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Any variety show I’ve ever seen. Question: What do you get when you add a musical comedian, an old-timey girl group and a smooth, downtempo chanteuse? Answer: Last night’s show at the Walnut Room. It started an hour after it was supposed to and I was getting restless and cranky by the time Jim Bianco took the stage. With just his voice – a rough croon with a raspy edge – and his slight, spare guitar playing he managed to change my mood instantly. He was genuinely funny, enough so that he could have ditched the guitar and done his act as straight stand up and it would have worked. That’s a compliment to his sense of humor and connection with the audience, not a knock on his music, which was excellent. By the time he ended his set with a sing-along version of “Rainbow Connection” he’d made more than a few new fans among the audience. Paper Bird came on after a very short break. It was like something out of time. Seven members filled the stage, led by three fetching, honey-voiced singers. That small army played acoustic guitar, upright bass, banjo, trombone, cornet and a splash of harmonica, but no drums or percussion. Musically it was a little bit smoky lounge jazz, a little bit folk, a little bit gospel, a little bit girl-group pop. The band started off a little shaky but found their stride before long, suffering only the occasional minor hiccup. Despite the problems, it was quite compelling and worth another listen down the road. Finally it was time for Bitter:Sweet. The drummer was good, the guitarist was damn good, the DJ seemed to know his trade, the violinist/keyboardist was solid, the bass player was oozing charisma and funk all over the stage, and the singer was beautiful, with a husky, sensuous voice every bit as lovely as she was. It went to some varied places musically, mixing trip-hop haze with R&B soul, spiced up with rock, exotica and swinging jazz. The songs didn’t floor me, but they weren’t bad either. Let’s see: good playing, solid influences, fine stage presence, decent tunes … why didn’t I enjoy this more? The pieces were in place but never gelled quite right. Despite that, with such an accessible sound and strong performers, this band is likely to grow in popularity. If they can synthesize their influences into something original, they might even deserve it.– Cory Casciato
Critic’s Notebook Personal Bias: Trip hop has never blown me away the way it does for so many of my friends. Random Detail: I skipped dinner so I wouldn’t be late. Isn’t that ironic? By the Way: Jim Bianco has a feature on his MySpace page where you can “demand” he come to your city. Whichever city gets the most demand, he’ll go to. Denver, go start demanding. This guy is good.