POP MUSIC REVIEW : Instant Empathy With Texas Band in Live Debut

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Forty-five seconds.

That's about all the time it took Sunday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano to tell that Texas, one of the most promising bands of the year on record, can also deliver live.

That's no slight feat in the video-pop world of the '80s, where a performer's limitations can be compensated for by overdubs in the recording studio and clever editing in the post-production video room.

The Fine Young Cannibals, Deacon Blue and the Primitives are recent examples of rock groups that proved to be severe disappointments when they stepped out of their protective cover and faced a live audience.

So it was encouraging indeed to see Texas prove to be even more absorbing--and more multidimensional--live than on its engaging debut album, "Southside."

The album's strengths revolve around the way the Scottish quartet fuses some of rock's most appealing elements: the lonesome, sensual slide-guitar sound of Ry Cooder (the band's name was inspired by Cooder's moody score for the film "Paris, Texas") and vocals by Sharleen Spiteri that recall the liberating spirit and convincing character of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and Lone Justice's Maria McKee.

Those comparisons have been made so many times in recent months by reviewers that the band members probably cringe every time they see them in print.

It also may be why the Glasgow-based outfit--augmented by a keyboardist for the tour--crossed everybody up Sunday by opening with a version of a song that isn't from the album and that pointed more clearly to other models.

The song was bluesman Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too" and Spiteri--who is just 21--sang it with a youthful vitality and throaty earthiness that recalled a mix of Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline. Ally McErlaine's guitar work, too, suggested the dark, snarling bite of Keith Richards as much as the more airy, wide-open-spaces feel of Cooder.

Together, they transformed the song into their own rock 'n' roll statement the way Elvis and guitarist Scotty Moore once reinvented Big Boy Crudup's "That's Alright, Mama."

Texas--which also boasts a sturdy rhythm section of bassist John McElhone, who co-writes most of the songs with Spiteri, and drummer Stuart Kerr--then went into its own material, playing them with sometimes electrifying vigor and command.

Spiteri, wearing a simple black blouse and jeans, was a compelling but never artificial or overbearing frontwoman, shaking her dark hair at times with Joplinesque force and moving her body in quick, dynamic turns that reflected the natural rhythm of the music.

By the half-way mark in the 75-minute set, Texas had made great strides in overcoming the one question surrounding its album: the songwriting. On "Southside," the reflections on romantic recovery too frequently seem like stock blues commentaries rather than insightful statements. While not a crippling problem on a debut record, the songwriting level did raise questions about the future limits of the band.

In retrospect, the problem may have been more with the skeletal feel of some of the arrangements of "Southside." Next to the increased tension and punch of the music live, the album sounds at times like simply a rough demo tape.

Spiteri's vocals added nuance and character that made the songs seem more distinctive and convincing. Where the scorching, declarative "I Don't Want a Lover" seemed the clear stand-out on record, the melancholy "Thrill Has Gone," the gospel-edged "Prayer for You" and the wistfully optimistic "The Future Is Promises" provided equally affecting moments at the Coach House.

By the time the group got to such additional outside material as Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" (done especially funky) and the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," the audience was on its feet, celebrating the triumph of this new arrival.

Texas headlines the Roxy in West Hollywood tonight and Bogart's in Long Beach on Wednesday before moving on to Northern California, but look for them to be back early next year.

Where bands once tended to tour here only with a new album, the practice in recent months has been to return more quickly if there is a demand--as in the case of Ireland's Hothouse Flowers and Canada's Cowboy Junkies.

Texas' "Southside" album, a hit in Britain, has enjoyed only moderate success in this country, but these live shows should create a demand for more. There's a conviction and spirit in this young band that is as independent and limitless as its Texas namesake.

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