Triple-threat country singer-songwriter-guitarists don't come along often. The '80s saw the emergence of Vince Gill; so far in the '90s, the Mavericks' Raul Malo and Junior Brown constitute the alpha and omega of that class.
Oklahoma newcomer Wade Hayes isn't in the same league as those three, but his performance Tuesday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana had signs to suggest he might join that number a few years down the line.
He's 27 and has just two albums--both uneven--under his belt. While the first few songs of his 70-minute sold-out concert offered little to distinguish him from the slew of hat acts that have come rolling out of Nashville lately, as the show progressed he displayed a promising way with his pliant baritone, a better-than-average capacity for selecting (and writing) songs and an impressive dexterity on the fret board.
Some of the best songs were ones he has co-written. The highlight was "This Is the Life for Me," an autobiographical country rocker that's imbued more with amazement at his good fortune in music than with ego-based chest-thumping. His sense of wonder about a career onstage, sparked when he was a boy and saw his country-singer father (the little-known Don Hayes) collect $30 at the end of a gig, came through unblemished by time.
The song could pass for an outtake--albeit a pretty good one--from Waylon Jennings, whom Hayes cites among his key influences. And there are far worse crimes being committed in country these days than aping ol' Waylon.
"The Room," a strong ballad from his current "On a Good Night" album, let him delve lyrically and vocally into the pining of a heart that's been broken and is truly remorseful. Here's a guy who prefers to sleep on the couch because he's not ready to face the room he once shared with his now-departed love.
His nimble way with the guitar came out during several fairly brief sections in which he and the six members of his band sparked one another to musical heights. The twin-guitar leads he and Rick Taylor occasionally engaged in called to mind the Allman Brothers Band and Thin Lizzy.
Early on, Hayes' vocals struggled in the sound mix to rise above the band. But while singing his 1995 hit "What I Meant to Say," which follows a guy who isn't too big to eat the words of goodbye he's come to regret, Hayes approached a John Anderson-like skill at word sculpting.
The most telling example was his evocative version of Merle Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down," a brilliant song that's been covered by practically everyone who's ever stepped onto the beer-soaked stage of a honky-tonk.
Even though his attempts at banter with the crowd were brief, he projected a sincerity that quickly put the crowd in his corner.
His act still includes too many run-of-the-mill tunes such as "On a Good Night" and "I'm Still Dancin' With You," both of which were hit singles, to allow him to go to bat alongside such country big-guns as Gill, Malo and Brown. But on a good night, which is mostly what Hayes had Monday, he's in the on-deck circle.