Times Staff Writer

Far too often, mediocrity rules at cash registers and ticket counters while truly superior accomplishments--whether in music, film, literature, art--go unrewarded.

So it was especially gratifying to see Emmylou Harris and Randy Newman, who are responsible for some of pop music's grandest achievements, playing to an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 10,000 people Sunday at the Pacific Amphitheatre.

On the final stop of a five-month tour, Harris performed only four songs from her recent "Ballad of Sally Rose" concept album, rather than devoting the second half of the concert to a complete run-through of that work as she had earlier in the tour.

It was a wise move because the "Sally Rose" album is Harris' least distinctive record in years, an album that emphasizes narrative exposition over emotional exploration. That weakness was most apparent when she followed a two-song mini-set from "Sally Rose" with Delbert McClinton's far more illustrative "Two More Bottles of Wine," which in its three compact verses tells more about dashed dreams than the entire "Sally Rose" song cycle.

The only other disappointment about the 90-minute set was how long it took Harris and her seven-man Hot Band to work up a full head of steam. The group can be one of the fieriest, most rollicking outfits in music--rock or country. But it wasn't until the final half a dozen songs that the group finally shifted into overdrive and transformed itself from an act that merely led the field into one that soared above it.

Randy Newman, on the other hand, will probably never be accused of being too professional: As always, he just walked out on stage alone, sat down at the piano and played some of the best songs ever written.

Decked out in Hawaiian shirt, faded blue jeans and running shoes, the ever-droll humorist and satirist endeared himself to the majority who were familiar with him only through Top 40 radio with renditions of "Short People" and "I Love L.A."

Incredibly, there were some in the crowd who still don't quite get his jokes, which became painfully apparent during "Christmas in Capetown," a song about a white South African who doesn't understand all the fuss over apartheid. Some members of the audience cheered after the character tells a foreign visitor critical of the country's racist policies: "Don't talk about something you don't know anything about / If you don't like it here, go back to your own miserable country."

It makes one wonder how many people are laughing at the outrageous characters Newman creates and how many are laughing with them. Given that reaction, it was no surprise later in Newman's 65-minute, 24-song set when he introduced the mock jingoism of "Political Science" by saying "This is a great place to do this."

What remains so impressive about Newman, even though he introduced no new material Sunday, is how much he can say in so little space and how deceptively simple but richly communicative his musical framework is.

Forget all this business about adopting "I Love L.A." as the city's official song--it's already the unofficial theme anyway. Let's put the effort into having Randy Newman declared a national monument.

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