp out at Frederick's Music Lounge this weekend, because two of St. Louis' most talented and least ubiquitous (funny how those things go together so often!) outfits will hold court at the South Side institution. On Friday night, Magnolia Summer takes the tiny stage; the last time we saw the band there, we were enchanted by the fragile loveliness of Chris Grabau's folk-rock ballads, the Velvet Underground-ish drone and quaver of Jeremy Brown's violin (note: violin, not fiddle) and the virtuosic but never showboaty runs of John Horton's electric guitar. Since his days in Stillwater, Grabau has been tempering his rootsy proclivities with a more experimental approach, and it's working out very well indeed. Magnolia Summer's first CD, Levers and Pulleys, will be released in March on Undertow Records.
On Saturday night, Frederick's welcomes perennial favorite Larissa Dalle, whose bout with cancer last year interrupted her performance schedule. "My whole time in the cancer pen is over," Dalle announced recently by e-mail. "I broke free and am running." Watch her celebrate her victory over the Big C, and expect a few surprises. She's accompanied by the Wormwood Scrubs Electrical Band (nope, we've never heard of them, either). Also on the bill are the Doxies, a roots-rock band from Columbia, Missouri, and Toni Catlin, a singer/songwriter from Nashville.