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The riverboat king

Times Staff Writer

When Bruce Springsteen recently lauded John Fogerty as “our generation’s Hank Williams,” many rock fans were surprised by the lavishness of his praise.

They shouldn’t have been.

Widely heralded as the greatest country songwriter ever and a huge influence on rock ‘n’ roll, Williams expressed heartache and blue-collar aspirations with such emotional purity and economy of language that there never seemed to be a wasted note or word in his songs.

Fogerty’s music not only reflects those traits but also applies them to a much wider canvas, as he demonstrated in his frequently thrilling two-hour concert Friday at the Pantages Theatre.

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Rooted in the sensual heat of Memphis rockabilly and R&B;, Fogerty’s songs contain a folksy wisdom and colorful regional mythology that link the writer, in the broadest terms, to the traditions of Mark Twain and a long line of Southern gothic authors. The best numbers reflect the innocence, idealism and rebelliousness of the American spirit.

One reason the former Creedence Clearwater Revival leader isn’t as well known to young rock fans as he should be is that he has been largely missing in action, releasing just two albums in 18 years and doing no steady touring in seven.

But Friday’s concert suggested that Fogerty may be ready to be more active, making his move, as Bob Dylan has done in recent years, to reclaim his rock ‘n’ roll legacy.

Hopping about the stage with the exuberance of the Energizer bunny, the 59-year-old singer-guitarist looked more comfortable on stage than he has since Creedence broke up more than three decades ago.

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He and his band even opened the show with Creedence’s “Travelin’ Band,” a 1970 salute to the joy of being in a rock ‘n’ roll group. Fogerty turned the guitar up so loud it sounded like a jet engine, and his vocals carried the same primal fury that gave Creedence records such glorious character.

The Northern California native, who sings with a bayou drawl that fits perfectly the swamp-rock imagery of so many of his songs, followed with “Green River,” a 1969 Creedence hit about carefree childhood days: “Stoppin’ at the log where catfish bite / Walkin’ along the river road at night / Barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight.”

Before the applause was finished, Fogerty turned to the acoustic “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” a reflection on the Vietnam experience that is free of the self-conscious protest tone of so many songs from that era: “Good men through the ages, trying to find the sun / And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

Later, Fogerty returned to those themes at various points, most notably in “Deja Vu (All Over Again),” a poignant tune that points to parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

But he also found time for songs that took us in totally different directions. “Centerfield,” from 1985, is the best baseball song since “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” while 1969’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone” is a deeply personal account of being able to communicate with millions via music but not with someone close to you.

Fogerty’s latest album, “Deja Vu (All Over Again),” lacks the consistency and allure of his earlier work, and the evening’s momentum slowed when he played some of that material, especially the sluggish “Radar.”

Focusing on his earlier songs in the second half of the set, Fogerty and his band, which featured Benmont Tench’s soulful organ flurries on several tunes, soared. They played with a passion that gave almost every song, from the optimistic “Up Around the Bend” to the eerie, apprehensive “Tombstone Shadow,” the emotional high of a set-closer.

When he finally reached the encore, Fogerty was apparently handed the wrong guitar for “Bad Moon Rising,” So he started singing a few lines of Leadbelly’s “Cottonfields” while an aide rushed after the right guitar. If you didn’t know the history of the song, it was easy to assume “Cottonfields” was another one of Fogerty’s tributes to the Southern imagery and music that inspired him as a teenager.

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Conversely, it was possible a few moments later to think that Fogerty was singing a song that had been handed down through the generations. With its infectious chorus of “rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on a river,” “Proud Mary” may be the quintessential Fogerty song -- the intersection of all his influences. It’s so rich in American cultural tradition that it could almost have been written by Leadbelly or maybe Stephen Foster.

There aren’t many writers from the last half century who could write with that authority and grace. Maybe not even Hank Williams.


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