First, the good news about Eric Burdon’s performance Wednesday at the Coach House: The 47-year-old British singer is not an oldies automaton, cranking out a rote greatest-hits set. And time hasn’t diminished the force and violence of his voice, which came as a revelation amid the ‘60s British invasion, when his Animals offered a tough, blues-based, street-knowing alternative to Herman’s Hermits.
Expecting some bad news now? Burdon’s 15-song set at the San Juan Capistrano club provided an ample supply. That great voice was squandered on both faceless new material and careless remakes from his catalogue. Nearly every Animals’ classic in the set was extensively reworked by Burdon and his four-piece band, but rather than recasting the songs into something still emotionally viable, Burdon seemed intent on negating their power.
The uptempo arrangements of “It’s My Life” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” may have been chosen simply to allow Burdon to get them over with sooner. On the latter song, Burdon tossed out most of the original lyrics and melody, offering rambling cliches and snatches of “On Broadway” in their place.
At nearly every turn, the singer seemed intent on distancing himself from his Animals’ material, even screaming “I hate this song!” repeatedly before performing a largely overblown encore of “House of the Rising Sun.” The title of Burdon’s autobiography is “I Used to Be an Animal, but I’m Alright Now,” and indeed, one got the feeling that Burdon judges his music on how far removed it is from his past, rather than on where it might be headed now. It’s an understandable quandary: What self-respecting person wants to enter his 50s still repeating the job he had in his teens?
But self-respect, or respect of any manner, might have been the chief thing lacking from Wednesday’s show. One need only hear Bruce Springsteen’s chilling live version of “It’s My Life” or Elvis Costello’s passionate cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to know that there are new, powerful, immediate interpretations still to be found in the song.
And here was Burdon--still possessed of the voice that first allowed those singers, and the rest of their generation, to find meaning in those songs--treating them like a last-minute homework assignment.
That loss wouldn’t be nearly so dire were Burdon’s current material worth his voice. Instead, the songs, drawn chiefly from 1988’s “I Used to Be an Animal” album, served only to remind that most of Burdon’s greatest moments started with someone else’s pen. For every “When I Was Young” or “Sky Pilot” that Burdon did create, there were innumerable “Year of the Gurus” and “Black Plagues” best consigned to the patchouli patch, and his current songs are kindred to those, composed of overused riffs, negligible melodies and declamatory froth.
Burdon seems also to have lost touch with the blues and R&B; music which once inspired him. A tribute to blues slide-guitar master Elmore James, “No More Elmore,” was more than devoid of both the spirit and feel of James’ floor-shaking music, offering instead a mighty white excess of screeching, interminable virtuosity from all corners of the stage. If James weren’t already dead, hearing this could certainly have hastened his demise. Similarly the closing encore of Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” sounded as if it had been birthed in Ritchie Blackmore’s trousers rather than New Orleans.
There were some, though far too few, saving moments to the performance. The bluesy ballad “Going Back to Memphis” gave his voice something worth digging into, supported by a spoken middle where he recalled the dichotomy of being in Memphis in 1966, seeing the “New South” in the person of Otis Redding, and that same day witnessing a Klan-cross burning. “Believe me, it was nothing like Madonna’s new video,” he said.
And despite his disclaimer preceding “House of the Rising Sun,” Burdon’s singing sometimes struck with the foundation-rending passion he had found for the song a quarter-century ago. It’s a shame that he didn’t more often use that legacy as something to build on, rather than escape.