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Pop Music Reviews : Overdone Meat Loaf Goes a Long Way

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here in the ‘90s, Neil Young is the closest thing we have to a sage who, by example rather than by sermonizing, can remind us of the essential things in rock. And ol’ Neil never spoke more truly than when he sang the refrain “You were born to rock, you’ll never be an opera star.”

Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, is no Youngian. He thinks he can have it both ways, that rock can be pumped up to extreme, operatic proportions without turning into a listing, overstuffed blimp.

Of course, some people really like blimps. Meat Loaf became a star in 1977 with his album “Bat Out of Hell,” which has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, according to his official record company bio.

The air quickly went out of his career after that. But last year he resumed his recording partnership with Jim Steinman, who had written and produced “Bat Out of Hell.” To make sure people got the connection, the resulting album was dubbed “Bat Out of Hell II.” Sales for “Bat II” have topped 4 million in the United States alone, placing Meat Loaf back on the menu of arena headliners.

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Judging from his show Wednesday night at a half-full Irvine Meadows, the Three Tenors don’t have to worry about another very large person hopping on their gravy train. Meat Loaf’s hoarse voice was Ken-L-Ration and his material was USDA Grade Q.

A cliche-bound but occasionally feisty band did its best to prop up the star, as did Patricia Rousseau, a throaty alto who sang duets and backups and often covered for the diminished Meat. Take the high notes away from a would-be theatrical tenor and you have a musical cripple. Meat Loaf, evidently overtaxed by the rigors of his first major tour in years, didn’t even try to span the full range required by his songs, croaking the nearest approximations he could muster, or taking the Rex Harrison declaim-what-you-can’t-sing approach.

There’s one thing you can’t take away from Meat Loaf (or from Steinman, whose name went unmentioned by a star who had profuse thanks for everybody else surrounding him) and that’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” a marvelous piece of recording from “Bat I” that has held up well over the years.

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With its episodic musical structure and grand scale, the song has that epic quality Meat Loaf favors. But its combination of earthiness, innocence and broad comedy in dealing with teen-age lust and its long-range consequences frees it from his customary pomposity.

You can’t write off a Meat Loaf concert if it includes a well-done “Dashboard,” and this show ended with a richly entertaining version that lasted at least 25 minutes. It was the only song Meat Loaf performed in his 40-minute encore, which actually was a fun rock show within a leaden one.

Meat Loaf began the segment with a nice piece of mime, conducting the audience in synchronized yelling as if the fans were a symphony and he was a maestro. Without opening his mouth, he was more entertaining and enlivening than he had been when trying to sing.

The encore also included a speech stating his gratitude at being back in the limelight, made with so much fervor and verge-of-tears sincerity that you’d have thought he was accepting an Oscar or a Grammy. Then, finally, came “Dashboard,” expanded with extra dialogue and play-acting that included Meat Loaf’s demonstration of flamenco dancing. It was hokey but good fun, and it made it possible to overlook some of the dreariness that had gone before.

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It’s a mystery why Meat Loaf doesn’t try more often to tie his overblown musical style to humorous, down-to-earth situations. It certainly doesn’t happen on the rest of the two “Bat” albums, which supplied all the material for a nearly two-hour performance that included just eight songs (those inflated lengths say a lot about Meat Loaf’s taste for largeness).

The 70-minute pre-encore set often found Meat Loaf bent over at the waist in straining poses that recalled Atlas struggling to hold up the world. Loaf’s was far too heavy a load to carry, given the dead weight of such bombastic songs as “Life Is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back,” a dark and stormy number built around an ominous keyboard riff lifted from Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.”

“Bat Out of Hell” was a bad knockoff of “Born to Run"-era Springsteen, although its up-tempo instrumental sections were a good showcase for the band. Among the players and singers were Utopia alumnus Kasim Sultan on keyboards and rhythm guitar; a strong bassist, Steve Buslowe, and backup singer Pearl Aday, the elder of Meat Loaf’s two daughters.

Other than “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” the only songs from the Meat Loaf catalogue that amount to anything are the Phil Spector tribute “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” and Loaf’s comeback hit, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Both were hampered by Meat Loaf’s voice troubles, and by his insistence on trying to be Heathcliff (not the cartoon cat, but the darkly romantic hero of “Wuthering Heights”) when he should have been playing for laughs.

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Openers Cheap Trick are fellow alumni of Meat Loaf’s debut class of ’77, and they have contributed far more to our treasury of exuberant, catchy rock songs than the headliner has.

During its successful early days, Cheap Trick won over arena-rock fans with that exuberance, but the four-man band from Rockford, Ill., also captured some punk and New Wave fans who could appreciate Rick Nielsen’s brawny, slashing guitar playing and the pronounced weird streak and wry cynicism toward authority that crept into Cheap Trick’s songs.

Time hasn’t eroded Cheap Trick’s skills a bit. Robin Zander remains an exceptional rock singer, an American McCartney who can rasp out a convincing rocker or croon a creamy ballad. Nielsen spun out solos with casual aplomb, and he still likes to roam the stage restlessly and to punctuate his playing with leaps and kicks. But, wrapped in a black suit and shades befitting a Blues Brother, and hidden behind a mustache and beard that a Confederate cavalry officer might have worn, he no longer has the zany edge that made him a nice foil for Zander, the blond dreamboat straight man.

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The band, which also includes founding drummer Bun E. Carlos (looking a lot like a bald, scraggly-bearded Allen Ginsberg) and original bassist Tom Petersson, front-loaded its 40-minute set with material from its current album, “Woke Up With a Monster.” It was catchy, and rocked persuasively, but aside from the title track, which seems to be about the emotional harm that comes from growing up in a disharmonious family, it was lightweight.

A lot of Cheap Trick’s early appeal was based on a youthful irreverence and effervescence that is hard for musicians in their 40s to recapture. The band hasn’t been able to write a new chapter for itself, except for “The Flame,” a soppy if attractive power-ballad hit from 1988, and the old script requires a spark of youth that is missing.

What’s left are good, energetic playing and catchy songs that to an extent justify themselves. What’s missing are the agenda and sense of mission and direction that make a band continue to matter.


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