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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Just Plain Good Is Enough for Steve Wariner

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Let’s try to think up a gimmick for Steve Wariner, shall we?

The country singer doesn’t wear a hat, neither does he make a big deal out of not wearing a hat. He doesn’t show up at his gigs stinking drunk, nor does he wear shirts so loud that the audience thinks they’re drunk. He hasn’t been in prison. He doesn’t blather on about his pickup truck. He’s not an outlaw, or neo-new traditionalist.

What he is is just plain good, and Wariner doesn’t seem to get much attention for that. He certainly has had hits, including 17 that have reached No. 1 in his 16-year chart career, but his name generally is far from the first that comes up when people are discussing prominent country artists.

So maybe to get a higher profile he’ll need to start wearing a belt buckle the size of a mailbox or eat corn on the cob while he sings or something.

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In the meantime, it seemed to be enough for his fans at first of four shows Monday and Tuesday at the Crazy Horse Steak House that Wariner has an angelic voice, some solid songs and a staggering facility on the guitar.

The 39-year-old Indiana native first made his mark as a guitarist and bass player in the bands of Dottie West, Bob Luman and Chet Atkins. It was guitar wizard Atkins, who also is one of the most influential men in Nashville, who signed Wariner to a recording contract. But even if Wariner never picked up a guitar, he’d be a respectable country act with his singing.

Like fellow double threat singer-guitarist Vince Gill, Wariner has a warm, expressive tenor voice, not quite possessed of the keening ache Gill’s has, but a plaintive tool nonetheless.

Though nearly every song in the generous 21-song early show was a pleasure to hear, there were only a couple that brought out the emotional range of Wariner’s voice.

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He opened the show with the title song from his most recent album, 1993’s “Drive.” Though he has a large catalogue of hits, most of the set was drawn from his more recent albums.

Some of his older hits were dispensed with in truncated medley form, including “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “What I Didn’t Do,” “Why Goodbye” and “Heart Trouble.” That approach never does justice to the song or singer; who can work up much emotional steam in just one verse of a song?

That did, however, leave more room for his impressive recent material. The ballad “Drivin’ and Cryin’ ” elicited emotional vocals and guitar work from Wariner.

He has an Atkins-derived finger-picking style that may be complex and technically baffling--particularly when he brought the pedal-steel-emulating B-bender on his Telecaster into play--but it never seemed frilly or less than direct.

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With that musicianship and an obvious zeal for playing, Wariner was able to elevate standard pop fare like “If I Didn’t Love You” from the “Drive” album into an exuberant celebration. Wariner also proved a capable, if not especially gritty, blues player on Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready.”

The most memorable moments in the show were the ballads. His self-penned 1991 “Like a River to the Sea” was a touching affirmation of his love for his wife, though he explained that when he first played it for her she told him to come back when “Designing Women” was over.

The standout song of the evening was Wariner’s rendition of Bill Anderson’s 1960 hit “The Tips of My Fingers.” It’s a mournful ballad about a love that has slipped away, and in voicing it, Wariner reached that special time-freezing mood that Vince Gill does in his best moments.

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He was backed by a capable six-piece band that featured his brother Terry on guitar and harmony vocals. As brothers’ voices often do, theirs blended beautifully. Terry also was given the lead vocal on Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” a song the band has been doing in concert for the past year.


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