O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Dion Wanders Back but Not Forth in High-Energy Show : While '50s icon proves he is no has-been, at Coach House he shows little of what will be.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After Dion DiMucci played the Coach House Friday night, it was still an open question whether this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from the '50s has any fresh chapters to write in the '90s.

It was perfectly clear, though, that Dion is no has-been--and painfully clear that he is no comedian.

Dion's attempts at between-songs humor made one realize that "Hee-Haw" isn't as bad as it could have been: it could have been set in the Bronx. Dion's jests about his old New York City haunts included lame ethnic jokes, stock portraits of nuns as drill sergeants and outdated boasts about how tough his old street gang was. Compared to what happens nowadays on gang turf, Dion and his old running mates might as well have been Dick, Jane and Spot.

At least Dion, 52, and his five current running mates put some steel toes and brass knuckles into their performance. Looking as casual as a bunch of buddies out for an evening at the racetrack, Dion and band offered reasonably feisty, never fussy instrumental arrangements and some exceptionally full, four-part backing harmonies.

Playing for a predominantly middle-aged audience, Dion stuck mainly to oldies from the late '50s and early '60s. He delivered them affectionately, with nothing tossed off or sardined into a medley.

Still, the 80-minute show's most intense moments were the three songs Dion offered from his 1989 comeback album (and most recent release), "Yo Frankie."

Dion showed confidence in the recent material by placing it strategically. "King of the New York Streets" was the second song, following a too-slow opening jog through the Frankie Ford oldie, "Sea Cruise." After that, "New York Streets" hit an urgency that established from the start that Dion is not just an oldies act.

The other "Yo Frankie" songs were held for the encore. Dion had ended the main body of his set by throwing back-to-back haymakers with "The Wanderer" and a vibrant reading of "Runaround Sue," one of rock's most fetching good-time songs (it's a song that belongs in space capsules; if alien contact occurs, the earthlings play "Runaround Sue," and the extraterrestrials automatically assume they're dealing with likable beings of overwhelming good cheer). You would think anything would be anticlimactic after those two blasts from the 30-years-distant past. But the new songs, "Written on the Subway Wall" and "And the Night Stood Still" were themselves vibrant numbers that left the audience howling--unrewarded, as it turned out--for a second encore.

Clearly, this was strong, new music. But thematically, the three new songs all were retrograde, looking back on the old days in the old neighborhood, albeit from a matured perspective. It may have made sense on a comeback album like "Yo Frankie" to recapitulate and look backward. But to really prove himself a continuing force, Dion will have to speak more to the here-and-now.

Singing his oldies, Dion couldn't really hope to match the original performances from 30 years ago. Most of his original hits fairly seethed with the bravado of youth, the exceptional swaggering edge that Dion could bring to them in his arrogant early 20s. Still, he gave engaged performances in a solid, tuneful voice well-cushioned by his backup singers.

Dion handled one potential stumbling block beautifully. How does a 52-year-old man sing "A Teenager in Love" without sounding ridiculous? What he does is tell the audience, "You've rehearsed this long enough, you should get this right," whereupon they live up to the challenge by singing along lustily on his sweet but ultimately laughable anthem of moonstruck adolescent romance.

"Abraham, Martin and John" posed a challenge, too, because its aching sincerity and historical subject matter are so far removed from the style and flavor of Dion's other hits. He sang it fervently, accompanied only by his own reverb-drenched guitar and a tasteful synthesizer bed. But the song still seemed like a part that didn't fit, sandwiched between a lively old rock tune and a crowd-pleasing pair of doo-wop songs done in a cappella, street-corner style.

Dion could have made "Abraham, Martin and John" part of something bigger, something special. He could have departed from hit material for 15 minutes or so and woven a longer segment of serious, intimate numbers, showcasing less well-known songs from his late-'60s and '70s incarnation as a folk-rocker. "Sanctuary," "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" and "Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms)" all would have been good choices. So would some of the obscure but powerful straight-blues songs that appear on "Bronx Blues," a recent retrospective CD of Dion's recordings from 1962-1965. Placing "Abraham, Martin and John" in such a set-within-a-set would have shown the range of styles and themes that have made Dion much more than a good-time, pre-Beatles hit machine.

Kerri Anderson's opening set had all the makings of the biggest strategic blunder since Pickett's charge. Utterly unknown, and playing for a crowd that had come to hear lots of zesty stuff from Dion, the newcomer from Canada decided to feed them 40 minutes of stark, brooding, solo-acoustic Angst emanating from a particularly dark corner of relationship hell.

As it turned out, Pickett might have prevailed with someone like Anderson in the ranks. She sang like a tigress, holding the audience for most of her set with a fierce intensity that made her almost impossible to tune out, even if you were antsy to hear "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue."

Using plain language, but shading it with varied dynamics, Anderson laid bare feelings of inadequacy and betrayal brought on by disastrous romances. There was a hint of a Suzanne Vega wisp in her upper range, but most striking were keening, all-out passages that recalled the likes of Patti Smith and Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde. Anderson played the part of a woman scorned, and her voice struck at times like a vengeful slap. She would have been downright forbidding if she hadn't turned out to be a comfortable, casually joking presence between songs.

Before she had strummed or sung a note, Anderson asked the crowd to rush out and buy her debut album when it comes out in January. It seemed the height of chutzpah at the time, but by the end of her set, it sounded more like good consumer advice.

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