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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Firehose Has the Power but Lacks a Focus

Times Staff Writer

A fire hose is a powerful device, as long as the pressure stays high and the hose doesn’t get tied up in knots.

A tendency to get tangled in an overly abstract approach to songwriting is one of the few crimps in Firehose, the power-rock trio from San Pedro that is nonetheless one of the most promising bands around.

At the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Saturday night, Firehose showed that it has enough reserves of skill and commitment to unleash torrents of uncommon force and precision at will. The show, alternately ferocious and playful, stood as a fine example of three unpretentious, closely attuned musicians united for the sheer exuberance of playing.

While that is one of the highest goals a rock band can achieve, Firehose hasn’t quite yet found the focus for putting across the meanings and group personality that were so unmistakable in the Minutemen, the band from which Firehose developed.

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In Firehose, the job of providing a focus falls most of the time to singer-guitarist Ed Crawford. Crawford was a rock ‘n’ roll novice when he joined bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley in 1986 and helped them get back on track after the shock of Minutemen front man D. Boon’s death in a car wreck.

At the Coach House, Crawford showed that he has emerged as Firehose’s fireplug, an unfettered, emphatic performer of unquestionable energy and heart. Crawford’s guitar playing, alternately broadly slashing and finely honed, negotiated the deft turns required by Firehose’s complex, enjoyably quirky approach.

But Crawford doesn’t have an exceptionally strong or distinctive voice, and he had a hard time meeting the vocal demands of the set’s harder-rocking numbers. His approach was to go for ragged force, and if he came close to the right pitch, so much the better.

In that way, Crawford did his part in contributing to the show’s intensity. But after a while, a sense of vocal sameness set in. With Firehose’s tendency to write lyrical conundrums and abstractions, it becomes all the more important to have a dynamic singer who can give the words an impact commensurate with the force of the music.

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A leaner, more direct lyrical approach might put Crawford in a better position to pull it off. He sounded best, and most comfortable, when the band moved into the folk-rock mode that is one of its many interesting digressions from power-trio pounding.

Still, with Watt and Hurley forming one of the best bass and drum teams of the ‘80s, Firehose doesn’t need a conventionally great singer to be an exciting band. Within its hour on stage, Firehose had moved from Who-ish surges to avant-gardish squiggles, from straightforward folk-rock to groove-oriented hard rock that recalled Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. These are masters of the classic hard rock forms who have the dexterity and imagination to combine the traditional with the unexpected.

The set, more than 20 songs in 60 minutes, included several numbers that Firehose plans to record next month for its third album. One of them had the sort of Latin shading that used to turn up from time to time in the Minutemen. Another, an immediate hit with the audience, was a driving, big-shouldered rocker that kept a spacious, airy feeling reminiscent of Moby Grape’s great heartland song, “Omaha.”

Local band Don’t Mean Maybe wore Minutemen influences in a short set of shifting riffs and dynamics. The trio played forcefully and came up with some interesting fragments but didn’t work them into cohesive songs. Ranting, half-spoken vocals wore out the welcome in a hurry.

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Also on the bill was another local group, the Swamp Zombies. The un-self-conscious acoustic rockers had fun with such off-kilter artifacts as a clattering folk-harmony version of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” and by having a good time on stage, the Swamp Zombies ensured that the audience had one too.


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