Critic's Choice for the week of February 18-24, 2004 

Our writers tell you what's hot this week.


Benny Velarde is the godfather of Bay Area salsa. Originally from Panama, he started playing timbales professionally in the 1940s. Into the '50s he played at the California Hotel Mambo Sessions in Oakland, before joining Cal Tjader's Modern Mambo Quartet in 1954. Velarde has recorded for Fantasy and Verve and led his Super Combo for thirty years; on Wednesday night, he and the combo make a rare East Bay appearance at Yoshi's in Oakland. or 510-238-9200. (Jesse "Chuy" Varela)


Vance George, the superb Grammy-winning conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, leads a host of East Bay high school and community choruses Wednesday in the third annual Berkeley Choral Festival. A benefit for the Musicians' Pension Fund, the concert features a wide spectrum of American choral music, both familiar (Bernstein's great Chichester Psalms) and relatively new (Meredith Monk, Jonathan Russell, and the fabulous Michael Dougherty). 510-841-2800 or (Jason Victor Serinus)


For a bluesman with almost as many apostrophes as letters in his moniker, Keb' Mo' doesn't skimp on energy or emotion in his live shows. His albums have never quite captured the spirit of Mr. Mo's blues, falling into the adult contemporary bin where no blues should stray. But onstage -- as he'll be at the Fillmore Saturday night -- he'll get your feet tappin' with rocking uptempo numbers, and cause tears to well up with his spare Delta-style lullabies. 415-346-6000. (Michael Gowan)


Cumbia is a music derived from the highlands of Colombia, where the country folk play a style called vallenato, in which accordion and guitars serve as the tapestry for people's stories told in song. Aniceto Molina is one of the genre's most beloved troubadours, and he brings his music to Casino San Pablo this Saturday night with special guests Marito Rivera and La Sonora Dinamita. Cumbia at its best! 510-215-1719. (J.C.V.)


In past years, the Bay Area's Bob Marley birthday fetes have paled in comparison to those in New York, Los Angeles, and (obviously) Jamaica. But this year's official events, while maybe not outrageously star-studded from top to bottom, do offer three solid shows at the Warfield. The Tuff Gong's b-day bashment starts out Friday with a show combining the old and the new: headliners Sly & Robbie, aka the "Riddim Twins," might be the most prolific studio musicians in reggae history, and their "Taxi Connection" showcase features up-and-coming stars Bluefox, Rah'Man, Ras Myrhdak, and Mahlon Stewart. The Riddim Twins have an excellent track record in this regard, having worked with Ini Kamoze, Beenie Man, Luciano, and Michael Rose (to name a few) in the early stages of their careers, so keep an ear perked for tomorrow's reggae today. The show also features the similarly legendary singjay, Big Youth, as well as Soul Majestic and Rastan. Saturday's show is split between current dancehall and contemporary roots, as headliner Elephant Man ("Pon de River, Pon de Bank") is joined by Julian Marley, who recently stepped out of his famous father's footsteps with his second album, A Time and Place. Newcomer Pepper rounds out that bill. Sunday's show is strictly roots and culture, seen? The Wailers themselves headline, along with West Coast Rastas Groundation and St. Croix' contribution to the genre, Midnite (who tore it up last week at Ashkenaz). Unless you want to be a bumbaclaat, you'll show your face in the place, and help emancipate yourself from mental slavery. 415-775-7722 or (Eric K. Arnold)


From Oakland violinist Darol Anger's critical role as the founding violinist in the David Grisman Quintet and Turtle Island String Quartet to his work with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Willie Nelson, he has blazed an influential path for new acoustic music in the folk roots world. Anger also has recorded with the world's great violinists, and he celebrates the release of Republic of Strings, the debut from his newest band, the Darol Anger Fiddle Ensemble, with a concert at the Freight & Salvage Saturday night. Along with longtime collaborator Scott Nygaard on guitar, Anger is joined by cellist Rushad Eggleston and local teen fiddle prodigy Brittany Haas. This unusual string quartet plays originals and traditional music drawn from the American South, South America, Europe, and Africa. And do they ever swing! or 510-548-1761. (Larry Kelp)


If Cheryl Wheeler ever gets bored with her singing and songwriting career, she could easily make the transition to stand-up comic. Her between-song patter, full of absurd but shockingly realistic insights into the human condition, will make you laugh until your belly hurts. See her Thursday at St. John's Church, 2727 College Avenue in Berkeley, in a show presented by the Freight & Salvage. 510-548-1761. (j. poet)


Squeeze, Squeeze is the title of the latest Palmetto Records release by Latin jazz trumpeter Ray Vega. A veteran of the Mongo Santamaría and Ray Barretto bands, the NYC horn man is an adapt instrumentalist well versed in bebop and Cubop. Vega possesses a seasoned voice with the influential inflections of Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, but he is still his own man, with a distinct personality and energy well worth enjoying this Monday night at Yoshi's with his special guest Pete Escovedo. 510-238-9200. (J.C.V.)


Del McCoury and his fine band are taking bluegrass into the 21st century with a winning combination of tradition and modernity. They apply their lightning-fast picking and high lonesome harmonies, led by McCoury's bluesy wailing tenor, to everything from traditional gospel tunes to songs by Richard Thompson and Steve Earle. Friday at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. 415-885-0750. (j.p.)


Led by rapper Rico Pabon, Project Bridge (formerly Prophets of Rage) makes its debut tonight at La Peña in Berkeley. Pabon, who also raps with O-Maya, is a gifted rhyme-maker from Richmond who slices 'n' dices with his tongue. Also on board for the evening is La Familia, a talented Oaktown combo that plays Cuban son with a Chicana twist. The voices of Kristal Gray and Violeta Contreras are the centerpiece, rounded out by Sylvia Sherman (congas), Roberto Medina (bongos), and Chris Gonzalez-Clark (tres/guitar). 510-849-2568. (J.C.V.)


Amid the plethora of great pianists who come our way, the rare performance by Harmonia Mundi recording artist Frederic Chiu demands to be heard. The American-born musician -- based in Paris and especially known abroad -- performs Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage, Italie and Chopin's Etudes, Op. 10 at Oakland's Calvin Simmons Theatre Saturday night. 510-451-0775 or (J.V.S.)


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