MEMPHIS — For John Fogerty to give a concert here on the banks of the Mississippi River and not sing "Proud Mary" is like a Clark Gable Film Festival in Atlanta without "Gone With the Wind."
But that's what happened Wednesday night as Fogerty, 41, began his first tour in 14 years with a program that was generous in every way but one: He didn't perform any of the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival hits that made him one of rock's most acclaimed figures.
The remarkable thing was that the near-capacity crowd at the outdoor, 5,000-seat Mud Island Amphitheatre accepted the potentially controversial decision without any apparent outburst. The fans, who sat through a slight rain, gave the singer-guitarist six standing ovations during the 100-minute program.
Most of the three dozen fans I spoke with said they were disappointed by the absence of such Creedence hits as "Bad Moon Rising" and "Travelin' Band," but sympathized with Fogerty's situation.
Before the tour, Fogerty announced he wouldn't be playing any of his Creedence compositions because of a long, bitter and continuing law suit with Fantasy Records, which released all of his ex-band's albums. The dispute--initially over royalty rates and the number of albums owed the company but later expanded to include charges of libel and slander against Fogerty--kept him from recording for nine years and, indirectly, from touring for an even longer period.
By singing any of the old songs on this tour, which is expected to reach California in October or November, Fogerty felt he would, in effect, be promoting Creedence LPs. He didn't want to do anything that would enable Fantasy to "make more money off my music."
Several fans in Memphis--the city that Berkeley-based Fogerty has always cited as the inspiration for his rootsy, "bayou"-accented style of rock--had hoped the singer would make an exception to his Creedence ban and at least play "Proud Mary," a song with references to this area.
"I think it's un-American for him to come to Memphis and not sing 'Proud Mary,' " Rene Williams, 22, said good-naturedly before the show.
But Fogerty isn't apparently going to make exceptions.
Instead of Creedence songs, he played six tunes from last year's "Centerfield" album, eight from his upcoming "Eye of the Zombie" collection and six early gospel or R&B songs by other writers, including Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood." Both Fogerty albums are on Warner Bros. Records.
By opening the concert with "Mr. Greed" and "Vanz Kan't Danz"--two songs from "Centerfield" that have been widely interpreted as attacks on Fantasy-Records-founder Saul Zaentz--Fogerty seemed to be tackling the Fantasy controversy head on.
But he insisted at a post-concert reception that he opened with those numbers purely for their energy value--not as a statement.
If the "Centerfield" album leaned on many of the country, blues and rock strains identified with Creedence, Fogerty's new material focuses on a harder R&B style of rock. There is also a more biting, contemporary edge to the themes. The new songs ranged from "Soda Pop"--a slap at rock star product endorsements--to the social consciousness of "Violence Is Golden," a look at arms escalation, and "Eye of the Zombie," which talks about terrorism and psycho killers.
Though Fogerty has long been lauded for his compact yet purposeful and accessible songwriting, the new show underscores his brilliance as a singer. At times he slips in and around words and phrases with supreme grace and excitement. And his new, striking, four-piece band plays with power and precision. The lineup features John Robinson on drums, Neil Stubenhaus on bass, Alan Pasqua on keyboards and Marty Walsh on guitar. Fogerty also uses three male backup singers.
Except for playing a guitar shaped like a baseball bat during the song "Centerfield," Fogerty steers clear of flash in the show. The emphasis is on music. The fact that his show is satisfying without his great oldies points out just how valuable a figure he remains. This is a gallantly designed and warmly executed show. The Dylan/Petty and Amnesty International packages now have a rival for tour-of-the-year honors.
Fogerty was elated when he talked about the concert at the reception: "I've waited a long time for tonight," he said. "If you're involved in rock, you feel like there's a part of you missing if you don't do live shows. It's like I now feel whole again."
Opening for Fogerty on the first portion of the tour is Bonnie Raitt, the blues-flavored singer who has just recorded her first Warner Bros. album after a four-year recording hiatus.