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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Gilley Keeps Fire Too Low for Show to Cook

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is a certain impassive character to Mickey Gilley’s stage demeanor--what you might call a relaxed approach.

Let’s put it this way: If Gilley had been a guest dogface on TV’s “Combat,” and the Germans had lobbed a potato masher grenade into the building where he was and then came in to bayonet the survivors, would you suppose Gilley could play dead convincingly?

I’d just bet he could, after seeing him perform his early show Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House.

This isn’t a bad thing. I’d be rooting for the Nazis not to get him, just as I was rooting for him Monday. He’s a likable guy, something of a pleasure to see despite the canned, theme-park bent of his show. His performance may be wooden, but it is a warm, friendly wood, like mahogany.

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Gilley is cousin to both Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, and his vocal and piano styles echo Lewis’ remarkable gifts. But he plays the steady tortoise to his cousin’s hare, and no matter who crosses the finish line first, you know which one is more fun to watch.

One rather expects Gilley to outlive the hard-living Lewis, and as a performer he does have the distinct advantage of actually showing up for his gigs. But where on a good night the mercurial Lewis delivers up hellfire and heaven in wild performances reeking of genius, Gilley consistently underwhelms with rehearsed banter, stage moves that appear to have been calculated months in advance, and a singing approach that only rarely admits his capability to convey emotion.

*

There were moments Monday when that talent won through. His cover of George Jones’ “The Window Up Above” did full justice to the jilted-husband lyric. An unexpected twist to his show is that he has started doing Neil Diamond tunes. Gilley’s admittedly Wayne Newton-ized version of “Sweet Caroline” wasn’t a thing of beauty, but he did lend a surprisingly strong, moody vocal to Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” even cutting through a booming synthesizer arrangement.

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At such times his Lewis-like phrasing actually lent meaning to the words he sang. For much of the lengthy 21-song show, however, Gilley merely coasted. Such tunes as the formulaic “Doo-Wah Days” didn’t deserve better, but it was baffling to see how little feeling he gave to Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” one of the great misery songs of all time. Similarly, his vocal on “Stand by Me” sounded like it had been languishing in voice mail for weeks.

Most of the selections fell between those extremes. They included medley renditions of “Talk to Me,” “Lonely Nights,” “Put Your Dreams Away,” “Room Full of Roses” and “I Overlooked an Orchid” and a serviceable but combustion-proof version of “Great Balls of Fire.”

Gilley has juiced up his support a bit this time out, with a four-piece horn section--dubbed the Hornettes--boosting his Urban Cowboy Band to 10 pieces (Gilley owned the Pasadena, Tex., nightspot where the film “Urban Cowboy” was centered), plus his two female backup singers, the Urbanettes. None had much opportunity to shine musically, though pedal steel player Joey Riley revealed good comic timing in his joking with Gilley.


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