One good thing about jukeboxes is that they can't talk.
When Highway 101 got rolling Thursday night at Cowboy Boogie Co., it was a lot like a good jukebox, spinning out a repertoire of high-quality country songs. Unfortunately, this jukebox had a mouth.
Actually, it had four. The gab came from every direction, as Highway 101's members vied to get their two cents in.
Nikki Nelson, the singer who joined the band nine months ago, was the least culpable. She kept her remarks close to the matter at hand, except when she had to serve up awkward setup lines for the others.
The three old hands in the band, guitarist Jack Daniels, drummer Cactus Moser and bassist Curtis Stone, were intent on carrying on some rather sour-humored running jokes. Maybe Paulette Carlson, the original singer who helped Highway 101 establish itself as a consistent hit-maker over the course of its first three albums, left to go solo because she got bored with all the lame banter.
There's nothing wrong with chat that has charm, but Highway 101's tended to be terminally trite (they made sure to mention the name of their new album, "Bing Bang Boom," whenever they played a song from it. Perhaps they figure it needs some salesmanship after a slow start on the country charts). Otherwise, the boys in the band tried to be funny at each other's expense, sounding like boors as they tried to be wits.
In one running routine, Stone was supposed to be jealous whenever the band played a song that Moser had a hand in writing (it's a mystery why a band that relies mainly on outside songwriters would want to make such a big deal out of pride of authorship).
Then there was the mirthless bit about Stone's girlfriend running off with a tractor salesman, leaving a John Deere letter, then posing in "Plowboy" magazine.
You wondered after awhile whether these guys like each other. It certainly did nothing to make a beholder like them.
The chatter could be Highway 101's way of groping for a group personality. The band's music, good as it is taken song by song, doesn't flesh out a clear and distinctive outlook.
The Desert Rose Band, which builds on a proud musical heritage and tackles songs that reflect Chris Hillman's personal vision of matters both social and emotional, has a personality. Highway 101, on the other hand, lacks grounding and a center. It plays traditional honky-tonk well; it plays rock-flavored anthems well; it plays aching ballads well; it plays rough-hewn frat rock (a hack-work, 8-minute encore of "Twist and Shout") not so well. But no unifying thematic thread ran through the nearly two-hour show. These are strong singers and players who have shown good taste in choosing material but don't collectively have a group story to tell.
By engaging in backbiting humor, Moser, Daniels and Stone only underscored the band's lack of a unified purpose.
If Highway 101 is smart, the three men will swallow their egos and fall in line behind Nelson, who showed some of the makings of a fine front woman.
Where Carlson leaned toward winsomeness and dressed in elegant Western belle garb, Nelson has her own identity--a tawny, twangy voice with a sassy edge that she underscored by wearing a tight red leather outfit.
But, like Carlson before her, Nelson was able to paint with shades not related to her primary color. The red-haired singer may lead with sass--she was well suited to play the street-smart, acerbic protagonist of "Restless Kind"--but she also ached convincingly on "The Blame," a Tammy Wynette-style plaint, and "This Side of Goodbye," a wistful, well-executed country-rocker.
Maybe because she is still new, or because Highway 101 doesn't really want a central focus, Nelson didn't project a strong, spotlight-holding personality to match her talent. For now, she is just another cog in the jukebox's machinery.
The cog most in need of oiling was Moser's drumming, which was far too noisy, cluttered and ostentatious.
If Moser wants to be Keith Moon, he ought to join a rock power trio. Highway 101 would function better if he used a lighter, sparer touch and concentrated on supporting the rest of the band rather than trying to be its lead instrumentalist. (To be fair, Moser's onslaught of cymbal flashes and plangent snare crashes seemed to stem from exuberance rather than selfishness.)
The rock rave-up during "Setting Me Up" should have been more than enough to let everyone show off. It found Daniels playing a driving guitar pattern that recalled the intro to Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell"--which is as far from Nashville as you can get (farther into the number, he returned to earthier turf by quoting Duane Eddy). For the most part, though, Daniels stuck to concise, tasty picking. Many of the flashier solos went to John Noreen, a dynamic sideman on steel guitars.