Stan Ridgway isn't just a wise guy anymore.
As the front man in L.A.'s popular spaghetti-Western-cum-electro-art-rock band Wall of Voodoo, the singer took drollness to new heights. His cutting sarcasm was enjoyable enough for a while, in a masochistic way, but it could only go so far before it hit a dead end.
Ridgway is working under his own name now, and while he carried some of the old Voodoo view into his L.A. debut Tuesday at the Roxy, he was a markedly more engaging figure.
Not that he played it completely straight. The introductory music was Ethel Merman's disco recording of "There's No Business Like Show Business," and if that isn't enough cultural convolution for you you're in the wrong nightclub. There was also an element of showbiz spoofery in his two female backup singers' exaggeratedly flashy outfits and cranked-up delivery.
While Ridgway developed some mock antagonism with the audience, it was softened by a willingness to let them in on the joke with a wink and a smile. His new sincerity was evident in the combination of scoffing and genuine gratitude that marked his response when an admirer handed him a carton of sushi. (Why not flowers? Who knows?)
It's possible that Ridgway's change of stance reflects a more serious attitude toward his music. And the songs from his album "The Big Heat" that formed the bulk of his show do deserve more than throwaway treatment.
Evocative, cinematic narratives like the title song and "Drive, She Said" are pure entertainment (but with philosophical overtones), and songs like "Can't Stop the Show" (a peek into the world of the peep show), "Pile Driver" (technology run amok) and "Pick It Up (And Put It in Your Pocket)" amuse while they address real issues that keep cropping up in Ridgway's music--how things work and what to do with yourself.
The concerns and delivery of the "Walkin' Home Alone" (a study of the aftermath of a relationship) are certainly straightforward enough--you could almost imagine Sinatra giving this torchy ballad a try. And it isn't far from Ridgway's jazz-cabaret side to Kurt Weill--which is where he ended up for the encore, teamed with the Fowler Brothers horn section to re-create the version of "The Cannon Song" they contributed to last year's Weill anthology "Lost in the Stars."
But don't get the idea that Tuesday's show was a dry display of serious music.
First of all, Ridgway is an inherently funny guy even when not quipping. Hunched over and squinting like Popeye facing a storm, he chewed on his lyrics, rolled them around and dropped them out of the side of his mouth while the two singers wailed and gyrated and his deadpan band delivered taut, intensified versions of the songs--whose economical, evocative imagery and musical twists generate a humor of their own.
As the music built momentum, Ridgway responded with increasing aggressiveness, dropping to the stage floor once or twice and at times threatening to lunge right into the crowd. By the time he ended the set with "Camouflage," whose big-sky cowboy music sets the tale of a mythical Marine in the American tall-tale tradition, one felt like raising a mug and downing a slice of sushi in recognition of Ridgway's unmistakable arrival.