The way John Anderson and his band were slamming and lurching through some of the hardest country this side of the Siberian tundra, something was bound to break.
Luckily, it was just a string on Anderson's Fender guitar. It snapped midway through the roaring, countrified version of the Willie Dixon blues standard "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover" that closed Anderson's early show Monday night at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana.
Anderson went on slashing out chords a string short, keeping up a raspy holler all the while, as his seven-man group pounded behind him with enough wild focus to recall a vintage Allman Brothers Band thrashing of country blues.
Actually, that string breaking was an indication that Anderson may have gone a bit too far.
Not on the rockers--there's hardly any such thing as going too far on those. The chunky, walloping numbers like "Black Sheep," "Swingin' " and "Let Somebody Else Drive" were cranked up loud and fueled with insouciant humor. Anderson sang them with a relaxed, rustic drawl and a sharp, high tone that recalled the Band's Levon Helm.
In a different but still hard-hitting vein, "Somewhere Between Right and Wrong" and "It's Hard to Keep This Ship Together" were dark thunderclaps full of epic-scale drama and turmoil. Like the lighter-hearted stomps, those two songs from Anderson's new "Blue Skies Again" album benefited from a beefed-up attack that featured three electric guitars; a solid rhythm section of drums; piano and bass, and electric fiddle and pedal steel guitar throwing out lead lines or coloring the sound.
On a couple of the quieter songs, Anderson could profitably have given his own highly amplified rhythm guitar a rest. When he isn't rocking, Anderson is pliant enough to sing sad numbers in a low, cottony dynamic well suited to expressing dignified pain. It's conventional to convey hurt with an outcry; Anderson gets beyond convention with muted tones, as if the trouble that's pressing on him won't let him draw the breath to bellow.
When he sang quietly Monday night, Anderson's voice sounded indistinct pitted against a stacked bank of instruments. Sacrificing a layer of sound here and there would have gained the Florida-born singer some needed clarity, not to mention saving wear and tear on his guitar strings.
On the ballad, "Down in Tennessee," Anderson's bullish band did show that it is capable of playing with a delicate shimmer.
While it generated plenty of heat, Anderson's set dispensed with flash. With his blue denim jacket, black cowboy hat and a decidedly non-fastidious presentation of wiry blond beard and flowing hair, Anderson could have passed for an interstate trucker.
He didn't try to spin any clever yarns between songs but merely stopped to thank his audience politely and directly--and sincerely. When Anderson told the Crazy Horse crowd that "we've come to the conclusion this is our very favorite club to work in," it didn't sound like a line he inserts night after night with only the name of the venue changed.
With 18 tightly arranged songs packed into his 65 minutes on stage, including most of his biggest crowd-pleasers, Anderson's early set hardly seemed skimpy, but it still would have been nice if he could have worked his favorite club a little longer, especially at $22.50 a ticket.
Patty Loveless' attention-grabbing opening set made the evening a bargain. The daughter of a Kentucky miner, Loveless has a striking voice full of range and force. Her kind of power would be easy to abuse with grandstanding displays, but Loveless was intent on getting across emotions and meanings rather than showing off.
Many of the songs she sang from her two MCA albums settled for pleasant but static expressions of affection rather than offering the lyrical turns and compelling situations that make for memorable country music.
But Loveless showed lots of promise handing out a sassy tongue-lashing on "Wicked Ways" or aching fiercely on "After All" and Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces." She and her sharp band showed they could rock a little, too, kicking the show home with Steve Earle's "Some Blue Moons Ago."