POP MUSIC REVIEW : Crowell Gets to Pick and Choose at Coach House

Rodney Crowell's long wait for mainstream country stardom cannot have been easy for him. As he watched others find massive success with his songs and as he produced a string of hits for wife Rosanne Cash, his own efforts were appreciated by such a loyal few that, after a 12-year solo career, the Academy of Country Music--with a straight face, no less--recently named him "best new male country singer."

However heavy those years may have hung on Crowell, they work to his advantage now, as he amply displayed in a heated, 24-song set at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday night. Recent converts to his music (by way of the four No. 1 country singles from Crowell's breakthrough 1988 "Diamonds and Dirt" album) might have been struck to find that nearly every song in the set was as strong as his known hits, yet longtime fans know he could have been equally persuasive pulling an entirely different set of songs from his rich catalogue.

It's difficult not to miss Crowell classics such as "Bluebird Wine" and the recent heartachers "The Last Waltz" and "When the Blue Hour Comes." But Crowell and his equally hot four-piece band put so much fire into the songs they did perform that there was little occasion to think of the missing in action.

Bookended between the hard-rocking opener "Crazy Baby" and the equally revved closer "She's Crazy For Leaving," Crowell ranged from his fragile ballads such as "After All This Time" to the decidedly sinful "I Know You're Married." Although he has a knack for a clever turn of a phrase ("As much as you burned me, I should be ashes by now"), his great strength is the honest resonance of life that rings through his songs, capturing moments both ridiculous and painful in their humanity.

His emotions came through the most when his band members left the stage for him to perform a nakedly beautiful new song dealing with his father's death, which had occurred just three weeks before this Fathers' Day show. Speaking both of the father-son reconciliations that can come later in life, and of opportunities beyond, Crowell wasn't the only one to get a tear in his eye as he sang: "Far beyond this world we see/There's a place for you and me/ And I don't have to live in dread/Over things I wish I'd said."

Crowell's tenor voice isn't likely to garner a seat of honor in the Valhalla of country music, but it gets the job done. Most important, Crowell's voice conveys his passions, which proved sufficient to wrest his "Blame It on the Moon" and "Leaving Louisiana" back from Bob Seger and the Oak Ridge Boys' hit renditions.

If there was a downside to the show, it was the number of oldies he and his drummer sang. Although all good songs, from the Beatles' "You Can't Do That" to Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," they weren't nearly the vehicle for Crowell's talents that some of his unperformed songs could have been. The one exception was a fiery encore version of the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself," given context by Crowell's introduction about a common human spirit and its need to care for this planet we've inherited, and given impact by the burning groove he and his band laid into.

Although L.A.-based opener Steve Kolander hails from Austin, Tex., one suspects his heart belongs to Lubbock. Echoes of that town's favorite son, Buddy Holly, ran through his 10-song set. The lanky, youthful singer might not yet have the stage presence to graduate from opener to headliner, but he certainly has the songs.

The Holly influence ran overboard in places--Kolander's "Why, Why" practically was Holly's "Heartbeat"--but largely it resulted in simple, direct songs sporting more hooks than an old corset. Backed by a rambunctious trio, Kolander worked a lot of feeling and Texas twang into his border-beat "Maria" and moody, minor-key "Talk, Talk."

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