O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : For Barons, the Pleasure Is All Theirs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Certain professionals may be able to serve up pleasure instantly, on demand, but musicians can take a while to get into the proper mood and the proper groove.

So it was with the Pleasure Barons, whose stated purpose, according to a creed read by the profanely zany Mojo Nixon, is to "skip work, sleep late and bring forth pleasure here on earth."

A well-pleased audience at the Rhythm Cafe had to wait a while Friday night for the Pleasure Barons to deliver on that pledge, but once they loosened up, the Barons tapped a keg of steadily flowing smiles.

The band is a confederation of established Southern California roots-rockers who first went on a musical bender together four years ago (documented on a just-issued concert album, "Live in Las Vegas").

This second Pleasure cruise found Nixon, Country Dick Montana (of the Beat Farmers) and Dave Alvin again on board, with John Doe of X and country-rock singers Rosie Flores and Katy Moffatt augmenting the crew, along with five backing musicians.

Baronial life is a form of slumming for Alvin, Doe, Flores and Moffatt, singer-songwriters whose work typically involves more than the indulgence of boozy fun. Montana and Nixon, on the other hand, are musical low-comics to the seedy manor born.

The strapping Stetsoned Country Dick has a build and a low growl that makes you wonder whether he could be a black sheep offspring Johnny Cash is too embarrassed to acknowledge.

As for Nixon, a truly addled character of manic disposition and boundless energy, he is either the living, raspy-voiced incarnation of Krusty the Clown (of "The Simpsons" fame), or the result of some unspeakable laboratory procedure in which two dangerous strains of Lewis chromosomes (Jerry and Jerry Lee) somehow got commingled and grew.

A whole show by either would be overbearing, but the Pleasure Barons' tag-team format allowed them to be consumed in safe dosages. When their more accomplished comrades took over, Mojo and Country Dick had the grace to relinquish the spotlight, step back and slurp drinks.

At the outset, the Barons seemed to be trying to be pleasurably dissolute--a goal that can't really be reached by design. "Party Girls and Wine," a Red Steagall country oldie, and Nixon's "I'm Drunk," were statements of intent, but the party hadn't really begun.

While waiting for the pleasure to flow naturally, one could admire solid musicianship (Alvin's revved guitar work, sax man Jonny Viau's R&B; sax wails, sharp keyboard and steel guitar contributions from Rick Solem and Tim Cook, respectively, and Mike Middleton's hefty, steady beat on drums).

The two Baronesses shared plenty of giggles over their blown backing vocal cues (this was just the second show of a hastily rehearsed tour). Mainly there to lend needed backup-singer support to a crew of less-than-golden-throated males, while also supplying party girl verve, the women each got to front the band for one song.

Moffatt did a sassy turn with a bluesy rockin'-country number, while Flores won the evening's award for courage above and beyond the call of good sense by essaying "Guilty," a Randy Newman song that Bonnie Raitt owns in all but copyright. Flores' voice doesn't have Raitt-like fullness and presence, but she gave it a credible try and tossed in some accomplished blues guitar licks.

The spigot of pleasure started gushing, improbably enough, on a typically puerile piece of Nixonia whose title, "Poontango," is perhaps more than you might care to know about it. We won't elaborate, except to say that it locked the band into an engaging Latin-blues groove and offered the sight of Flores and Moffatt singing lines like "Move your buttocks to and fro" while exchanging "Did-I-really-just-sing-that?" looks and trying not to crack up completely. Now this was pleasure.

The rest of the show, which lasted more than two hours, was an unself-conscious hoot. Offerings ranged from Country Dick's histrionic but somehow sincere dramatizations as the band rumbled satisfyingly through the Beat Farmers' song, "If I Could Hold," to Alvin's anthem-like treatment of "The Games People Play."

In a case of one band of moonlighters covering another, Doe led the Barons on a carefree stomp through "The Call of the Wrecking Ball," a song he and Alvin originally wrote and performed with the Knitters, a lighthearted offshoot of the Blasters and X. With the proper mood struck, Nixon's pratfalls and mock-preaching on "Elvis Is Everywhere," a song that no right-minded person should want to hear again, seemed like an engaging piece of slapstick comedy and screwball wit, while Country Dick handled a medley of Tom Jones songs as if he, Dick, were the prince of Las Vegas.

Doe went out on a limb, declaring: "I can talk politics and pleasure with the same breath," then backed up the boast in a lurching rollick through "The New World," X's scathingly ironic commentary on economic collapse. Braying horns and carnival organ slides from Rick Solem set the proper tone.

Improbably enough, the Pleasure Barons almost finished on a thoughtful, if wry note. The relatively level-headed Alvin led a blazing encore version of Mickey Gilley's "Don't the Girls All Look Prettier at Closing Time," with its apt observation that an element of desperation can underlie the pursuit of pleasure.

But, pleasure being the true opiate of the masses, the audience lustily demanded another encore, giving the Barons a second pass at "Party Dolls and Wine." They nailed the reprise with a boozy chunk-a-chunk beat--perhaps less a matter of practice makes perfect than an example of enlightened mood alteration.

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