O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Differing Rock-Career Theories Tested in Santa Ana Triple Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County rock triple bill at Hamptons on Saturday night put two widely differing career philosophies to the test.

Should rockers seeking the music business limelight concentrate on honing their craft in a recording studio, or should they sweat it out night after night on stage, playing to people instead of tape recorders?

Exude hunkers in an Anaheim garage, seldom venturing out to play live. Core members Frank and Vince Rogala and Robin Canada support themselves with day jobs while hoping that the techno-dance rock they piece together on tape will win them a record deal. The show at Hamptons was Exude's first live performance in Orange County in more than five years, according to Frank Rogala.

Mark Wood and Nick Pyzow both take the second approach, playing regularly enough to make a living with their guitars. At Hamptons, Wood, who fronted his five-man band, and Pyzow, who opened with a solo acoustic set, delivered skilled, assured performances that showed how much practice can count.

But there is a down side to being a working pro on the local level. Almost invariably, it involves covering familiar, danceable hits by big name acts, leaving less time for original songs. Playing other people's music can hone musicianship and broaden a performer's stylistic range but it can also pose a stumbling block when it comes to developing a musical personality of one's own.

Wood's set suffered the most on that account. Although he played all original songs before devoting his encore to feisty, fan-pleasing covers of Led Zeppelin and James Brown, much of his performance had a familiar ring to it.

Songs such as "Why," "Darkness" and "Johnny Come Home" had the broad melodic hooks and polished feel of a lot of radio-ready mainstream music, calling to mind the likes of Bryan Adams, Journey, Starship and the Doobie Brothers. But, like most of the stuff that Adams and Journey churn out, the songs didn't register much depth, surprise or personality.

Lead guitarist Mike Reed's solos were infected with mainstreamitis. Time after time, he swooped fleetly up and down the guitar neck, shredding notes in flurries, a model of facility--and of utter, heard-it-all-before predictability.

In other respects, though, Wood and his band were impressive. Wood's acoustic guitar playing was a real strong suit, especially on two extended set pieces. The first was inspired by the mysterious folk-wizardry side of Led Zeppelin. The second was a solo spot that took on a drive and intensity that recalled the kinetic, bristling tone--if not quite the virtuosity--of some of Leo Kottke's early recordings.

Wood also played strong acoustic piano accompaniments as he sang a series of ballads midway through his 110-minute show. At its best, his singing had a reedy, bluesy tinge that recalled Elton John; "In My Dreams," the least cliched and most heartfelt song in the set, had a wistful, Elton-ish cast to it. Wood received consistently good vocal harmony support from his band.

Wood's melodies were always catchy, and downright fetching on such numbers as the lovely ballad "Make It What You Want It to Be." But too often the potential in those hooks and melodies was squandered on bland, cliched lyrics such as these from "Want It To Be":

There's more to life than meets the eye

And what lies ahead is more than money can buy.

Money can't buy imagination, and Wood and his band need a big helping of that to go with their obvious musical skills.

Pyzow's half-hour set began as if he wanted the audience to imagine it was hearing a Bruce Springsteen solo show. He opened by tooting a Springsteenesque harmonica and singing a cappella in a Boss-like husk on the fervent lament, "For Our Youth." It made for an awkward start, but Pyzow deserves credit for taking a risk at the outset.

After that, Pyzow settled in with his acoustic guitar for a straightforward set of ballads and folk-rockers drawing on solid sources such as Springsteen, the Byrds and Bob Dylan. While not exactly a daring wordsmith himself, Pyzow came up with the occasional line that stood out: "There's more to praying than saying, 'Thank God it's not me,' " he sang on the melancholy "Don't Know What You're Missing."

Pyzow, who has a new album with his band due out in May, showed a rocker's instincts on "Victim's Blues," zestfully strumming his guitar while acting out all the roles in a song that managed to draw a legitimately humorous portrait of a hit-and-run car wreck.

While Exude's stay-at-home strategy hasn't landed it a record deal yet, the band has done pretty well for itself in other ways. Its credits include a winning video ("Safe With You") on MTV's now-defunct "Basement Tapes" competition for unsigned bands, and recognition from Musician magazine as one of the best unsigned bands of 1988.

Exude's new, self-financed album "Testosterone Tapdance" vouches nicely for its studio-rat approach: The album is full of savvy production touches, melodic hooks and witty lyrics that breath some life into songs about lust and love.

At home in the garage studio, Exude can compensate for its chief weakness: singer Frank Rogala's extremely limited voice. But on stage, Rogala was on his own. Lacking much range or power, he tried an assortment of growls, howls and breathy stage whispers to put songs across.

It worked on "Get Your Meat," a gritty dance-rock grinder that was served well by a gritty vocal approach. Elsewhere, though, Rogala was hard put to meet the demands of songs such as "359 Directions," an aching ballad that would be well-served by a Rod Stewart or a Paul Young.

Rogala was an energetic, quirky presence, decked in a sports coat, white undershirt and suspenders. His trademark feathery boa of blond hair hung across his sweating face, fanning it as he leaped about the stage. But it wasn't until nearly the end of Exude's 70-minute show that it hit a good, physical groove. Inactivity, and the fact that the band was working with a new bass player, may have held it back. Also, Exude is very much a dance band and it may have had a hard time catching fire in a sit-down venue such as Hamptons. In any case, many a good song from "Testosterone Tapdance" failed to connect.

When Exude finally did connect, it was with a surprising twist. Synthesizer players Vince Rogala (who doubled nicely on saxophone) and Robin Canada switched from plinking out light dance-rock hooks to laying on heavy sonic slabs as the band churned through a hard rock song, "She's Your Lover." Written recently for a film soundtrack, the song sounded like an Alice Cooper number--a neat trick for a band that doesn't use guitars. That led into a lively encore that redeemed Exude's otherwise uncertain return to playing live on its home turf.

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