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SOUTH GRAND TOUR: Despite the virtual muzzle placed on South Grand clubs by the powers that be in the area ("No live rock music or we'll harass the hell out of you"), the neighborhood has slowly evolved into one of the best districts in town to hear new music at clubs -- it just isn't usually played by bands.

Rather, good taste and wonderful sound systems have been combined to yield a new-music fanatic's paradise at the Upstairs Lounge, Mangia and CBGB's, three clubs lined in a row that cater to a youngish crowd with adventuresome taste. At the Upstairs, the schedule is pretty loose; you'll either be hearing a DJ spinning new beat-oriented music -- drum & bass, techno, ambient, big beat, and so on -- or the bartenders will be spinning mostly old lounge mixed with new, softer pop. A recent excursion yielded a great mix of Esquivel, Tipsy, Dol-Lop, Tortoise and the High Llamas. On these nights it's the best club in town to get a drink and listen to music, because the volume's loud enough to expose the sounds but not so loud as to drown out the conversation. On DJ nights, plan on relinquishing control over your conversation, because the music gets too loud to talk over.

Mangia's a restaurant, so the music's soft enough that you can still hear good gossip even if it's whispered, but if you start paying attention you'll discover that you're listening to great music by Tom Waits, Patti Smith or Sly and the Family Stone while you're eating dinner. As the night progresses, real live musicians start waltzing in and setting up; every Saturday night the David Stone Trio plays fantastic classic jazz, and every Monday night You Fantastic! and Phut guitarist Tim Garrigan play acoustic guitar. Neither act plays music too loud to annoy the neighbors -- the central concern of the neighborhood and business associations -- but both manage to triumph in the midst of such adversity.

Bartender Matt Wagner holds the goddamn CD player hostage at CBGB's. At times he'll play the music as loud as any rock band possibly could, but that's not a problem because he's got great taste: The other night I heard Giant Sand, the Beastie Boys, the Geraldine Fibbers, Cat Power and some reggae band blasting from the system. When he gets the shuffle button moving, he's the best rock DJ in town, bar none, and usually manages to pack the place as a result.

All this takes place nearly every night on Grand, between Arsenal and Wyoming. Highly recommended for a night of bar-hopping.

-- Randall Roberts

QUICK FIX: Bassist Tom Kennedy, who has been touring with guitarist Al DiMeola, returns home for the holidays to perform at the Ritz-Carlton's Fireside Jazz Concert Series this Sunday, Dec. 27, from 6-8:30 p.m. Joining Kennedy at the Ritz-Carlton are keyboard player Jay Oliver and other musical friends. Unfortunately, drummer Dave Weckl will not be performing (as reported in the Dec. 9 RFT) and will be replaced by Montez Coleman.

-- Terry Perkins

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