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POP MUSIC REVIEW : CHARLIE SEXTON’S UPS ‘N’ DOWNS

Charlie Sexton is really a piece of work.

With cheekbones that go straight into the hall of fame, a little pinch of a nose, burning eyes, Elvis lips and a mushroom cloud of black hair, he’s a high-tech Texas teen whose ambition and taste for a different kind of rock ‘n’ roll apparently alienated the folks back home in Austin, who brought him up to play something a little, well, purer.

Instead of sticking with the roadhouse blues, Sexton headed for the big city (Los Angeles), made a hit album that sounds like David Bowie in a wind tunnel, and suddenly he was being set up as the Next Big Thing.

Finally, after years of underground legend as a prodigy who jammed with Dylan and the Stones, there he was Tuesday night at the Roxy, a 17-year-old natural in patent-leather pants facing a mixed crowd of appraising music-industry types, serious rock ‘n’ rollers, punked-up cowgirls and swooning, screaming teeny-boppers.

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It’s not often in the regimented pop-music world that you get a situation with such a potential for drama, and while it might not be fair to declare this a make-or-break show, the tendency was to pull for a triumph or a disaster--something that would live up to the buildup.

Well, it wasn’t either. The show had its ups and downs, strengths and flaws, and the net result was something of a standoff: Maybe you weren’t blown away, but you’d probably want to check out another set (his four nights at the Roxy conclude Friday and Saturday; he plays UCLA’s Ackerman Ballroom Wednesday).

On stage, Sexton’s music had more immediacy, more garage-guitar crunch and grind, than it does on his “Pictures for Pleasure” album, and it pushed his voice away from the booming croon of the record into a raspy intensity.

Even though the material was inconsistent (he should drop more outside songs into the set), the attack was basically there. Unfortunately, Sexton himself wasn’t.

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Maybe he was worried about the Next Big Thing hype, or the teen-idol sex-symbol stuff, because he apparently didn’t want to do anything that would feed that impression.

That left him doing nothing, or at least not enough. With his basic equipment, all he needs to do is project a little, animate the music with some rock ‘n’ roll flash.

Maybe what he needs is a foil, a sidekick to get him going and take some of the load off. When ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones sat in Tuesday on that band’s “Silly Thing,” Sexton seemed transformed. He loosened up, smiled, played off Jones’ guitar with spirited concentration. When Jones left and Sexton went on to another album track, it seemed a little like work.

Sexton also appeared to be bothered by what he saw as a sub-par response from the crowd. He could have turned that feeling to his advantage by getting angry about it, using it to get charged up and aggressive. Instead, he seemed to sulk, adding more distance when he should have been bridging the gap.

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Another thing he might try is going crazy on guitar. He made his reputation as an instrumental whiz, and a few six-string freakouts might loosen him up and get the crowd going. At the Roxy his playing was a little too economical. This is one time that a little excess might not be such a bad thing.


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