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Critical Bargains

Ah, the life of a critic--seeing the best performances in town, sitting in prime seats and never spending your own money. (We're forgetting for a moment the uninspired shows, the never-ending drives and the garrulous audiences.) So what happens when a critic is, like most of us, on a budget? Can people with the highest of standards find a good time when cost is an issue? Here, four critics each take $100 and spend it (or less) on a full weekend of entertainment.


Part guitar shop, part concert room, McCabe's is a music lover's retreat in the heart of the city, a guaranteed way to ease into the weekend on Friday night by reconnecting with the joy and inspiration of listening to music in its acoustic, grass-roots form.

In fact, rejuvenation is the underlying goal of this weekend pop blueprint--a process that's essential to industry insiders discouraged by the bottom-line policies of the record conglomerates and music fans who find it increasingly hard to find music of substance coming from those conglomerates.

There have been periods when individual Los Angeles clubs--the Ash Grove, the Palomino, the Troubadour, Cathay de Grande, Club Lingerie, the Masque and Largo, among others--had such imaginative booking policies that you could drop in any night, confident there would be someone interesting on the stage.

Few rooms uphold that tradition today as well as McCabe's, which for decades has presented such gifted and varied artists as Steve Earle, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Elizabeth Cotton, Tim Hardin, Laura Nyro, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. The list on the McCabe's Web site runs 29 pages.

When singer-songwriter Lori Carson said during her recent Friday night show that "this is my favorite place to play," you knew it wasn't hyperbole.

The lure of the room isn't just its intimacy. There are numerous other clubs around town with a capacity of 150. The attraction is both the informal setting (scores of guitars and other instruments hang on the walls, and the audience sits in rows of folding chairs) and the audience itself. People go to McCabe's to hear music, not to drink (there is no bar) or to talk to their friends (the atmosphere during songs is as hushed as a library). Zachariah Love books the room, and he's eager for suggestions.

Shows are usually Friday and Saturday nights, and the ticket price is generally $15 to $20. The Del McCoury Band, the hottest name in bluegrass, appears Sunday, and it should be a night to remember.

Saturday is a good day for Step 2 in the rejuvenation process: the Tower Records store on the Sunset Strip. When Chairman Russ Solomon launched the chain back in the vinyl age, he envisioned each outlet as a giant toy store for music fans--and that's the way to think of it.

It's fun to spend an hour browsing through the CD bins looking for some obscure record or surprise compilation, and through the magazine racks, which offer a wall of music publications from around the world.

For fans who have trouble finding interesting new music on the radio, the listening stations throughout the store provide a handy way to sample new releases. The store is open from 9 a.m. to midnight, so you've got lots of flexibility fitting a visit into your schedule. If you look for bargains, you might be able to come out with four CDs and still fit into our $100 weekend limit.

Our Sunday stop comes early: the 10 a.m. gospel brunch at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip. Gospel music is always good for lifting your spirits, and the best place to hear it is at a church that has a great choir.

But the House of Blues show should get you moving, even if the band on a recent Sunday might have been more effective if it had paid more attention to the music and less to urging the audience to keep its hands in the air.

The music doesn't get started until 11, so you have an hour to see if you can resist overdoing it at the dazzling Southern-style buffet. If you don't exercise restraint, it could be a cholesterol nightmare. But there is plenty of fruit and other sensible dishes to enable you to avoid the danger zone. Tickets are $33, each and there's a second show at 1 p.m. Rejoice! And rejuvenate.

* McCabe's, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, $15-20 for most shows, (310) 828-4497.

* House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Gospel brunch: $33 for adults, $17 for children, 5-12, free under 5. 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sundays, (323) 848-5100.

* Tower Records, 8801 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, 9 p.m to midnight daily, (310) 657-7300.

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