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Those Darlins

Just in time for the harvest, Tennessee country-punk quartet Those Darlins are touring North America, hollering lust anthems like “Red Light Love” (from their new, sophomore release Screws Get Loose) as they travel up the Eastern seaboard. Why is love suddenly in the air? Maybe it’s because in contrast to their last effort, Linwood Regensburg (the only male in the group) joined Jessi, Kelley, and Nikki Darlin on song-writing duties. Catch them playing with NYC’s jangle-punk rockers The Beets at the intimate Bell House.

Fri., Oct. 14, 8 p.m., 2011

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CO-ED NAKED DANCING

After nine years, is burlesque still considered “neo”? At the ninth annual New York Burlesque Festival, many old, beloved names from the city’s artistic stripping scene are appearing during four days of events hosted by Thirsty Girl & Pontani Sisters Productions. To get things started, World Famous *BOB* hosts tonight’s “Teaser Party,” featuring performances by more than a dozen local and national acts. Friday is the official Premiere Party at Brooklyn Bowl, and presiding over the festivities is Scotty the Blue Bunny. Saturday, Murray Hill leads the Saturday Spectacular at B.B. Kings Blues Club & Grill, and on Sunday at Highline Ballroom, Miss Astrid doles out the Oscars of burlesque, the “Golden Pastie Awards.”

Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2011

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COME AND GET IT

Like to eat with your hands? No one will judge you tonight when the Brooklyn Beefsteak returns to the Bell House. Bring a bib or buy a souvenir apron for $15 and chow down at this all-you-can-eat-and-drink beef and beer banquet, inspired by the feasts once held at Tammany Hall. Endless pitchers of New York’s oldest ale, McSorley’s, will be at the ready for thirsty eaters. Those who like to focus on eating only the beef eating-veterans suggest skipping the bread and leaving it stacked—this way people can tell how much meat you’ve eaten by the tower of bread left behind and the grease spots on your apron. How savage!

Sun., Sept. 25, 1 & 5 p.m., 2011

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Shellac

Powered by homemade amps and snarky attitudes, noise rockers Shellac are best experienced live. Whether it’s vocalist-guitarist Steve Albini’s sardonic invective and brutal attacks on his guitar (which he straps onto his belt like a weapon) or his foil, singer-bassist Bob Weston (who welcomes questions from the audience that are usually as mundane as the things Albini condemns), the trio offers no dull moments live. And even if you resist the frontmen’s personas, there’s always drummer Todd Trainer, who looks like a possessed man abusing his kit as a means of exorcism. That actually might be the best sight of all.

Mon., Oct. 3, 8 p.m.; Tue., Oct. 4, 8 p.m., 2011

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A LAUGHING MATTER

Four years ago, Brooklyn alt-comedian Eugene Mirman launched his super low-budget Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival basically as an inside joke between him and his fans, advertising VIP rooms made of cardboard and “a fake awards show.” This year, “the world’s first sincere and ironic comedy festival” raised more than $18,000 on Kickstarter with promises of a science day, a petting zoo, and an “awkward party bus.” (According to Mirman, when you get on the bus, you’re supposed to think: “Oh, this is weird. I kind of like it, but I’m not totally having fun.”) Tonight, the four-day event kicks off with a live broadcast of the radio show StarTalk, featuring comics Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), John Oliver (The Daily Show), and Mirman in conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. Upcoming shows include John Mulaney, Jena Friedman, Hannibal Buress, Jon Glaser, and Tom Shillue.

Sept. 15-18, 2011

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A STAR IS BORN

Please don’t try and deny the fact that you secretly watch American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, or one of the other talent-spotting reality shows out there. And while watching, we also know that you picture yourself competing, because if Clay Aiken has a shot, so do you, dammit! Tonight’s So You Think You’ve Got Talent Idol With the Stars combines the absurdity of all of these shows and puts the spotlight on all of us clearly gifted NYC folk who will have a chance at winning–wait for it!–$150. Witness the raw awesomeness that will be on stage tonight. Whether it’s to showcase their juggling, singing, or eye-twitching skills–it’s sure to be a thing of beauty. Plus, you can always boo the judges for their unwarranted comments–we know you have experience at that.

Thu., Sept. 8, 8 p.m., 2011

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!!!

Celebrating 15 years of having one of the least Google-friendly names in music (the search engine says, “try different keywords”; !!! says, “try ‘chk chk chk'”), the danceable post-punk octet intends to write a new LP after wrapping up this tour. Thing is, !!! are best live, thanks to funky Liquid Liquid-style bass and percussion, frontman Nic Offer’s alpha-male “you must dance” routine and the fact that cramming eight people onto a stage like the Bell House’s is totally entertaining by itself. With Light Asylum and Computer Magic.

Fri., Sept. 9, 8 p.m., 2011

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Mavis Staples Is for the Children

Mavis Staples digs her some younger men, but she’d rather lead them to the studio than the bedroom. “I think it really makes for a good record when you get a young head and an old person together,” says the Staple Singers veteran (and self-described “golden girl”) of You Are Not Alone, her new full-length collaboration with fellow Chicagoan and Wilco boss Jeff Tweedy. A rousing compendium of old-time religion and more contemporary rock tracks (including two Tweedy originals), it’s both critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated (as Best Americana Album). And, no, I don’t have any idea what that category means, either.

This union between the alt-country star and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee/Lifetime Grammy Award recipient/soul icon/black mother I wish had kicked off in 2006. Staples heard that Tweedy wanted to sit in at a hometown gig. She knew about Wilco, as they reminded her of old friends the Band, with whom the Staple Singers—the family-affair r&b sensation, led by the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples, that first propelled Mavis to stardom—appeared in 1978’s The Last Waltz. At the last minute, Tweedy was rendered unavailable, but he (and Wilco) did make it down to the same club a few months later for another show; after the set, he approached Staples about the possibility of recording an album. “He wanted to meet at a restaurant so we could get to know each other better,” Staples explains, her joyfulness transcending the indifference of cell phone reception. “I let him into my life, he let me into his life. We talked about family. That’s what really got me. Because my father always stressed that family is the strongest unit in the world.” With Tweedy, “the way he talked about his family, his sons, his wife, he would just light up. I left feeling very comfortable with him.”

Stocking his iPod with the Staple Singers’ music dating back to the ’50s, Tweedy set about reintroducing Mavis to what had first inspired, informed, and would remain the backbone of that group: the church and the blues. “He was right on cue,” Mavis recalls of traditional tracks like “Creep Along Moses” and “Wonderful Savior.” “I said, ‘Tweedy, where did you get this? These are older than me—my father used to play them for us. I love them, but never thought I’d be singing them, so we gotta put these down. Man.’ This album took me from childhood to my young-lady years to my golden-girl years. It’s my life—it’s just phenomenal.”

Much like Jack White’s work on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose or Rick Rubin’s records with Johnny Cash, You Are Not Alone successfully pays homage without covering Staples in nostalgic bubble wrap. “I think the younger artists listen to us older artists,” she says. “They feel something that they want a part of. They feel like we have been here, we have the wisdom, we know how to take a song where it needs to go. And I think younger artists just wanna be a part of that.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time she’s done the unexpected. Prince executive-produced 1993’s The Voice; at the recently aired Kennedy Center Honors, Staples shared the stage with Steven Tyler as part of a tribute to Paul McCartney. Yet for a woman whose family provided the soundtrack for the civil rights movement, sang at the Newport Folk Festival, and peaked commercially in the ’70s with the pop smashes “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again,” performing at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and Lollapalooza 2010 must have been a trip, looking out over that sea of ironic T-shirts and Civil War beards and wondering why her audience is sprinkled with pesky kids young enough to be her grandchildren. “They are ready to hear us give them what we have,” she explains. “A lot of people think that the youngsters now are just coming over to us, but the Staple Singers’ audience was like from ages eight to 80. But there are more young heads now that Tweedy has produced this CD. I can say, ‘And we’ll be singing you some songs from the new album produced by Jeff Tweedy,’ and the audience will go, ‘Woo!’ So I know that they’re out there. But we still get a mixed audience. And I’m grateful for every year I get. I’m happy just to be seeing these youngsters and working with a kid like Jeff Tweedy.”

Staples’s life remains as rich and distinctive as that burnt-molasses voice, and her connection to her family continues to be sacred and omnipresent. She notes that the date of our interview (December 28) would have been Pops’ 97th birthday. “I wish he could be here to see the things that have happened today and hear these songs,” she tells me. “I can see his face and hear his laughter.”

Mavis Staples plays the Bell House January 18

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Pay Marva Whitney What You Owe Her

Marva Whitney is baking a sweet-potato pie. Generous with the cinnamon and thrifty on the nutmeg, she’ll serve it up during Christmas dinner at the Kansas City retirement home she calls home. “We’re just gonna have a nice Christmas together,” she explains.

Her tone is sweet and gentle, like that of a favored grandmother—a far cry from how she sounded 40 years ago, when she forged a place in funk history thanks to a formidably fearsome voice capable of shrieking in tandem with abrasively syncopated horn blasts, a talent best showcased on an album, It’s My Thing, that exists both because and despite of her creatively fractious relationship with James Brown.

Just like Brown’s other in-house sirens, Lyn Collins and Vicki Anderson, Whitney’s project proved irresistibly tempting to hip-hop producers, most popularly via the opening grooves of “Unwind Yourself,” which were plundered and flipped into the party staple “The 900 Number” or “Let Me Clear My Throat” (by DJ Mark the 45 King or DJ Kool, depending on your vintage). Whitney has never been compensated for the sample; last year, she experienced a more mortal blow when she suffered a stroke onstage in Australia. Her New Year’s Eve show at the Bell House in Brooklyn is her first performance since then.

Whitney’s story starts in Kansas City, where she performed with her family’s gospel troop, but James Brown ignited her career. As she tells it, her manager mentioned Brown was searching for a new female singer when Anderson, then singing for Brown, “went off with Joe Tex.” Having already turned down the opportunity to join Tex himself and Little Richard on tour—”because I was chicken,” says the 66-year-old with an affable laugh—Whitney realized that “There wasn’t too much going through Kansas City. I figured I better do something if I want to do this.”

Brown’s brilliance and infamy overshadows everything and everyone. Whitney readily calls him “a genius,” but also testifies to his demanding reputation. Under his wing, she characterizes the recording of 1969’s It’s My Thing as “hell.” There was no prior peek at a song’s lyrics, no chance to rehearse, no opportunity “to get the crux of the song in your spirit.” They were singing without a script. Being privy to a song’s structure even a half-hour before recording it was a rare luxury. A second vocal take was a privilege. And performances for TV-show spots were worse. “Mr. Brown made it his point to come in there and take the hell out of you before you went on,” she recalls. And it wasn’t personal: “When Mr. Brown came around, everybody knew what the deal was. He didn’t just pick on me—he picked on everybody.”

It’s My Thing, though, shows that Whitney rose to Brown’s provocation. On “You Got to Have a Job,” a post-civil-rights blast of self-determination with Whitney and Brown trilling back and forth, she sounds like she’s trying to thoroughly out-sing her mentor, their vocal sparring threatening to spill over into a warbling catfight. “That night was awful, yes, sir!” she admits with a laugh. “I did not come there to sing that night. What happened was, that’s where we cut ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ I was directing the youths, but all of a sudden, that song [‘Job’] came up, and you had to be ready for whatever he had going on.”

If Brown pushed Whitney to a breaking point, whether by design or personality flaw, his ceaseless quest for the musical ideal inspired her album’s most memorable moments. The songs most sampled by hip-hop artists, including “Unwind Yourself” and “It’s My Thing” (whose intro went on to prep N.W.A.’s fiery “Fuck tha Police”), are the ones that most resemble a studio jam session: Improvised fragments invented on a whim became full tracks. At its peak, the record sounds like a bunch of funk-era ad-libs and catchphrases hollered over tight, plucky grooves. And it worked. Whitney remembers the introductory bars of “Unwind Yourself” as something Brown simply hummed, and the band replayed. The impromptu frustration forged funk gold.

But hip-hop’s homage to It’s My Thing was less kind to Whitney. She first heard DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” in a store. Her reaction? “Oh, they’ve ripped me off again.” (Before that, Mark the 45 King, a Queen Latifah production associate, pitched it down and looped it up for “The 900 Number.”) “Here I am, pinching pennies, and they’re making millions,” she says of the cultural and commercial debt hip-hop owes her. “I can’t get any response from them. I just wish somebody would tell the truth.”

December 2009 made such issues seem trivial. On tour in Australia, Whitney noticed the venue had a smoke machine—something she’d never performed with before. She requested it be turned off. But three songs into a set sparked by “Unwind Yourself,” the gimmick returned, and prompted a stroke. “I felt the racing of my breathing,” she recalls. “I tried to hold on to the microphone and see if I could get some strength from the pole, but I went out.” Taken to a hospital in Geelong, she fully recovered within 24 hours.

Now, if Whitney’s New Year’s Eve show is a success, there are plans to form a touring ensemble of funk femmes with Vicki Anderson and Martha High. With a hardened aplomb that would please Mr. Brown, she explains her resilience: “It’s OK: You fell off the horse—now you gotta get back on. And that’s the way it is.”

Marva Whitney plays the Bell House December 31