Mandrake Project has to be the only band in Club Café's history to cram seven members and two full drum kits onto the tiny stage. Which meant last Saturday's show was something I had to see. Mandrake's long, late-night set started with a bang and ended with a final, crushing crescendo as Rick Nelson shredded on a viola and violin simultaneously. The low-key jazzier numbers in the middle of the set seemed to kill some of the momentum (no reflection upon accomplished saxophonist Darnell Anderson), though with another drink or two in me I wouldn't have minded.
The real surprise, though, was opener Ishtar: Belly-dancing music rules. Even though patrons seemed to assume it was just background music, the quartet and the two sinuous belly-dancers created a heady atmosphere that eventually ensnared the chatty crowd. Accompanied by doumbek and other percussion, Melissa Murphey's clarinet and Jeff Chmielarski's fretless bass wove intricate modal patterns from the exotic time signatures and melodies. Catch Ishtar this week at Zenith Café's Sunday brunch, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Feb. 18.
Music conferences can give new acts a chance to play in front of the suits, and if Def Jam isn't exactly beating a path to your door, hey, that's worth something. This weekend's Millennium Music Conference, in Harrisburg, isn't among the most prominent, but I was still shocked that, out of the more than 200 mostly Pennsylvania-based groups playing showcases, I could find only one hailing from Pittsburgh. And that band, alternative metal act Burning Earth, isn't even entirely from here: it's a couple of former members of the defunct Psychedelic Kitchen and some dudes from Uniontown.
A couple of well-known local bands have played the conference in the past and been ambivalent about the experience, but it still seems strange. I'm heading to Harrisburg to case the joint; I'll pass along whatever consumer reports or dark conspiracies come to light.
Fans of folk-pop and country-tinged indie rock should mark their calendars for local act Lohio, playing at Brillobox on Feb. 24 with Ennui. A supergroup of sorts, comprised of members of Chad Sipes Stereo, Pleasure Technicians, Blindsider and The You, and featuring the plaintive voice of Greg Dutton, Lohio will release a new EP at the show, called Sleeping Stereo. You can also tune in to WRCT to catch the band live in the studio on Feb. 21.