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A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Oldies Revue

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

You get the feeling sometimes that the Mavericks and Junior Brown don’t know whether they are coming or going.

During their separate sets Friday night at the Greek Theatre, it was frequently hard to tell if you were watching two contemporary country acts or an oldies revue.

Are we speaking 1996 or 1956?

The Mavericks and Brown combine the impulses and sounds of those decades in ways that showcase both delectable charms and frustrating limitations.

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With Brown, who opened the evening, the effect is mostly charming. With the Mavericks, whose nearly two-hour set was wildly uneven, the approach is too often limited.

Interestingly, you can trace the key influences for both acts to a common point in the mid-'50s when country music was wrestling with its future--whether to stay true to the honky-tonk/ballroom tradition of such artists as Ernest Tubb and Hank Thompson, or give way to the emerging rock spirit being brewed in Memphis by the likes of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

Brown sides with the traditionalists. A wonderfully disarming figure on stage, he throws himself into the style (and even the clothes) of old-time country, and he delivers it delightfully--topped off by a touch of rockin’ surf.

Backed by upright bass, a drummer with brushes and a rhythm guitarist, Brown plays a combination steel and electric guitar, and the Austin-based performer writes songs of good and bad times with a wry, humorous edge.

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It’s a solid show, and it set the stage perfectly for the contrasting style of the Mavericks.

And you felt you were in good hands as soon as you heard Raul Malo’s gorgeous voice. When he sings dramatically framed songs about romantic wonder or loss, he exudes a spell reminiscent of the late Roy Orbison--whether singing in English or, in a couple of places, in Spanish.

The initial lure, however, wears thin, chiefly because few of the songs have individuality. For the most part, the lyrics are little more than grade-school rhymes: “Foolish heart / You made me weep / Foolish heart / I’m yours to keep.”

In many ways, the songs, usually co-written by Malo and Nashville regulars, are simply replays of the shuffle-conscious, heartbreak tunes turned out by the score in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s much the same musical vein mined by Dwight Yoakam, only with a Miami twist rather than a Bakersfield beat.

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This was the same problem facing the Mavericks last year when the group played the House of Blues--and if anything, the band has regressed. When the quartet (supplemented by a keyboardist on the road) began, the music was accented by some daring themes that included reflections on Malo’s Cuban American heritage. When the band stepped beyond its own songs at that time, it drew upon such rich, diverse strains as Bob Marley and John Lennon.

In the group’s last two albums, there is scant commentary about anything--and the band now turns to outside tunes--"Ferry Across the Mersey” to “Stardust"--that have no discernible links. This leaves you with the feel of a bar-band mentality that suggests anything is acceptable as long as the audience seems to like it. The band once promised us more.

In measuring their progress, the Mavericks shouldn’t be lulled into complacency by the weak state of country male groups these days. Their goal shouldn’t be matching, say, hapless Blackhawk, but coming closer to the tradition of acts from the past that they so clearly respect.


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