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CL picks the best of the batch

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Let the industry folks figure out for themselves which of the 200-plus acts might make them rich. These Atlantis showcase picks represent some of what our music critics figure will at least make conference attendees happy they came.

ADOM (Thurs., 1 a.m., Cotton Club) -- On paper at least, what this young Atlanta band attempts just shouldn't fly: a laid-back trip-hop groove, layered with equal parts Eno-esque atmospherics and radio-ready melodies, topped-off with a singer who evokes more than a passing vocal similarity to Sting. Egads -- pass the Motorhead discs! But amazingly, it does work, at times quite beautifully. Adom possess an ineffable originality that acknowledges musical debts without blatantly aping them. Thus while Portishead's brittle grooves permeate their songs, the band eschews Euro-cool detachment for a warmer, dare-I-say sexier groove that connects emotionally and intellectually. As for the Sting thing, let's just say that self-important, crusty old fart hasn't sounded this enthusiastic -- or downright lusty -- since he sang about hookers. Adom, throwing caution (not to mention commercial viability) to the wind, seem hellbent on pursuing their own musical path. In a world rife with cookie-cutter mentalities, that's a damn refreshing conceit indeed. (Robertson)

AUDRA AND THE ANTIDOTE (Fri., 10 p.m., Echo Lounge) -- New-wavers Audra and the Antidote may be the only band to feature a contortionist lead singer. The quirky Nashville-based group opens its set with an instrumental as frontwoman Audra Coldiron performs gravity-defying poses centerstage. Coldiron is a powerful audio/visual treat. When she's not banging chords on a Rickenbacker as her band rages behind her or using a telephone as a microphone, she's doing handstands, backbends and all sorts of athletics during the instrumental breaks. With their MP3 hit "Jenny's Got a Boyfriend" as the usual set closer, Audra and company should be just the Antidote for a cool evening of danceable and candy-coated pop rock goodies. (Smith)

BLACK MOLLYS (Sat., 9 p.m., Star Bar) -- "Kirkwood," exclaims a violent answering machine voice. The story seems urgent. Vocal lines yell out familiar Cabbagetown street names from the 7-inch vinyl. The voice is like that of some fallen teenager from a pulp junky novel looking for the all-important medication. Such are the musical paintings on a canvas placed a little left of center from most Atlanta bands. Standing nearly alone under the gone-but-not-forgotten marquee of noise rock is Atlanta's Black Mollys. Constructed from the ashes of Estrada, the Mollys look to the post-punk guitar noise of bands like the Jesus Lizard, Unsane and even vintage Nirvana as influences. Their bi-polar sound is an inviting detour to those looking for the back alley of the Atlanta music scene. (Hatcher)

DEZERAY'S HAMMER (Sat., 12 a.m., Cotton Club) -- God bless Aaron Whisnant. He has as many melodic chops as any alt-rocker of his generation (Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath included) and continues to turn out gobs of radio-ready tuneage, yet can't convince the music industry to treat him right. His vault of unreleased material (including the still-relevant, permanently shelved 1997 Universal/MCA album by his former band, Albert Hill) would be a goldmine for any label, so there's absolutely no reason why he and his Dezeray's Hammer bandmates Kenny Hogan (drums) and Chris Francisco (bass) aren't already stars. Perhaps their latest self-titled album, loaded as it is with as many hooks as Whisnant could fit into a 74-minute CD, will gain the band the airplay it deserves. Until then, the world will just have to enjoy Dezeray's Hammer onstage and on record. (York)

THE EX-HUSBANDS (Sat., 1 a.m., Echo Lounge) -- Originally from New York City, the Hubs relocated to Nashville a couple of years ago, but have found their niche on the road. After a scorching Bubbapalooza appearance in May, it'll be great to see them back in town for another hot set of hillbilly metal. Their two CDs demonstrate honky tonk know-how, but the live show really earns this band their hardcore reputation. Fine picking and vocals are perfectly complimented by a hard bassline and powerful, steady drumming. Whether whipping out a great original country tune in the style of the mid -'70s Outlaw movement or tearing through a cover of a Black Sabbath song, the Ex-Husbands prove over and over they're a band to be reckoned with. Too bad the Nashville industry is scared to death of anything so exciting. (Kelly)

FRISBIE (Sat., 10 p.m., Tabernacle) -- It doesn't take long to separate the wheat from the chaff in the guitar-jangling, chorus-hoarding, melody-loving power-pop genre, and within a few bars of "Let's Get Started" from Frisbie's debut The Subversive Sounds of Love, I knew I was hooked. Sure this Chicago quintet handily takes care of pop business (ahhh, melody!), but a refreshing fondness for subtle minor key hooks and witty lyrics distinguishes them from all the other frosh at good old Beatles U. Occupying hallowed pop ground roughly between the Hollies and Zumpano, Frisbie may be too clever by half for wide-spread, commercial acceptance, but the shame is ours, not theirs. Fellow pop nuts (and other open-minded souls) are enthusiastically pointed in their direction. (Robertson)

AMANDA GARRIGUES (Thurs., 12:40 a.m., 7 Stages/back) -- Gainesville, Fla., native songwriter Amanda Garrigues first entered the music scene in the late '80s as a member of a band called Big Shoals Tract. Her delicate mix of pretty, swirling melodies over a strong and propulsive percussion set the tone of her current solo, self-released acoustic work on her own label, Average Sinner Records. "I'm really just interested in making good music," she says of her modest operation, "but the business side is very interesting to me as well." A recent alliance with Internet organizations MP3.com, Indiegrrl and the Society of Independent Musical Artists have featured Garrigues on several compilation CDs and tours. SIMA is a new group fighting for artists rights for digital downloads. "It's the power of the Internet, " she says, "the power of people wanting to make a change." (Smith)

GENTLE READERS (Fri., 10 p.m., Riviera) -- This Decatur-based quartet were one of the highlights of last year's conference. Their easy-going sound recalls the best of '70s New York cool, but with a slice of Southern gothic thrown in to confound and please intelligent listeners. Witty and literate, the Readers can rock with gleeful abandon through pathos-dripping vignettes. Susan Fitzsimmons and Lee Cuthbert keep the Gentle crew rooted in the finest traditions of warm '60s guitar jangle, chilly '70s Manhattan art-school punk, colorful '80s pop smarts and an angular '90s retro bent. With a mix like that, can world domination be far off? (Smith)

MARK INSLEY (Thurs., 11 p.m., Star Bar) -- Mark Insley is one of the contemporary purveyors of the Bakersfield/West Coast country sound popularized by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and he does it true to form. His hard to find CD Good Country Junk is a fine collection of tunes, with several members of Dwight Yoakam's band providing instrumentation and production. Vocally, Insley sounds a lot like Jim Lauderdale, and his original songs capture the essence of California twang. He may be virtually unknown in these parts, but supporters of the local Redneck Underground bands will find a kindred spirit in Insley, and he just might surprise the hell out of a lot of folks. (Kelly)

KICKSTAND (Fri., 9 p.m., Star Bar) -- No, that isn't Keith Richards. It's Atlanta's own rockin' Ray Dafrico, Richards' younger and perhaps even more talented lookalike. Over the years Dafrico has played in an assortment of Atlanta bands, going back to the Niteporters in the early '80s (a group which had the distinction of opening for the Clash at the Fox Theater), but lately he's divided his time between the powerhouse rock band Kathleen Turner Overdrive and a much more personal little ensemble, Kickstand, which provides the perfect vehicle for Dafrico's clever, R&B-influenced songwriting and his distinctive, reedy yet smooth voice. Always backed by expert players, Dafrico puts on a fine show. As Tim Nielsen of drivin' n cryin' observed recently, "Ray's always been rock star material, but has never had the chance to be one." (Nicoll)

JOHNNY KNOX (Thurs., 1 a.m., Riviera) -- There are guitar players, and then there are guitarists; and positioned firmly in the latter camp is Atlanta's Johnny Knox. Whether he's fronting his own bluesrockin' trio (whose big-as-Texas sound invites favorable comparison to Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble) or filling in with the Blacktop Rockets (whose authentic '50s rockabilly evokes the original Johnny Burnette Trio), Knox rocks. With a distinct, eye-catching look -- his hair combed in a two-story black quiff, and his chin darkened by a subtle black Van Dyke -- Knox is one of the rare "gunslinger" guitarists who's been offered endorsement deals both from guitar-makers and the manufacturers of hair-care products. What he's currently hoping for -- and richly deserves -- is similar attention from a record label. (Nicoll)

GRETA LEE (Thurs., 12 a.m., Star Bar) -- If Merle Haggard was an attractive young woman, he might well be Greta Lee. Proudly a fixture on Atlanta's Redneck Underground scene -- as well as a regular at various acoustic venues -- Ms. Lee writes original country tunes which could match Merle's own bottle-for-bottle. Often clad in buckskin and tossing her head back joyfully as she plays guitar with her band, Lee also invites comparison to classic female country stars such as Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. For a number of years now she's had the good fortune to include guitarist John Byrd in her core stage band. Byrd's remarkable talent for wringing pedal steel sounds out of an electric guitar has been a tremendous asset to Lee's sparkling concert performances. (Nicoll)

LIFT (Fri., 9 p.m., Echo Lounge) -- If it took the world more than a decade to recognize Aimee Mann's exquisite songwriting, then Molly Bancroft's day in the sun is surely nigh. Her band Lift has been on the road and in and out of the studio for years, putting out consistently killer independent releases (last year's EP September is a standout) and garnering a huge fanbase, both live and on the Internet. Originally a quartet, Lift gracefully weathered personnel changes in the late '90s, but have come into their own as a power trio, with Bancroft, original bassist Julie Clark and drummer Simone Simonton intact. The girls' reputation as a kick-ass-yet-sensitive all-chick band is no longer the only thing that precedes them; by now everyone knows it's the energy and emotional crescendo of songs such as "Let It Out" and "Even If (It Is Love)" that keep crowds coming back for more. (York)

MOE LOUGHRAN (Thurs., 9 p.m., Riviera) -- Nashville-based Loughran is a talented singer/songwriter currently in the middle of a major-label bidding war. Several record companies are flying in to check her out, so it seems she'll be recording for a big label in the very near future. Loughran currently tours the U.S. frequently and records demos and jingles for national accounts during stop-overs in Nashville. Her performance at Woodstock '99 so impressed industry big-wigs that showcases were immediately set-up for the attractive red-head and her band. The Loughran gig seems destined to be the place to be for A&R spotting and some good music as well. (Smith)

MYSSOURI (Thurs., 12 a.m., Echo Lounge) -- Fronted by Michael Bradley, whose shaved-bald head gleams like an exposed bone, Myssouri is a mystical Atlanta-based darkwave band who cast themselves in the tradition of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- with a generous dollop of 16 Horsepower's gloomy and haunting 19th century spirit and a hint of grandeur drawn from a galloping Ennio Morricone spaghetti western film score. Bradley's voice is deep and expressive, his songs chilling and memorable, and the group's stage presentation nearly hypnotic. Though by no means a goth band, Myssouri draws plenty of fans from the dark-eyeliner set, yet their appeal goes well beyond music scene factionalism. (Nicoll)

PSYCHEDELIC FURS (Fri., 12 a.m., Tabernacle) -- In rare form on the Go-Go's/B-52's Summer Road Trip tour, the reformed Psychedelic Furs -- Richard Butler, his brother Tim and guitarist John Ashton, along with a couple of guys Butler brought along from his mid-90s band Love Spit Love -- won over the audience (an odd mix of grown-up frat kids, fag hags and drag queens). It wasn't just the ring of the oldies ("Pretty in Pink," "The Ghost in You," "Love My Way") that got the crowd hip-swaying and arm-waving, but also a few new songs from the band. Droning guitars, complemented by flecks of minor-key synthesizer riffs and Richard Butler's distinctively English vocals, are still the band's talent, and their flair for onstage drama is as present today as it was in the '80s. And what's more, Butler still looks good in black. (York)

DORIA ROBERTS (Thurs., 10:40 p.m., 7 Stages/back) -- One of Atlanta's most popular acoustic musicians, Doria Roberts has been perched on the teetering precipice of success for so long, it's just a matter of time before something gives. Not only has she earned notice for her unique combination of jazz, soul, blues and folk (gotta love that cello in her combo), but her high profile work as founder of Queerstock has provided essential national visibility. Roberts' local fans are so dedicated, they pay for her albums before they're even recorded, giving the perennially cash-strapped singer much needed financial resources to keep her going. Politically correct, but far from preachy, Roberts connects on stage with her self-confidence, determination, effortlessly melodic tunes and a heartfelt, soulful and instantly distinctive voice. (Horowitz)

SMITHWICK MACHINE (Sat., 10 p.m., Dark Horse Tavern) -- Scorching out of Alabama at damn near the speed of sound comes Smithwick Machine, ferociously paced rockers whose wild, fasten-your-seatbelts blast recalls the motor-revving of the MC5, the raw power of the Stooges and the fuzz tone bomp of the Ramones. There are also elements of glam and arena rock in the Machine's presentation, ranging from the sometimes wild outfits the boys wear to the gold metalflake finish on frontman Sam Smithwick's Les Paul guitar (which he slings so low it often bounces against his knees). (Nicoll)

STAR ROOM BOYS (Sat., 11 p.m., Echo Lounge)-- If you want real country played real good, Athens' dad-blamed Star Room Boys have given the world some of the best in recent memory on their recent Why Do Lonely Men and Women Break Each Other's Hearts? This ain't '70s Southern rock or slick Shania polish, it's modern country as it used to be. No gimmicks and no looking back. Just tales of regret, hurt, longing and plenty of attitude. The Star Room Boys personify the Bakersfield sound that pioneers like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens branded in the '60s. In a just world you'd hear a song like the Boys' "Gastonia" next to rare purists such as George Strait or Patty Loveless on the clear channel country giants. Dave Marr is heir apparent to Dwight Yoakam's pure western nasal baritone. You can almost imagine looking down at the turntable and seeing that '60s Capitol Records swirl label spinning as the band plays. (Smith)

SWAN DIVE (Thurs., 1 a.m., 7 Stages/front) -- Nashville-based duo Swan Dive are not the typical Music City hat 'n' beltbuckle act. In fact, Bill DeMain and Molly Felder are more akin to the swingin' cool sounds of Burt Bacharach and Hal David than Brooks and Dunn. Their lush, laid-back arrangements recall '60s movie soundtracks and the samba shuffles of Antonio Carlos Jobim. DeMain says Swan Dive's main goal is to present a delightful pattern of textures within a body of work. "We make the studio our laboratory," he says, "and experiment with sounds and moods as we create." Wildly popular in Japan, Swan Dive have released several collections in Asia and their recent self-titled domestic album gathers the best of their wonderfully restrained and refreshingly innocent atmospheric pop music. (Smith)

TIFT MERRITT & THE CARBINES (Sat., 10 p.m., Echo Lounge) -- North Carolina's sweetheart of the rodeo has long been poised to be the next big thing in the Americana scene, but business seems to keep getting in the way. Merritt's enchanting voice and stage presence suggests she's the heiress apparent to Emmylou Harris. The buzz is based on a 7-inch single with the Carbines, her recorded vocal duets with the Two Dollar Pistols and several serendipitous live performances. Merritt won big in the original song contest at Merlefest and wowed a rowdy SXSW crowd this year. She was heavily courted by big indie label Sugar Hill, but somehow, she's looking for a deal again. Somebody out there is gonna make it happen. Let's hope it's soon. (Kelly)

TWO DOLLAR PISTOLS (Sat., 12 a.m., Echo Lounge) -- Towering frontman John Howie grew up listening to country music but later, as a rebellious teenager, lost himself in punk rock. He never forgot his roots, though, and after witnessing the nascent country/rock scene in North Carolina, Howie found himself turning back to the tunes of his faraway childhood. The eventual result was the Two Dollar Pistols, a band in which his rich voice -- which compares favorably to that of X's John Doe -- brings to life an almost forgotten era of Nashville's history, back when real men like George Jones and Ernest Tubb ruled the charts and when bar songs were written by men who drank Jack Daniels instead of Evian. The Two Dollar Pistols are packin' heat, loaded and ready for the second coming of Real Country. (Nicoll)

SONYA VETRA (Sat., 1 a.m., 7 Stages/front) -- Conference veteran Vetra has played her soulful rock all over the world. At home in England as well as in home state of Georgia, Vetra's verve and vigor are infectious and heartwarming. Aided by her right-hand man Jeep Hook, the former Talk Talk guitarist and songwriter, Vetra delivers a set of intense and rocking tunes. Vetra (pronounced Vee-tra) stands with perfect poise, ready to become a household name. Recent contract developments may have the always-smiling singer signed to a deal soon, report insiders. But the surest bet will be the totally satisfying set she'll perform. A star in the making, Vetra is a delight. If previous Atlantis shows are any indication, definitely worth watching up-close during her intimate conference performance. (Smith)

BETH WOOD (Fri., 10 p.m., 7 Stages/front) -- Lubbock, Texas-born Beth Wood is a classically-trained violinist who switched to guitar in college and gravitated to the Austin music scene. Now an Atlantan, by way of Asheville, N.C., Wood tours constantly and has released three solo albums. Her charming shows appeal to the folk crowd and rock fans equally. "I'm basically a rock 'n' roll person," Wood says. "But I reserve the right to be a folkie." Wood varies her approach from sultry, blues-based jazz stylings, to contemporary folk to frenzied rockers in the span of a set. A versatile artist and songwriter, Wood has earned considerable nationwide airplay and exposure, thanks to a recent tour with jam-rockers Jupiter Coyote. Wood's sense of humor and easy-going performance style is disarming and warm. (Smith)

THE X-IMPOSSIBLES (Sat, 1 a.m., Star Bar) -- Anchored by the husband and wife team of Tim Lumley (vocals) and Heidi Lumley (guitar), the X-Impossibles are a refreshingly sane punk rock band who look back nostalgically on the '70s CBGB's scene and breathe fiery new life into that vintage sound. Their re-creation of the explosive Dolls/Stooges spirit is so inspiring, former New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain sat in with them several times. Currently pounding the kit for the X-Imps is Morgan Engle, half of a rhythm section that also includes bassist Gary Yoxen, formerly of the hardcore crunchers Time Bomb '77. Handsome lead guitarist Shawn Christian rounds out the frantic five-piece. (Nicoll)

YOUNG ANTIQUES (Fri., 12 a.m., Star Bar) -- An interesting hybrid of new wave, punk and country, the Blake Rainey and band's blend of pure pop and '60s twang will keep the Antiques' store open late at the Star Bar. Playing a cool midnight set of older material and a sampling of songs from their upcoming album, Wardrobe for a Jet Weekend, the 'Tiques always have a contagiously good time. A sure highlight of the conference, the band have been known to throw in the odd cover, so be on your toes for an obscure nugget curve-ball. Die-hard fans may want to request the Replacements' "Talent Show" as an appropriate ode to the Conference. (Smith)

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