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2005-01-19

By Buddy Blue

I'm a know-it-all and a blowhard, I'm well aware of that (thanks to those who've pointed it out, though). This is probably borne of a catalog of undignified, undiagnosed psychological complexes, but I don't care; I like myself this way. Flaunting my unrivaled knowledge of and impeccable taste in American roots music (well, unrivaled by anyone I know save Lou Curtiss) likely irritates thousands of trendy lowbrows each week, and I glean tremendous delight from this. But today, I am here to humble myself and 'fess up to a gaping hole in the ol' brainial database: I may be a walking encyclopedia of Americana, but I know jack-diddley-boo-squat from Celtic and other traditional European/Anglophile folk musics.

There, I said it.

I'm particularly embarrassed that I'd never heard Irish folkies the Chieftains' until they recorded the superb "Irish Heartbeat" album with Van Morrison in 1988; this was more than 20 years after the group's debut, so shame on me! "Irish Heartbeat" remains my all-time fave Morrison album lo these many years later, and I've since atoned for my Chieftans-ignorance by purchasing several of their CDs, a lead I strongly suggest you follow. I've been delighted by every note on every disc; this is a group that apparently never produces anything less than Perfect music.

The Cheiftains' sound is haunting, stirring, sentimental and life-affirming; brimming with equal measures of joy, melancholy, history and spirituality. Pipes, tin whistles, bells and winds merge with exotic string and percussion instruments I can neither spell nor pronounce, so I won't bother trying. Vocally, the Chieftains are fairly nondescript - serviceable if unspectacular - but vocals ain't the point here, it's the gorgeous, stirring acoustic wonderfulness of the instrumentals that serve as a rich truffle for the soul. Besides, the group regularly records with an abundant array of great guest singers: Morrison, Lyle Lovett, Ricky Skaggs, Roger Daltry, Diana Krall, Joni Mitchell; far too many others to list here.

The very thought of the Chieftans in concert this Saturday at California Center for the Arts Escondido -- an elegant venue with exceptional acoustics -- makes my ears tickle in anticipation; attend this performance and you're guaranteed to leave the room with a smile on your face and a glow in your heart.

Aretha Franklin is known as the Queen Of Soul, but I maintain that Franklin's more like a Princess -- Gladys Knight is the real Queen in exile; at full force she could make 'Retha beg for mercy. The key words here, though, are "in exile." Knight has grown artistically complacent, settling into a career as, alternately, a mawkish AOR crooner and/or urban contemporary R&B schlockmistress, deigning to sell records to, alternately, insipid white yuppies in tasseled loafers and/or insipid black teen-agers in the favored-athletic-shoes-of-the-month. This unfortunate turn of events is akin to Michael Jordan's disastrous and improvident baseball gig, but Jordan had the good sense to come home in short order, whereas Knight has languished in Lamesville for three decades now.

At her best, Knight's Jesus-on-the-mainline vocals are rivaled only by Mavis Staples, who spent most of her career performing gospel, which is why hers isn't a household name like Gladys's and Aretha's. The power and emotion Knight infused into such classics as "Midnight Train To Georgia, "Friendship Train," "I've Got To Use My Imagination," "Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)" and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" - hers is the original and definitive version; few can lay claim to having smoked Marvin Gaye - makes me eternally grateful to have been living on this planet during the heyday of soul music. In fact, it's enough to make this Hebrew go on a binge of eating smoked pork by-products.

Because of the schizo nature of Knight's career, I'm not sure whether or not to recommend her appearance at Harrah's Rincon on Thursday night, but if she performs the abovementioned material, as I suspect she will, it'll probably be worth having to endure whatever else she shovels at us during the course of the evening. Hint: pray to your Sweet Jesus for an omission of Knight's bloodcurdling rendition of "The Way We Were /Try To Remember."