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CL picks the best of the batch

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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)

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