Pete Townshend once wrote, "It's the singer not the song that makes the music move along." Valid as that may be, it's also true that the music has nowhere to move along to unless the singer, however earnest, comes armed with a decent song.
Tina Turner's hot-and-cold performance at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Friday illustrated both sides of that coin as she performed in Southern California for the first time in two years.
By now it's expected that as her career progresses, the skin gets sweatier, the dresses mini-er, the high heels spikier and the vocals grittier. Too bad her latest batch of material didn't also get meatier. So while this tour (which brings her back to Los Angeles for a Forum show on Dec. 11) was conceived and named after her 1986 "Break Every Rule" album, the heart of the show still pounds hardest with songs from her powerhouse 1984 comeback album "Private Dancer."
Because she immediately dispatched four of the five "Break Every Rule" songs at the top of the set while saving the "Private Dancer" material as the foundation of the second half, Turner indicated that even she recognizes the weakness of the recent songs.
In two of the better songs from "Break Every Rule"--the singles "What You Get Is What You See" and "Typical Male"--Turner showed she can still sneer and strut her way through those don't-mess-with-me sentiments better than anyone. And her cocky, gloating smile is so wide at times that you figure she must go through an entire tube of that shocking pink lipstick tracing its outline.
But persona--even one as colorful and dynamic as Turner's--carries only so far. Or too far, when that persona replaces musical substance rather than just embellishes it. As preferable as Turner's gutbucket singing is to the technically adroit but soul-less vocals of a Whitney Houston, it's a pity to see her loading those cannon-like pipes with musical BB's.
The danger is that one nice 'n' rough song starts sounding pretty much like the next. Case in point: "Two People" has an intermittently attractive melody that helps offset its plebeian lyrics, but its structure is embarrassingly repetitive of various bits and pieces off "Private Dancer." It would take the interpretive skills of an Ella Fitzgerald to mask that fact.
And Turner is no Fitzgerald when it comes to song sculpting--she's more adept at leveling mountains than chiseling gems, as evidenced by a version of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" in which she and her eight-man band emphasized overblown bigness in place of the smooth, sly appeal of Palmer's original.
Still, with the right song in tow, Turner unleashes emotional quakes that could register on the Richter scale. Even though the evening's best shakes came when she was repeating past glories--the exquisite pleadings of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," the hard-rocking joy of John Fogerty's "Proud Mary" or the workaday resignation of Mark Knopfler's "Private Dancer"--she demonstrated just how right Pete Townshend was all along.
Marshall Crenshaw fought some technical problems early in his trio's opening set that caused his guitar to drop in and out of the sound mix through the usually seamless "Someday, Someway."
Tempos on several of his bouncy pop tunes were more lethargic than usual, resulting in performances that loped rather than bounded--the driving "Wild Abandon" from his current album sounded more like mild abandon. Nevertheless, there were more pop hooks in Crenshaw's 40-minute set than in a year's worth of Whitesnake shows.