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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : The I’s Have It at Hank Jr. Show at Irvine Meadows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Hank Williams Jr. finished his show Friday night at Irvine Meadows, a picture of his own bad self, clad in outlaw black, was beamed behind him on a screen, along with the legend, “Maverick.”

“Maverick Jr.” would have been more apt, because any senior-grade maverick would have made sure to back up the boast with a persuasive show of force. Williams evidently is so convinced by his incessant self-hyping (only Julius Caesar, in recorded history, referred to himself in the third-person more frequently than does Hank Jr.) that he feels he can be a maverick without even trying. The result was a ponderous, predictable, uninvolved and murky-sounding walk-through of a performance.

“Maverick,” incidentally, is the name of Williams’ new album, but he didn’t bother actually playing anything from it during his stingy 67-minute concert. Instead, the show was a run-through of past hits--his own, his daddy’s, and shoddy versions of songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aerosmith.

Hank Jr.'s outlook is dominated not only by egotism but by hedonism, chauvinism (on behalf of country, as in America, and Country, as in music) and pappy-praising nepotism. Not exactly the qualities of a Renaissance Man, but over the years Williams has been able to come at his subjects from some clever angles, and usually with a swaggering, hard-rocking sonic walk to back up all the blowhard talk.

This time his gait was slipshod and stumbling, due mainly to manhandling at the mixing board, but also because Williams’ four-guitar lineup is so muscle-bound that clean, graceful moves become difficult. To make matters worse, the three electric guitars and pedal steel, along with much of Hank’s singing, were steam-rolled by an over-amped bass. Amid the instrumental murk, only harp player Mike Murphy was able to make much of an impression.

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One of the guitarists seemed to have no function other than to sport a stovepipe hat, providing a visual allusion to Lynyrd Skynyrd. It only brought to mind how masterfully Skynyrd was able to execute an interlocking three-guitar attack last summer on the same stage.

Williams didn’t introduce his eight-man Bama Band, by the way: Apparently there’s a rule in his shows that the only proper nouns to be spoken are “Hank,” “Williams” and “Bocephus,” the nickname his father gave him, after a ventriloquist’s dummy that was part of an act on the Grand Ole Opry. For that matter, there seemed to be a rule against any voice but Hank’s being heard. The Bama Band didn’t sing backups, which left the choruses of “Walk This Way,” the Aerosmith oldie, and “Mind Your Own Business,” the Hank Sr. classic, sounding naked.

“Mind Your Own Business” was one of the show’s better moments. But “Walk This Way,” certainly a maverick choice for a country act, was sloppily played and fell flat with Hank Jr.'s verveless near-rap on the verses.

Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” was a curious choice for Williams--not because Southern-rock boogie isn’t right down his alley, but because the song, about a guy begging not to be ventilated with bullets by a jealous husband, requires a sense of self-mockery. For Hank Jr., that’s a stretch. Not surprisingly, the requisite comic brio was missing.

Williams made his usual show of versatility, but he was just going through the motions playing some boogie piano on one number, then sawing on a fiddle during the Williams Sr. hit, “Kaw-Liga.” He also did his usual acoustic Delta blues guitar spot, starting off with a version of Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” so casual it sounded as if he were summoning the maid to clear the dishes rather than pleading with a lover to return to hearth and home.

After finishing with the fiddle on “Kaw-Liga,” Williams, doing his impression of a Jabbar sky-hook, tossed it to his roadie in a high, long, arc. That was his exciting stage move for the night, unless you count a single leg-kick from a sitting position during “Born to Boogie.”

The show took a decided turn for the better on “If It Will It Will” with the band finally cranking hard and clean, adding a gospel edge, and drawing on subject matter (some homespun que sera sera philosophy) not related to Hank’s ego.

But instead of building on that for an exciting home stretch, Williams decided to just go home. He left suddenly, with no goodby and apparently not even a thought of an encore. Maybe he figured that 67 minutes with a maverick was all that mere mortals could take.

This flat show could be a sign that Hank Jr. finally is getting a tad bored with himself. Unfortunately, himself is all he’s got.

Even if Williams had been up to par, Patty Loveless would have stolen the show from him. The Kentucky native didn’t go for flashy stage moves or bravura vocal tactics. All she did was hone in unfailingly on the emotional core of every song she performed, singing with a sense of proportion that, for all its classicist’s moderation, was fully engaged and intense.

With her assured, clear vocals and the ease with which she moves between honky-tonk and rock-based country styles, Loveless has a lot in common with former Orange County resident Jann Browne (although after five successful albums, Loveless is far above Browne on the commercial ladder).

Wearing a red jacket with tails that made her look like a country cousin to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Loveless covered a good deal of stylistic ground as she mixed past hits with a seven-song sampling from her current album, “Up Against My Heart.”

The opening rockin'-country number, “I’m That Kind of Girl” (a sort of transplanted-to-Nashville version of the Romantics’ new-wave rocker “What I Like About You”), found her singing with a lively yelp. The lament “Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You” allowed her to showcase a full-bodied tone that recalled Patsy Cline.

Two closing rockers, “Jealous Bone” and “On Down the Line,” were full of playful sass. “Don’t Toss Us Away,” originally done by the rock band Lone Justice, gave a good reflection of Loveless’s tempered strength: Her sliding moans on this hurting ballad were measured in comparison to Maria McKee’s over-the-top performance, yet no less affecting.

Besides giving a shining account of Loveless’ own talent, the 45-minute set served as an indirect indictment of the contemporary Nashville studio system. Everything Loveless and her six-member touring band played was far more vibrant than the recorded versions crafted by the usual Nashville studio cats.

The “Up Against My Heart” album was made with a roster of undeniably brilliant players, among the best Nashville has to offer. But like the Southern California soft-rock sound of the mid-'70s, the Nashville sound today has grown too slick, too professional, too accomplished. Loveless’ unheralded touring players let the songs breathe and gave them a fire missing from the too-fastidious studio recordings.

As the Nashville corporate machine tries to figure out why Billy Ray Cyrus’ album is so hot, it might consider that he made it not with the usual impeccably credentialed suspects, but with a bunch of no-names who’d been bashing around in bars with him for several years. It doesn’t make for buffed-to-a-gleam perfection, but when a band is really a band, you get a warm, organic, more-than-the-notes feeling that you rarely get from hired hands, no matter how skilled they are.

Opener Doug Stone celebrated his 36th birthday with the coltish and exuberant performance of a guy who was really happy to be on stage--or anywhere, for that matter. Having survived quadruple bypass heart surgery in late April, Stone probably isn’t taking his blessings for granted these days.

He alluded obliquely to his postoperative status several times, without milking it too hard. Introducing “I’d Be Better Off (In a Pine Box),” Stone mused that “we came close” to being in one.

Stone’s firm, controlled, first-class voice puts him in the George Strait/Randy Travis/Ricky Van Shelton neck of the country woods, but his wry, active performing style gives him a dimension that these cigar-store Indians lack. He wasn’t ashamed to lurch around like a drunk or plead from his knees while pantomiming the action of “The Right to Remain Silent.”

He could use more strong material like the too-tinkly but nevertheless passionate MOR-flavored ballads “Different Light” and “Come in Out of the Pain,” and the down-home crowd favorite, “A Jukebox With A Country Song.”

The sound man did Stone no favors, making him compete with a rumbling bass, and Stone didn’t help himself with a rock-oriented band intro segment that found his guitarist fooling around with the Kinks’ venerable “You Really Got Me” riff. Yet, while not grabbing or original, Stone’s 35 minute set showcased a solid, hard-working talent.


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