As if to underline her growth from 13-year-old child star into 31-year-old adult, Tanya Tucker announced from the stage Friday night that her musical taste nowadays ranges "from Mozart to Kitty Wells."
Unfortunately, much of what Tucker sang at the Celebrity Theatre was a slick, country-pop hybrid delivered with too much regard for the show-biz conventions she grew up with and not enough simplicity and heart. That's too bad: With her distinctive, burry twang of a voice, Tucker has the potential to be a countrified Bonnie Raitt, someone with real depth and authority. Raitt's genius is to sing every song as if she has lived it. Too often, Tucker just went for the gloss and came off as a singer with no ambition or motivation beyond being popular.
On too many songs, Tucker's six-man band played anonymous arrangements that relied upon the synthesized layering and hollow, tinkling electronic keyboard sounds that are the trademark and bane of the country-pop form. It's a formula for instant, off-putting schmaltz that reeks of button-pushing artifice. To make things worse, Tucker's voice was under-amplified for much of the the show's first half.
When the singer's older sister, LaCosta Tucker, came on for a brassy, three-song stretch at mid-set, the energy level actually improved. (Before leaving to change outfits while LaCosta sang, Tanya Tucker announced that she is helping to engineer a musical comeback for her sister, who had two Top 10 country hits in the mid-'70s.)
Tucker's show made it clear that she is trying to engineer a change of persona for herself. "I grew up in the business of country music. I'm still trying . . . to grow up," she said after announcing that her maturing musical tastes extend to Mozart. Part of that growing up evidently involves ditching her old, sexually racy stage image. The new Tucker was almost demure, dressed first in a white cowgirl outfit, then in a lacy white belle-of-the-ball gown. Aside from a couple of hip shakes, there was no sexual emphasis to Tucker's performance, and she omitted such sassy, lust-driven numbers as "Highway Robbery."
But there is more to maturity than exchanging tight leathers for white lace. Tucker, though folksy and pleasant enough, came off as an unusually self-involved performer who kept talking about her history of hits and her recent career doings, instead of addressing the crowd on a more down-to-earth level that might have illuminated who she is and what she makes of life beyond the footlights.
Yes, Tucker brought out her adorable 7-month-old daughter, Presley Tanita, during her final bows but it was strictly another show-biz maneuver. Instead of easily charming the crowd with a glimpse of baby, why not sing a song about motherhood and set it up with some observations about her own experience?
Also, as long as Tucker was going to fill us in with chat about the new album she is about to release and the new video she just shot for her new single, she might at least have given us some preview performances of her new songs. Not to do so was sheer stinginess, and in a set that lasted just 65 minutes, a little more generosity certainly would have been in order.
Still, the show contained some good moments that make one hope Tucker really can enter a process of musical maturation that will lead her from slickness and convention to the possibilities of deeper, more personal expression. With the tritely contemporary keyboards toned down and the band providing simple accompaniment and some strong gospel-tinged backing vocals, Tucker had effectively plaintive moments on "Strong Enough to Bend" and "Love Me Like You Used to." Countrified oldies such as "What's Your Mama's Name" and "Delta Dawn" also held up well. A show-closing rendition of Tucker's recent hit, "My Arms Stay Open All Night," offered more of that suspicious country-pop hybrid strain, but a brightly affirmative, solidly rocking delivery made it work.
The Desert Rose Band runs afoul of the country-music industry's wariness of intrusion from rockers in cowpoke's clothing, which is probably why leader Chris Hillman told the Celebrity Theatre audience that he is "still trying to dodge that old country-rock label. . . . Good old hillbilly rock 'n' roll is what we do."
In a better world, a band as strong as Desert Rose wouldn't have to worry about jumping through properly named hoops in order to improve its commercial prospects. It would just go out and play the way it did Friday night, and let the terminology fall where it may.
In fact, the Desert Rose Band is a country-rock band. There were Eagles resonances in its more pop-ish moments ("I Still Believe in You"), and, with a little extra bluegrass accent thrown in, the band's basic approach isn't that different from the Southern California country-rockers of the early '70s. Heck, as a Byrd and a Flying Burrito Brother, Hillman was in on the ground floor of that movement himself.
While pedigree may matter to country-radio programmers and Nashville moguls, all that counted on stage was the splendid singing and playing of this cornucopia of a band.
Hillman's lead singing is straightforward and effective, but it was the rich, accurate harmony blend of three, sometimes four voices that really captured the ear. Desert Rose's two instrumental soloists, John Jorgenson on guitars and mandolin, and Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel guitar, both played with a jeweler's precision and an epicure's taste. Together, they set up an instrumental weave that was the equal counterpart of the vocal blend. Maness, formerly one of Buck Owens' Buckaroos, is a definitive player who made his notes hop, skitter or soar as the situation commanded. That old standby, the anthem rocker, took on special verve and grandeur in Desert Rose's hands, thanks to Maness' soaring, wind-swept colorations.
There wasn't a dud song in the hourlong set. Especially effective was a mid-show pairing of socially conscious numbers: first the aching, Mexican-flavored lament, "For the Rich Man" (about the plight of illegal Latino immigrants), then "Darkness on the Playground," a charging rock anthem that gets at some of the complexities (kids adrift through lack of adult responsibility in teaching values) of the drug problem.
There was just one delicacy missing from Desert Rose's tightly arranged bouquet. The band barely departed from its structured, close-to-the-record craftsmen's approach, when it would have been fun to hear it let go with the free-flying, back and forth soloing of a traditional bluegrass band. (There was a bit of that at the end, when a concluding train-rhythm number allowed Jorgenson room to take off on a high-powered express run.) When a band is this good, it's a special pleasure to watch it throw out the plan and take a song into uncharted reaches.