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POP MUSIC REVIEW : 10,000 Maniacs Are Back and Revitalized

Times Pop Music Critic

You had to expect a touch of skepticism Saturday night at the California Theatre.

The name on the marquee and on the tickets read “10,000 Maniacs,” but the Jamestown, N.Y., quintet had canceled two Southern California concert swings at the last moment in recent months because of the illness of lead singer Natalie Merchant.

So, some fans weren’t taking anything for granted. When a local disc jockey walked on stage after a frisky opening set by L.A.'s folk-minded Downy Mildew band, someone sitting near me moaned, “Here it comes. . . . ‘Tickets will be refunded. . . .’ ”

Thus, there was, understandably, an extra degree of celebration when the band finally did step on stage shortly after 9 p.m. But the Maniacs’ 90-minute performance itself was even more cause for celebration. This is one time in pop where the wait was worth it.

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10,000 Maniacs--which opens a three-night stand tonight at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles--has been hailed since 1985 as one of pop’s most artistically promising outfits.

But promise has a funny way of evaporating in the competitive world of pop music and some doubts have surfaced in recent months about the fiber and future of the Maniacs, whose folk-tinged sound is much more eloquent and alluring than the punkish-implications of the band’s name.

In the Maniacs’ Southland debut three years ago, Merchant proved to be a singer with a mysterious, yet riveting stage manner--someone whose furious spins and trance-like expressions mirrored the moody, even mystical nature of her lyrics.

The band--then six pieces--supported her with wonderfully crafted melodies and arrangements that injected a highly personalized character and flavor.

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When the group returned here last fall after the release of its second Elektra album, Merchant remained an enchanting performer. Her musical themes about the exploration of human values, too, had become more focused.

However, the group seemed on that 1987 album and subsequent tour to have lost some of its musical tailoring and authority--possibly because composer-guitarist John Lombardo (who had written many of the band’s most memorable early melodies) left the band after the first Elektra album.

Without him last fall at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles, the Maniacs seemed uncertain; the music occasionally shapeless. Still, Merchant was marvelous--a star-in-the-making, and word of mouth about her helped the Maniacs over the past 12 months to expand their audience despite scant Top 40 radio airplay. The 1987 album “In My Tribe” has now passed the 500,000 sales mark.

As the group returned here, the question was whether it had regained its musical spirit or whether it was simply coasting on Merchant’s power as a singer and performer. The latter strength would be enough in the short run to delight audiences, but a renewal of spirit was necessary if the Maniacs were to have a chance at being a more permanent and important force.

On Saturday night, the Maniacs moved quickly to erase the doubts. From the opening “Hey Jack Kerouac,” it was apparent that this is a revitalized band--one that has grown comfortable with its music.

Without sacrificing the wistfulness and wonder of its early arrangements, the Maniacs have adopted a tougher and more aggressive sound--one that mixes the energy and drive of drummer Jerome Augustyniak with the bright, stylish embroidery of guitarist Robert Buck, bassist Steven Gustafson and keyboardist Dennis Drew.

This musical authority makes Merchant an even more compelling performer, whose vocals blend a folk singer’s purity and freedom, with a rock singer’s urgency and insistence.

Equally encouraging were the six new songs introduced Saturday. There is in such numbers as “Eat for Two,” “Happy Puppets” and “Please Forgive Us” both an increased openness lyrically and a greater confidence and range melodically.

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New and improved are marketing words to be viewed with suspicion, but they apply to 10,000 Maniacs. After the cancellations, the Maniacs aren’t just showing up on the current tour. This band is making a dramatic artistic advance, one that suggests it has the craft and dedication to be one of the prized attractions of the ‘90s in pop.


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