The Bears were absolutely fierce Tuesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. And maybe a little lonely, for in contrast to the band's standing-room-only show there in May, the room was more than half empty. (Would an optimist say less than half full?)

The reasons behind the severe drop-off in attendance are open to speculation. Perhaps it's under-exposure, since the Bears--led by guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew--aren't exactly in heavy rotation on rock radio or MTV. On the other hand, maybe it's over -exposure, in that a new band, still touring behind its album debut, can't expect to pack the place on a return visit just five months later.

But where many new groups would have allowed the clusters of empty seats to crush their spirit and simply shifted into "perfunctory performance" mode, the Bears reacted with grace and poise in a truly impressive display of heavy mettle.

Literally smiling in the face of adversity, the foursome apparently decided to make the best of the situation, have a lot of fun on stage (an attitude that quickly spread to the audience) and render the set as if their lives depended on it.

Consequently, the performance was loose, informal, masterfully executed and often exhilarating.

Given Belew's spectacular resume (sideman stints with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads and others, full membership in the latter-day King Crimson and three solo albums) it would be easy to assume that the Bears is a star vehicle simply masquerading as a real band.

Belew is the Papa Bear, serving as nominal leader, handling the song introductions and between-song patter and producing the breathtaking guitar parts that help launch the group into its own sonic universe.

But right from the opening number "None of the Above," he fully shared both the guitar-playing and vocal duties with Rob Fetters, who's no slouch himself.

And sharing vocal duties doesn't mean taking turns as lead singers--although that does happen--but functioning as dual lead vocalists a la Lennon and McCartney. Indeed, the Beatles are the single strongest influence coursing through the Bears material, absolutely unmistakable on the eloquent ballad "Wavelength," though hardly hidden in the funky, propulsive pop that's more characteristic of the band.

But this isn't just another group artistically hemmed in by a Beatles fixation. The band easily transcends that and other influences, emerging with an original voice and a distinctive sound--a neat trick, achieved through superior songwriting, inspired, expressive fret work and vocals by Belew and Fetters and the deft, muscular rhythms constructed by bassist Bob Nyswonger and drummer Chris Arduser.

Considering that the group's modus operandi revolves around Fetters and Belew, one could be forgiven for falling prey to the Bear trap of overlooking the rhythm team's considerable contribution.

But thanks to their potent rhythmic drive Tuesday, pieces that are good, solid rockers on the album, such as "Figure It Out" or "Raining," flew from the stage with staggering intensity.

Given all these strengths, when the Bears tour behind the next record, smart money would bet the Coach House will be packed.

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