Winning over a concert audience comes so easily to Peter Himmelman that he seemed to be setting a self-imposed handicap for himself Saturday night at the Coach House just to make it a challenge.
For the first 65 minutes of his show, he held the clever, indefatigable, ever-entertaining tongue that makes him one of rock's most engaging between-songs extemporizers. Himmelman, who combines singer-songwriter and heartland rock sensibilities, might pose a threat to David Letterman if he ever decided to quit music and turn that tongue to talk TV.
Instead, he made the first half of his concert a shaddap-and-play affair, saying not a word between songs as he and his band barreled through his new album, "Skin," in its entirety.
That made for some heavy slogging in the early going. "Skin" (the eighth album in a recording career that dates back to 1980) is a concept album of sorts--apparently Himmelman's reason for playing the whole thing nonstop. But it's not a well-developed concept. Himmelman sets out to describe what happens when the soul of a sleazy egotist is given a second chance through reincarnation, but he fails to stuff "Skin" with the flesh and bone of strong characterization. That's a fatal flaw for anyone with ambitions of giving rock some of the trappings of musical theater.
The show got off uncertainly as Himmelman and band coped with feedback problems and a sound mix that buried his lyrics. The album's opening, expository songs laid out the reincarnation motif, but didn't accomplish much else. They are way below par for Himmelman, who relies on strong melodies and affecting, openly emotional lyrics to provide a winning vehicle for a nasal and grainy voice that isn't about to carry a show on its own.
The saving grace of "Skin" is that Himmelman utterly loses interest in the reincarnation business once he gets Mr. Sleaze safely reborn about halfway through. That leaves him half an album to do what he always has done well--present a musical/spiritual dialogue in which exalted moments of illumination arrive, then fall away to leave the searcher struggling for another glimpse of light.
Himmelman gained sure footing with two luminous ballads, "Shilo" and "Laugh My Beloved"--the first a wedding song (and definitely no relation to the Neil Diamond "Shilo"), the second a father's hopeful blessing to his newborn child. Himmelman is often at his best writing about the most intimate bonds between parents and children, husbands and wives. If he wants to do a conceptual piece, a musical suite centered on the family might be the way for him to go. (Himmelman's best album, "Flown This Acid World," is particularly rich in fine songs that portray how families form, grow and are sustained).
Once on course, "Skin" worked well because it follows Himmelman's typical ebb and flow. After the hope and warmth of "Shilo" and "Laugh My Beloved" came chill emotional weather, storms of anguish, and a resolution in which hope and trouble could coexist.
The music was well executed by a tight band whose core--keyboards player Jeff Victor, bassist Al Wolovitch and drummer Andy Kamman--has been together since the 1970s, when they started out with Himmelman in Minneapolis as the Sussman Lawrence Band. They were delicate on the ballads, and hit with a crisp, muscular impact on the rockers.
Wolovitch was a pivotal player, commanding an exceptionally firm, clear bass tone and a sharp melodic sense. Guitarist Greg Herzenach showed a sweet, lyrical touch on his solos, while Himmelman took some of the more assertive solos with a hard-slashing attack. A violinist, Jessica Green, provided typically wistful shadings that often came off as unneeded sweetening. Backing singer Kristin Mooney provided much-needed sweetening and cushioning for Himmelman. She also could muster a robust soul-tinged cry that recalled, albeit in a much toned-down, reined-in fashion, Merry Clayton's epic wailing on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."
With "Skin" complete, we then got an hour-plus of fleshed-out Himmelman. This naturally talkative, surprising fellow simply took over the audience's attention and led it in whatever unpredictable direction he liked.
The evening's big comic set piece found the singer composing an impromptu silly ode to San Juan Capistrano. Advised by the audience that San Juan is famed for its swallows, he made up "an ornithological study" on the spot--actually a florid ballad, incorporating rhymes like "The robins in Minnesota, they wish they could floata, to San Juan." Himmelman finished with a flourish, a vibrato-heavy crooner's crescendo worthy of Julio Iglesias.
Himmelman's chat was more than just entertaining shtick. It formed a lighthearted bridge that allowed outright musical jests (the bird ballad, and an improbable medley of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Wonder and Black Sabbath bits) to stand alongside his always-serious album selections without creating a grinding clash of gears.
Along the way, Himmelman pulled off an impressive balancing act as he described two of the most painful episodes of his life--his father's funeral, and the day he broke off with his fiancee of 11 years, leaving her screaming in a New York City street. He invested those anecdotes with ironic wit, but never callousness, as he established amid the fun-time atmosphere appropriately thoughtful backdrops for the songs "Tremble" and "Crushed."
The Coach House audience probably wouldn't have minded a full two hours of this charming-and-disarming approach. If Himmelman had incorporated some between-songs storytelling in "Skin," and dropped some of its weaker songs in favor of more of his primo stuff, the late-running evening would have been just about perfect.
Before Himmelman, Kevin Montgomery offered a set weighted heavily toward rueful ballads about romances plagued by suspicion and enforced distance, among other obstacles and flaws. That might sound like a formula for sameness, but Montgomery's high tenor voice registered such a sweetly alluring plaint that he could have gone on pouring his poor heart out all night and few would have minded.
There's more kick to the Nashville-bred, Los Angeles-based singer's debut album, "Fear Nothing," thanks to help from such accomplished country-rock guitar heroes as John Jorgenson and Al Perkins. But Montgomery alone worked fine, thanks to his knack for low-keyed, slightly absurdist humor (touring with Himmelman must offer some good ideas on that score).
With a voice that's a cross between Marshall Crenshaw's and Roger McGuinn's, Montgomery held the audience rapt. He said he was fighting a sore throat, but each reedy chorus came through firm and clear.
Amie Bovee, an Orange County-based folkie, opened with a well-received acoustic set. Her singing is her strength, marked by a tawny, Christine McVie-like hue, but with more of an assertive edge.
What's missing from this coffeehouse veteran's act are the subtle touches. She backed herself with bland, redundant strumming--woodshedding or recruiting a lead guitarist partner would be in order. Bovee's lyrics tended to be strings of commonplace declarations that stated feelings and left it at that.
She carried several confessional songs on the strength of conviction alone, but as personal as some songs were in their subject matter, they didn't have the distinctive twists and surprising angles that come with a deeply personal songwriting voice.