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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Assessing Fleetwood Mac's New Look

December 08, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

Near the end of Fleetwood Mac's "homecoming" concert Sunday night at the Forum, fans in the front row held up small, hand-written signs that read, "We Love You" and "See You Again Tomorrow Night" (the band was doing a second show Monday night at the same arena).

Sweet thoughts.

Yet it would have been more meaningful if someone down front would have had the clear-headedness to send another message to the veteran group: Rethink the show.

Remember the old joke about the difference between an optimist and pessimist? The Big Mac brain trust apparently took inventory after creative catalyst Lindsey Buckingham's recent decision to leave the band for a solo career and concluded that its glass was one-third empty rather than two-thirds full.

Instead of designing a show that makes more intimate and imaginative use of the L.A.-based band's two hold-over stars--Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks, the group decided to try to elevate the two new members, singer-guitarists Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, to near co-star status.

The move was a gutsy attempt to demonstrate that Fleetwood Mac remains a vital commercial and artistic force. The band members--especially co-founder and drummer Mick Fleetwood--played with an enthusiasm that seemed to suggest they believe the point was made.

However, the vitality of this latest edition of the the veteran band won't be truly tested until the group goes into the recording studio and begins to work on new songs. The only thing Sunday's concert demonstrated was that Fleetwood Mac is not putting its best feet forward on this tour.

Giving Burnette and Vito roughly one-third of the band's two hours on stage cost the audience a chance to hear more of McVie and Nicks. It's not that latter singer-songwriters--who have been responsible for more than a dozen Top-30 hits between them--weren't well represented Sunday. Each sang lead on seven numbers.

But the aggressively arranged tunes (Vito turning in some especially flashy licks) were fairly predictable--the best known songs from the blockbuster 1975 album, "Rumours," plus the recent hits, "Seven Wonders" and "Little Lies."

While those songs were an essential part of any Fleetwood Mac show, the most affecting moments Sunday were the most intimate ones--Nicks, backed only by McVie on keyboards midway through the evening, singing the tender "Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You," and McVie, alone on stage at the end, doing an equally evocative version of the wistful "Songbird."

The effectiveness of these isolated numbers underscored the advantages of putting the women together at the piano for an informal mini-set--the kind of private glimpse audiences rarely get of major pop stars.

Instead of devoting time to such warm, unexpected gestures, the band turned periodically to Burnette and Vito to salute some of Fleetwood Mac's own early blues 'n' rock tradition and the two musicians' own rock instincts.

The trouble was the music on these numbers was little more than generic. There was no revelation or arresting character to the vocals or the arrangements--leaving both newcomers appearing somewhat colorless.

In retrospect, it would have been fairer to Burnette and Vito to wait until they have songs on a Fleetwood Mac album before asking them to assume such prominent roles in the show. By inviting them to step in so forcefully suggests that someone in the band underestimates the challenge of life without Buckingham. Burnette must have felt especially awkward singing lead on Buckingham's "Go Your Own Way," which closed the show.

Though Buckingham may have played a more crucial role in the studio--where he helped design the music, he was far more than just an upbeat counterpoint on stage to the gentleness of Nicks and McVie. There were sly, eccentric, unexpected twists to his music that served as the ideal balance to the women's more soothing songs.

On the positive side, Sunday's show demonstrated that Fleetwood Mac continues to have an excellent nucleus in the songwriting base of McVie and Nicks and the durable rhythm section of drummer Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. (However, Fleetwood should consider trimming his 10-minute drum duet with colorful West African percussionist Asante in half.)

Though Nicks remains the band's most colorful figure on stage, she no longer goes through the mystical dance steps that once led to her being stereotyped as some sort of space cadet. She sings with a deep, raspy, distinctive voice that makes her tales of romantic complexities all the more convincing. McVie is a more caressing singer whose generally optimistic songs tend to be more straightforward, though no less involving.

Even if Sunday's show seemed miscalculated, the band erred on the side of daring. Fleetwood Mac didn't take the easy way out and simply put Nicks and McVie on stage in a slick run through of the hits. The group also exhibited a spunkiness by bringing along the Cruzados--the hard-hitting rock quartet--as the opening act on the tour, rather than make a concession to the older, mainstream Fleetwood Mac fans who might have preferred a softer, pop-oriented act.

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