In the midst of what essentially was a dance party Thursday night at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, singer Raul Malo set down the twangy guitar he'd been strumming joyfully for an hour, dismissed the members of his five-piece band -- except for pianist Chris Tuttle -- and stood practically motionless at the mike.
Malo is widely regarded as one of the most gifted singers to emerge in the last two decades, yet he indulged in none of the hyperkinetics that are so much the rage among contemporary pop vocalists. Instead, he rendered the ballad "So Beautiful," from his just-released solo album, "Lucky One," with such piercing purity that this song of emotional renewal galvanized the crowd as much as any of the effervescent up-tempo numbers that dominated the show.
The song's lyrics aren't masterfully poetic, yet they're powerfully direct, and with his remarkable vocal technique, Malo stopped the show in the best sense of that term.
A few hours earlier, he sat on the poolside patio of the nearby hotel where he was staying while in the Southland on tour with Shelby Lynne, the Alabama firebrand who opened Thursday's concert with some gorgeously unfussy singing of her own.
"To me, singing is like the Olympic high-diving competition," Malo, 43, observed between bites of salad when the conversation turned to "American Idol" after he spotted the reality series' Randy Jackson strolling through the hotel's restaurant. "In that event, the less splash, the better the score. But on 'Idol,' these guys are all doing cannonballs.
"I wish they'd just pick three singers and then follow them week to week as they try to learn what to do," he said. "That would make a far more interesting show."
Malo, the son of Cuban immigrants, grew up in the 1960s and '70s in Miami, reveling in the pan-American sounds that washed over him from radio, television and out of the city's many nightclubs. It turned him into a living, breathing testament to the wonders of the musical melting pot, in the '90s fronting the eclectic country-rock band the Mavericks and for most of this decade as a solo act.
"My grandfather would drive me around and we'd have the radio on, and there'd be a song by Frank Sinatra followed by the Rolling Stones and then Ray Charles," he said, his eyes sparkling at the memory. "I was a kid; I didn't think anything about it. That's just the way it was."
"Lucky One" is steeped in that broad swath of pop and rock -- the title track puts a Spanish accent on Western twang, while "Crying for You" includes a vocal ascent worthy of Roy Orbison, and the jangly rock ballad "One More Angel" has Malo talking about surmounting tragic loss. The Rat Pack hipster swing of "Moonlight Kiss" sits easily alongside the vintage R&B of "Ready for My Lovin.' "
It's his first album of original songs since his 2001 solo debut, the Latin-drenched "Today." Since then Malo has released two albums of stylishly arranged cover songs: "After Hours" (2007) and "You're Only Lonely" (2006). None has been a platinum seller, perhaps because Malo's talent covers too broad a musical spectrum to be conveniently marketed to a mass audience.
"Now more than ever, I guess, I don't really have any genre restrictions or label restrictions," he said, sheepishly acknowledging that he looks more like a film director than a pop singer -- clad in his wool racing cap, dark shades, a navy pullover and tan slacks.
He records for the Concord Music Group, a label that targets adult listeners 30 and older. "I enjoy writing that way; it's so much more fun," he said. "I think I've earned the right to do what I want. I've certainly put up with enough nonsense," an oblique allusion to the hurdles the Mavericks never overcame despite some exceptionally enthusiastic critical support.
He all but ruled out a reunion tour -- "unless we were going to make $100 million to do it," he said with an easy laugh. "I'm a whore, but I'm an expensive one."
More to the point, he's so thoroughly enjoying exploring different strains of music through solo ventures that he'd rather keep creating new palettes each time out.
One shining example on Thursday was an extrapolated live version of "One More Angel," which opens with ringing guitar before moving into a bittersweet exploration of how we cope with death. The song's simple three-chord progression allowed Malo to segue into an utterly authentic reading of the traditional "Guantanamera," which then dovetailed into an R&B-rock classic -- built on that same chord progression -- "Twist and Shout."
He kept the song at the same slow-burn intensity of the Latin folk standard that preceded it, rather than shifting into the more predictable Isley-Beatles overdrive.
Malo's canny fusion of energetic rock, liberating Latin dance rhythms and a little Duke Ellington swing is a particularly effective tonic for troubled times.
"Look at the art and music that came out during the Depression," said Malo, who lives in Nashville with his wife and their three sons. "We're not quite there yet, but there was a real kind of renaissance. So there should be something good to come out of these struggles we're having.
"What's the saying? In good times, people want to be entertained; in bad times, they need to. Entertainment has always survived. If we can make people feel uplifted, or forget some troubles, even if only for a little while, that's got to be good."