Spellbound in Sacramento?

What elusive quality do certain performers have that can motivate a sortie-obsessed, couch-bound American citizen to punch that remote button to “off”? An entire evening of RNC-approved network “wartime” programming must be sacrificed, mind you, so that the formerly recumbent adult can escape the prison-like confine of home to get out and see live music.

It’s a tall order. First and, well, duh, the live act must be compelling. For example: Eleni Mandell, a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles, appeared at the True Love Coffeehouse on a recent Thursday. Mandell performed songs from her two indie releases, Wishbone and Thrill, backed by Woody Jackson on guitar-organ and lap steel, Sheldon Gomberg on upright bass and Andrew Borger on drums; the last time she blew through town, she went solo on a weathered Silvertone acoustic guitar. Mandell’s sultry alto is old-school cinematic; her subject matter is the tortured romanticism of the too cool to love; the combination is irresistible. Occasionally her band got in the way, but mostly its textural brush strokes—think midway between Tom Waits and k.d. lang—were spot on. And occasionally Mandell’s obsession with alternating A minor and E seventh chords got tiresome. But mostly, such modern nods to cabaret as “Too Bad About You” and “Bedford (Avenue)” were quietly thrilling.

In the middle slot was Killin Floor, a scaled-down, semi-acoustic iteration of local trio Snubnose. The group plays the kind of post-Woody Guthrie roots rock that such magazines as No Depression have helped codify into an aesthetic. Killin Floor delivered an uneven set—when the group was on, it made you understand why old journos on the country-music beat, before the emerging hillbilly music was named “rock ’n’ roll,” labeled Elvis Presley a “folk music fireball.” But when it was off, the result was sophomoric minstrelsy, like what happens when bored college students watch too many Hee-Haw reruns, then get liquored up and break out guitars. Fortunately, Snubnose’s new frontman Jordan Petersen is somewhat of a hot-shit singer, and the good outweighed the bad.

Unfortunately, anyone coming early hoping for good seats to see Mandell was forced to sit through an interminable set of folk-music covers. Nothing against the 40-something man on the stage, who did pull off a pretty cool version of the old Jefferson Airplane instrumental “Embryonic Journey,” but when you show up to see an original artist of the caliber of Eleni Mandell, you shouldn’t have your sensibilities insulted by having to suffer through uninspired rehashes of songs that were penned by the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Tom Paxton well before most of the audience’s members were born. There are a bunch of good songwriters in the area who would kill for a gig like this; one of them should have been showcased—instead of the guy who did get the slot. Oh well: At least he didn’t sing “Kumbaya.” Kevin, Allyson, what happened?