Don't scoff at anyone who tells you he spent three hours in hillbilly heaven this week.
The House of Blues may not be scruffy enough to qualify as a true honky-tonk, but the marathon performances of the Mavericks and Junior Brown on Thursday night offered about as satisfying a display of classic '40s-'60s country music as you'll find short of an actual Hank Williams/Ernest Tubb reunion up above.
At a time when most mainstream country music is so hopelessly bland, you've got to be drawn to any band defiant enough to call itself the Mavericks and back it up with a show that stretches country boundaries enough to include songs by Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley.
You've also got to be awfully jaded not to be charmed by opening act Brown, whose love for hard-core country is so obvious from his songs and "aw-shucks" demeanor that he probably still listens to music on old 78s and watches the Nashville Network on a black-and-white TV.
This affection with country's past poses limits for both the Mavericks and Brown, but it didn't matter Thursday to a sold-out crowd that seemed starved for country music that was authentic and spirited.
Blessed with a lead singer in Raul Malo who delivers a sweet croon as well as anyone since Roy Orbison, the Miami-bred Mavericks draw their primary inspiration from the same late '50s, early '60s country roots as Dwight Yoakam.
While the group's influences range from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash, the main focus is on the shuffle-conscious, rock-edged heartache tales associated with such writers and singers as Harlan Howard and Buck Owens.
As both a singer and performer, Malo has more range and considerably more warmth than Yoakam, but, as the group's main songwriter, he needs to step more boldly from the shadows of his influences.
Thursday's show was built around songs from the band's second MCA album, "What a Crying Shame," and those songs are so buried in the tradition Malo admires that they offer little revelation--the key to music being compelling as well as entertaining. The songs' melodies are familiar and the words have all been said.
Oddly, the Mavericks--a quartet joined on this tour by a guest keyboardist--have moved away from the promising individuality of their first MCA album. In that collection, key songs commented effectively on such matters as Malo's Cuban American heritage ("From Hell to Paradise") and blue-collar woes ("Mr. Jones").
Malo showed that he hasn't lost that individuality late in Thursday's two-hour set by saluting his roots with one song in Spanish, followed by "From Hell to Paradise" and, during the encore, a rousing, Springsteen-like brotherhood appeal that is rare in the conservative world of country music.
In the final sequence, he wove his own thoughts around a richly energetic medley of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" and Bob Marley's "Stir It Up." During those more personal and liberating moments, Malo and the Mavericks showed the ambition to be a voice in the '90s and not just an echo.
The issue of voice and echo isn't so great for Brown because the singer-guitarist seems to love nothing better than to walk in the musical footsteps of his idols. And it's an inviting journey indeed.
Backed by a band that includes wife Tanya Rae on rhythm guitar, Brown sang with a deep '40s Southwestern twang and played his combination steel/electric guitar with the speed of a court typist.
Brown's also adept at writing songs about love and regret with goofy but telling wordplay. In "You Didn't Have to Go All the Way," for instance, he describes the pain of a troubled relationship and still makes you smile. It's the touch of a man who has found his calling.
* The Mavericks play Sunday at the Coach House, 10475 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego, 8 p.m. $23.50. (619) 563-0060 ; Monday at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, 8 p.m. Sold out. (714) 957-0600 ; Tuesday at Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut Ave., Ventura, 8 p.m. $18.50. (805) 648-1888.