Rockers who reach for musical grandeur risk coming off as merely grandiose--full of hot air.
Scottish singer-guitarist Midge Ure has long been known to strive for grand, orchestral sweep. While his show Thursday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano could have used some more earthy qualities, like humor or an occasional bit of basic, bash-it-out rock or quiet simplicity, its best moments were, in fact, grand. And its less successful segments never sounded like bloated huffing and puffing.
It helps that Ure, rather than striving for symphonic sweep for its own sake, usually has an emotional aim in mind. Most of the 1 1/2-hour concert, which included most of his current solo album, "Answers to Nothing," as well as a fair sampling of numbers from his former band, Ultravox, had a plaintive or melancholy cast. The subject matter certainly was large: challenges to hollow leaders in religion and politics and prayers for an end to various sorts of misery besetting the world.
With his clear, rangy voice and fervent but unpretentious delivery, Ure was generally up to the task of putting across the serious themes of his new album or the romanticism of "Vienna" and "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," Ultravox oldies that opened and closed the show. But his greatest asset was a five-member backing band that kept the focus on rhythmic propulsion even as it helped Ure pile up mounting layers of sound. The supple, hard-hitting drums and bass team of Steve Williams and Jeremy Meehan ensured that interesting motion, rather than ponderous slogging, would underly Ure's broadly textured guitar and keyboard constructs.
It all came together on "Hymn," an Ultravox song that rolled like a crashing wave as Ure sang its prayer for a life of grandeur and meaning: "Give us this day all that you showed me/The power and the glory, till my kingdom comes." It was a show-stopper that won a deserved standing ovation for Ure, who plays again tonight at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.
"Hymn" eclipsed Ure's other song-prayer, "Dear God." This popular, idealistic plaint has won Ure attention as a solo artist but wears thin with repeated listenings. Ure's follow-the-record reading didn't make it sound any fresher in concert. In fact, most of the show hewed closely to recorded versions of songs. Some reworkings might have added a helpful sense of surprise.
An occasional sense of rage or ferocity also would have helped. Some of Ure's songs indict those he feels are responsible for the world's ills, but their mood is more melancholy than biting. An all-percussion ending to the anti-war "All Fall Down" promised to generate some of that fire and muscle, particularly since it featured Ure and four other players thumping on the bodhran, the Irish folk drum that is one of the most unbridled, tribal-sounding of instruments. But they merely used it to tap out a routine march.
Because his music isn't the place to look for contrasting earthiness or humor, Ure might have taken advantage of the small club setting to add a humorous, or at least a more intimate, dimension between songs. With a partisan audience that obviously included many fans dating back to his Ultravox days, Ure wasn't about to risk losing their interest if he digressed a bit. But his few brief comments and song introductions never went beyond a polite reserve.
A little hot air in the right places might not have been a bad idea, after all.