POP MUSIC REVIEW : Two Versions of Country Music Spotlighted at Santa Ana’s Crazy Horse

Two sides of the country music fence were explored at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana Monday night. Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band represented the high-energy, new traditionalists. On the more laid-back, middle-of-the-road side was Dan Seals.

Country purists have long dismissed Seals’ music as pap, his songs as smarmy. But Monday he made a real effort to toughen up arrangements and to take a more aggressive tack on stage, from the rollicking “Three Time Loser” to the bottom-heavy “On a Night Like This” (whose melody line bears more than a passing resemblance to Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, Ornery and Mean”).

More important, Seals is addressing a wider range of concerns these days. Along with those saccharine odes to love for which he’s known, he gave us “Factory Town,” a moody, evocative song that deals with the grim realities of those trapped by the demise of the industrial revolution. When Seals sang, “If we don’t work, we don’t eat,” he made it mean something.

For all the good intentions, though, the new and improved Dan Seals isn’t always more successful than the old one. The tougher arrangements often overwhelmed the slower, softer songs that have provided the bulk of Seals’ hits; his 1986 hit “Bop” was pummeled to the point of lifelessness.


And despite his personable patter between tunes, Seals still seemed more concerned with overselling his songs than with genuinely sharing them.

Like Seals, Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band are branching out and exploring new topics. “For the Rich Man” is a Mexican-flavored ballad that got most of its atmosphere Monday from John Jorgenson’s mandolin, which he strummed and picked softly in turn. In breathtaking three-part harmony, Hillman, Jorgenson and Herb Pedersen sang of those who must illegally cross the border to feed their families. The song raised questions and left plenty of room for us to examine our own reactions.

Yet for all such pensive moments, the Desert Rose Band peaked with its high-stepping, flying-finger brand of bluegrass-tinged country. Pedersen sang lead on Buck Owens’ classic “Hello Trouble,” while Jorgenson took over on his own “Know You’re Gonna Miss Me.” And Hillman’s pure vocals continue to stand out.

It’s those harmonies, though, that really set Desert Rose apart. When Pedersen adds his tenor to Hillman’s, it’s a sweet sound; while Jorgenson and Hillman join, the result has more bite to it.


And when the three voices are raised together, it’s pure intoxication--and just the thing to offset the fancy picking by Jorgenson and steel guitarist J.D. Maness, who both set off musical sparks all night.