Life outside the box

Special to The Times

Eclectic often works better in theory than in reality.

So kudos to the audience at the third annual Sounds Eclectic Evening sponsored by noncommercial radio station KCRW-FM (89.9) Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre for enthusiastically making some aesthetic leaps. In the night's home stretch, the fans embraced conscious-edged hip-hop from Jurassic 5, then the simmering poetic passions of Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice and finally the unbridled joy of Polyphonic Spree.

And credit KCRW, at which music shares airtime with news and culture programming, for having cultivated that audience and aesthetic.

All the acts, diverse as they are, share a sense of quality and of not fitting neatly into boxes. Beck, arguably the poster boy for the KCRW mind-set, made the point himself, tossing in a casual run at Nelly's rap hit "Hot in Herre" alongside heavy-hearted songs from last year's "Sea Change." He hit on the real thread of the night, though, when introducing two songs written by Elliott Smith, who took his own life last month.

"Elliott was a great songwriter," he said, singing the songs even though he feared he'd forget the words (a stagehand had mistakenly thrown away the paper on which they were written). "He wrote these songs well. They can withstand the worst abuses."

The strength of songs, as opposed to sounds or styles, proved to be the heart of the show. Gary Jules opened with a short set of acoustic folksiness echoing early Paul Simon. New KCRW favorite Jem echoed fellow Englishwoman Beth Orton with two heavily enhanced songs but was at her best in her final song, accompanied only by an acoustic guitarist.

Liz Phair, whose current album stirred controversy for the slick pop sense of production team the Matrix, proved a revelation Saturday, favoring instrumental simplicity. The complex wit and insights into emotional games-playing that made her an alternative icon a decade ago bloomed again here, if only because she was singing for fellow adults rather than trying to appeal to teens.

Shelby Lynne, the show's unannounced "surprise" guest, followed with her own eclecticism of gospel, soul-searching and Patsy Cline homage with just an acoustic guitar, drawing from her fine new "Shelby Lynne" album, itself in part a reaction to the overproduction of her previous release.

Jurassic 5 was the least typical act of the show but the most boisterously received for the infectious street-corner interplay of the four rappers, commitment to hip-hop roots and the musical inventiveness of DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark.

For his part, Rice acknowledged that without KCRW music director Nic Harcourt embracing his album "O" a year ago, he might never have even gotten any exposure in the U.S. His set more than lived up to Harcourt's faith, demonstrating the reach and distinctiveness of a Jeff Buckley or Sarah McLachlan. Few artists convey as full an emotional range as Rice and his band, featuring stunning co-singer Lisa Hannigan, did here with natural ease and captivating power.

The Polyphonic Spree is concerned with only one emotion: life-embracing elation. With two dozen singers and musicians (harp, French horn and theremin are among its ranks), the ragged Texas troupe's childlike wonder and percolating, Pepperlandish power of positive singing is the perfect tonic in troubled times.

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