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At the recent Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Herbie Hancock appeared with the Headhunters 2005, which included Roy Hargrove, Marcus Miller and John Mayer (yes, that John Mayer), among others.

"I think that's a bold statement for Herbie," Rebecca Barry says. Her recent independently released CD, Rebecca Barry and the Headhunters, features the New Orleans sax player and vocalist with Paul Jackson on bass, Mike Clark on drums and Bill Summers on percussion -- the Headhunters' rhythm section when Hancock first ventured into jazz-funk fusion in 1973. "Those guys are the Headhunters," Barry says. "You can never replace Paul and Mike and Bill. Those three have a sound that nobody can match."

Barry's adventure with the Headhunters began when she joined them onstage at the Howlin' Wolf this past Mardi Gras. Afterwards, Jackson heard tracks from her Bust album and was so impressed with her singing that he wanted to record with her. The catch? Jackson and Clark couldn't fit more than a day for recording into their schedule.

"I did a Mardi Gras ball gig with the Jimmy Maxwell Orchestra, then went and wrote all night," Barry says, "including lyrics. We recorded (on) Lundi Gras." Unfortunately, the computer at Green Street Studios crashed during the session, limiting how much could be done. On top of that, she says, "we couldn't record past 9 p.m. because the neighbors will call the police." Fortunately, Jackson and Clark were willing to return in April and Summers lives here, so Barry used the time to work more on the material.

"I wrote for their style," she says. "Not all of it is. 'Poverty,' that's more of a funk thing, and the two that Mike (Pellera, who plays keyboards on three tracks) and I wrote are a little different from theirs, but they sound great on them." Once recording was completed, Summers added most of his parts, layering in percussion parts one instrument at a time. "There are maybe 30 tracks of percussion," she says. "That takes a lot of time."

Like a good rhythm section, Jackson, Clark and Summers rarely draw attention to themselves, but their steadiness allows Barry to shine as a player on the Mike Clark-penned "Loft Funk," while they subtly support the vocal melodies on tracks such as "New York Minute" and Talk About You," two of the album's strongest songs.

The time between sessions, Barry says, was probably for the best. "When you first go in the studio, you don't really know each other," she says. "After a couple of days, you're like old friends in the studio and you're much more comfortable." So comfortable, she says, that they hope to tour together this fall.

Rhino Records' 7-disc Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box recently arrived, and Better Than Ezra's "Good" is on it alongside songs by alternative radio contemporaries Soul Asylum, Spin Doctors, Dinosaur Jr., the Gin Blossoms and Marcy Playground, among others. Where are they now? Billy Corgan just released TheFutureEmbrace, continuing to deal with his Smashing Pumpkins-related baggage in public, but Better Than Ezra has endured without lineup changes. In fact, New Orleans' favorite pop-rock band (by way of Baton Rouge) shows that, on its latest release, Before the Robots (Artemis), the band is thriving.

The BTE signature is most obvious on "Burned." A stop-and-start chord pattern in the verse over Travis McNabb's rolling drums leads to a bouncy pre-chorus as Kevin Griffin's guitar stars an energetic strum. After a stop, it resolves with an uplifting chorus over an ascending melodic line.

But the album never sounds formulaic. "It's Only Natural" opens with McNabb's snare receiving dub reggae reverb before Tom Drummond's bass sneaks in. Griffin's vocals are hushed in this seduction song, as if he's in his girl's room while her folks are downstairs watching TV. There's just a hint of lasciviousness when he tells the girl in his falsetto, "Don't fight it if it feels good" -- a sentiment the backing vocalists echo, muffled, as if they're watching from the closet. He then takes the thought to its logical conclusion: "What are you and me but monkeys in a tree / it's only natural."

That attention to the details of pop has made BTE as consistent as it is, and it almost gets them through "A Southern Thing" and "Juicy," though not quite. The first is a Gulf Coast tale of drugs, robbery and violence that seems remote from Griffin's experiences, while the latter shows too much of a debt to Prince to hang with the rest of the album.

Those hiccups aside, what's surprising about Before the Robots is that the band sounds as comfortable in its own skin as it always has. It didn't try to get away then re-find itself as Trent Reznor has done with Nine Inch Nails, and it didn't run out of songs like so many of its contemporaries. It doesn't treat its sound and subject matter as a trap to escape, so the new album delivers the simple, direct pleasures BTE's fans are used to.

For a review of a new CD by Paul Westerberg, a DVD by the MC5, and Keane in concert, see Opening Act 2.

click to enlarge Faced with the prospect of recording with the - Headhunters, "I did a Mardi Gras ball gig with the Jimmy - Maxwell Orchestra, then went and wrote all night," - Rebecca Barry says.
  • Faced with the prospect of recording with the Headhunters, "I did a Mardi Gras ball gig with the Jimmy Maxwell Orchestra, then went and wrote all night," Rebecca Barry says.
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