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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : A Night of Rock 'n' Roll Mavericks : Mary Chain's Music Shows Its Power in Under an Hour

December 05, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

SAN DIEGO — Fifty-two minutes!

That's how long the Jesus and Mary Chain stayed on stage Thursday night at Montezuma Hall on the campus of San Diego State University.

Though still short for most concerts, the show was a virtual marathon by Mary Chain standards.

On two earlier U.S. tours, the fiercely independent Mary Chain--one of the half-dozen most original and arresting bands of the '80s--left the stage after barely 30 minutes, claiming (a) it didn't have enough good songs to play and (b) long shows are a bore anyway.

The advance word on this tour was that the British band, now that it has two excellent albums' worth of material under its belt, was sticking around for a whole hour, including an encore.

Still, fans Thursday seemed skeptical as they waited to file into the 1,000-capacity room for the sold-out show. The brevity of the Mary Chain concerts had become as much a trademark of the band as the guitar feedback that made the group's first album, 1985's "Psychocandy," so controversial and distinctive. One wise guy in the crowd carried a stop watch.

Once the show started, however, the matter of length gave way to another issue.

"They haven't got a drummer," a fan observed with an edge of alarm--as if someone at the airport had just noticed a plane's landing gear had fallen onto the runway.

And sure enough: Brothers Jim and William Reid, the creative heart of the band, have brought along a bassist and a second guitarist, but no drummer.

So Jim Reid sang and William Reid played guitar to the accompaniment of a pre-taped drum track--which left both the audience and the band disconcerted. Jim Reid continually glanced in the direction of William, who worked intently on reproducing the intricate guitar textures in the band's music while the tape raced on.

As if this wasn't enough distraction, Jim Reid had to sing to a group of fans in the front of the stage who acted as if this show was some kind of second coming of the Sex Pistols. Dozens of them pushed each other about in the slam-dance fashion of the late '70s, crawling on stage so they could leap back head-first into the crowd.

All this activity gave the early part of the evening the feel of a rock 'n' roll sideshow, distracting from the exquisite design of the Mary Chain's music.

Songs such as "Just Like Honey" and "Taste of Cindy"--from the first album--and "April Skies" and "Happy When It Rains"--from the new "Darklands"--are hauntingly personal statements of romantic obsession as alternately beautiful and frightening as "Only the Lonely" and other Roy Orbison classics.

Though the band toned down its early chain-saw guitar assault on its latest album, the Reids still infuse the old songs with that torrential charge. Even on softer numbers, like "April Skies," there is such an epic sense of elegance and drama in the arrangements that it is only fitting that the band's lyrics lean to stark, even brutal images: "Hand in hand in a violent life / Making love on the edge of a knife."

The power of the music eventually overcame both the clumsiness of the drum tape and the buffoonery of part of the crowd. When the group went from a song as disarmingly lovely as "April Skies" to one with the adrenaline rush of "The Living End," it was clear that in a rock world overloaded with conventional and hollow bands that the Mary Chain has the ability and vision to become one of the most important groups in rock--if it can polish its live show without losing its maverick edge.

The Mary Chain's music has a solid, traditional, melodic base that should be attractive to fans from almost any rock era. This point was underscored when the group closed Thursday's show by applying a '60s Doors-like urgency and its own '80s musical coating to a '50s song, Bo Diddley's driving "Who Do You Love" in a way that made it seem like some inspired summit meeting.

The band was also scheduled to perform Friday at the Hollywood Palladium with Opal, who opened the Montezuma Hall show, and Social Distortion.

LIVE ACTION: Rush will be at the Forum on Feb. 4. Tickets are on sale today. . . . L.L. Cool J will head a New Year's Eve rap bill at the Hollywood Palladium. Tickets available Sunday. . . . Tickets also go on sale Sunday for ex-Motel Martha Davis' Dec. 22 date at the Roxy. . . . On sale now: Aerosmith with Dokken at the Forum on Jan. 27, and a New Year's Eve show at the Palace featuring the Busboys.

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