Ronnie Milsap's compromised country music practically epitomizes everything the "new traditionalist" movement sought to overturn: His crossover style crossed so far over that his records often sounded closer to Lionel Richie than to Jimmie Rodgers, and, like Richie's, his songs could be so slick as to have no hold on reality.
But in an odd way, the success of the traditionalists might make it easier for some to appreciate Milsap's music. Now that country purists don't have to be outraged by Milsap and other main-streamers squeezing the grittier country off the airwaves, they might relax a bit and find that he can be a solid and affecting performer.
He proved to be just that several times in his late show Monday evening at Santa Ana's Crazy Horse Steak House and Saloon--although those moments were packed into a show that was largely glib and formulaic.
The blind singer/pianist and his eight-piece band opened with serviceable versions of the wan hits "Don't You Know How Much I Love You," "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me" and "What a Difference You've Made in My Life."
He then crammed seven of his early hits into a medley where the truncated versions were scarcely longer than their cumbersome titles. While such medleys might be the only way Milsap could fit his many hits into the show, the bite-size renditions were too brief to build any emotional effect. And some, such as the tragic "It Was Almost Like a Song" and the novelty-item "I'm a Stand by My Woman Man," were horribly juxtaposed.
A medley of songs by rock piano greats fared better, particularly when he mimicked Ray Charles on "What'd I Say" and "Georgia." He even climbed atop his piano and jumped off at the end of Little Richard's "Lucille."
Milsap had joked throughout the show about his blindness and his ability to get around on stage. Although most of the humor and his patter with band members seemed rehearsed, there was at least one unexpected moment: When he joked about falling into the audience, commenting, "At 200 pounds, I'd ruin someone's evening," an undaunted female fan shouted: "You can fall on my table!"
Milsap's gravity as a performer best came across, oddly enough, on his most overtly crossover numbers. Although pumped by a disco beat and warbling synthesizers, Milsap sang "Button Off My Shirt" and the encore "Stranger in My House" with exuberance and spirit. It might not have been country, by any hard-line definition, but it worked.