One month ago in Austin, Texas, during the annual South by Southwest Music & Media Conference, Toadies singer-songwriter-guitarist Todd Lewis tested the working order of a peculiar-looking two-microphone setup prior to the band's 40-minute show at the cavernous Liberty Lunch club. As he did so, moving his head back and forth between the side-by-side mikes, muttering into each, a San Francisco-based music writer leaned into me and said, "Ut-oh, looks like we're in for some art."

Far from it, actually. The Ft. Worth-based Toadies A Lewis, bassist Lisa Umbarger, guitarist Darrel Herbert, drummer Mark Reznicek A sprinted through an intensely ecstatic set, mostly drawn from their recent album Rubberneck, lashing together hard, precise rhythms with hooky, gnarled melodies and Lewis's mildly possessed vocals (he barely touched his "second" mike, rigged to lend his voice a distorto, phoned-in-from-another-planet effect). Artful, yeah A at least in a pop-punky way; arty, no.

Equally galvanizing on Rubberneck, Toadies mix the sludgy, hormone-fueled "Possum Kingdom" with the punchy, roaring "Quitter" with the sine-wavering Texas travelogue "Tyler," as Lewis dabbles in benign sexual obsession throughout. Like Nirvana on Nevermind, the band goes from a whisper to a scream in a nanosecond, hunkering down and flying in under the radar on the verses, then experiencing harrowing meltdown on the choruses. Lewis roams a ravaged emotional landscape, from vein-bulging rage ("Velvet") to self-immolating catharsis ("I Burn"), repeatedly conjuring up elemental imagery (especially on the Darwin-with-a-grimace "I Come From the Water" and the baptismal "Backslider") in his search for some kind of spiritual or secular salvation. Hell, the first words out of his mouth are "Are you gonna save me?" on the mocking "Mister Love." Relentlessly potent and riveting, Rubberneck never strays from more than shouting distance of rock's sonic ground zero. You burn.

-- Michael Yockel

Toadies perform at 10:30 tonight (Thursday) at Jessie's, 615 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 538-6688. Admission is seven dollars.

Various artists
Golden Throats 3: Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive

What an utter failure this turned out to be. The earlier entries in this supposed-to-be-sick series of reissue compilations were over-the-top entertainment A you have not lived until you've heard William Shatner chew the clouds of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." In case you missed it, the idea here is to cull exotically horrible tunes recorded by people famous for things other than their singing. The first two albums lived up to expectations: Popular stars of the past butchering popular songs of the past like so much veal. Hilarious. Charming. Embarrassing. But this latest version A dedicated to country music, with the likes of Leonard Nimoy (a Golden Throats veteran), Lorne Greene, and Goldie Hawn having their way with Nashville ditties A sounds okay by any standard.

The crazies at Rhino take delight in satirical press materials A "delight in the warm, dulcet tones of Lorne Greene as he serenades you...with 'Ringo (French Version)'" states one tongue-in-cheek press release. The failure? Greene's charging French rendition is not bad at all. Game-show robot Wink Martindale nails "Peace in the Valley." Pushup king and all-time best-bad-guy actor Jack Palance evinces appropriate nostalgia in "The Green, Green Grass of Home." And Slim Pickens is only slightly too histrionic in a truly tear-jerking moan of "Desperados Waiting for a Train." As country records go, especially nowadays, Sweethearts is a good record. And nobody expected, or wanted, that.

-- Greg Baker

Grant Lee Buffalo
Mighty Joe Moon

Grant Lee Buffalo comes on like one of those cartoon-character balloons that populate the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: grotesquely huge, tethered to the ground so it won't float away, and, not incidentally, full of air. Throughout Mighty Joe Moon, the band's second album, singer-songwriter-guitarist Grant Lee Phillips howls and moans allusively about the peccadilloes of the human condition (American division), while bassist Paul Kimble, in his role as producer, inflates the trio's sound (not forgetting drummer Joey Peters) to orotund proportions. Let the air out of Phillips's lit-mag musings and strip away Kimble's multilayered aural bombast, as Grant Lee Buffalo does here on the gossamer "It's a Life," and you're left with the alterative Jim Croce.

Mostly, though, the trio huffs and puffs to no particular end, substituting the illusion of substance for the real thing: equal parts latter-day U2, Lloyd Cole with his sense of humor surgically removed, and ersatz American Music Club. Ultimately, despite the dense mix, despite the over-earnest vocals, despite the brooding poetry-workshop lyrics, G.L. Buffalo's relentlessly joyless midtempo songs add up to nothing more than beaucoup de heavy petting, the band having checked the possibility of an orgasm at the door. Tellingly, when Phillips sings "I'm overwrought" on "Mockingbirds," he deftly encapsulates his vision.

-- Michael Yockel

Grant Lee Buffalo performs with the cranberries at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Sunrise Musical Theatre, 5555 NW 95th Ave; 741-7300. Tickets cost $20 and $23.

Phil Alvin
County Fair 2000
(Hightone Records)

Not as manic as the Blasters at full-tilt (but what is?). Campy retrobilly R&B meets swing, Dixieland, and Tin Pan Alley as Alvin teams up with the likes of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Cesar Rosas, Mary Franklin, Fayard Nicholas, and Ike Williams.

-- Todd Anthony

Gary Primich
Travelin' Mood
(Flying Fish)

Sure, it's a gimmick, using a snatch of answering machine message A complete with beep A to begin a song (check out Mick Taylor's bleary whining in the intro to John Mayall's "Wake Up Call"). But when that message is from none other than the great R&B shouter Jerry McCain, and Jerry is reciting lyrics to one of his hits --"Ding Dong Daddy" -- you kinda want to share your elation.

And that's just what Austin harmonica king Gary Primich does on his raucous reprise of McCain's classic, one of fourteen tracks on this solid new disc. Primich is no McCain when it comes to singing (he's closer to white interpreters such as Kim Wilson and William Clarke, though he manages to sound appropriately jive on a cover of Louis Jordan's "Knock Me a Kiss"), but he beautifully nails the feel and swing of Forties and Fifties R&B, thanks to some crackerjack backing and, of course, his Little Walter-inspired blues harp. Like fellow Austinite Wilson (of Thunderbirds fame), Primich makes full use of the fuzzy distortion afforded by blowing harp hard as hell into a handheld mike, a practice made de rigueur by Walter.

Primich digs deeper into the blues trunk, offering a couple of acoustic gems such as Sonny Boy Williamson's "She Was a Dreamer" and Memphis Slim's "Beer Drinkin' Woman." But his real forte is jukebox boogie, the kind that rolled out of the barrelhouses and into the clubs of Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago. Primich's original material, from the rollicking "House Rockin' Party" to the Mose Allison-cool "School of Hard Knocks" (featuring some icy licks from guitarist Shorty Lenoir, who shines throughout) to the speed-limit-defying "Put the Hammer Down" are loving and well-crafted tributes to the genre.

Two other standouts: an instrumental romp through Duke Ellington's "Caravan," which retains its Cotton Club sophistication despite being played on the most down-home of all instruments, and the title track, a bouncy N'Awlin's ditty recorded some twenty years ago by Dr. John.

Great driving music, Travelin' Mood will put you in one.
-- Bob Weinberg

Gary Primich performs tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday night at 10:00 at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave; 374-1198. Admission is six dollars.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony
Greg Baker
Bob Weinberg
Michael Yockel