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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Maturing Little River Band Cuts Back on the Saccharine

May 24, 1990|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — A lot is being made these days of the ascent of Australian rock.

But aside from the occasional group that concentrates on Australian subject matter in its lyrics--notably Midnight Oil--there isn't much that is distinctively Australian about the bands Down Under. For the most part, Aussie rockers might as well be a bunch of Brits with suntans.

The Little River Band is different. These Aussies might as well be Californians with accents.

Emerging in 1976, the Little River Band recycled the stacked harmonies and polished sound of such quintessential L.A. rockers as the Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The result was 13 Top 40 hits, second only to the Bee Gees among bands that got their start in Australia. But not only were most of those songs not distinctively Australian--they were not distinctive, period.

Still, there is a lot to be said for expert vocal harmonies, sharp playing and companionable melodies, all of which the Little River Band supplied in abundance as it opened a two-night stand Tuesday at the Coach House--part of the group's first North American tour in nine years.

Also, the Australians (actually the current lineup includes three original members from Australia, augmented by a bassist from San Diego and a rhythm guitarist from Liverpool) offered a bit more grit and substance than their track record of hits might indicate. The 80-minute set drew heavily on songs from "Monsoon," an overlooked 1988 album in which the Little River Band produced tougher, more evocative music than it did at its hit-making peak.

As if to underscore the comparative worth of "Monsoon," the Little River Band played five songs from it, and only two from "Get Lucky," the current album that marks a reversion to confectionary music-making.

Add in strong renditions of such oldies as "Cool Change," a seafaring anthem along the lines of CS&N's "Southern Cross," and the affirmative rocker "Help Is on Its Way," and the Little River Band turned in a pleasant evening.

Lead singer Glenn Shorrock was stiff and seemed stuck for words between songs. But he knew what to do when the music started, singing in a comfortably husky voice that resembled Phil Collins in tone and easy pop appeal. Wayne Nelson, the group's Californian, generated more heat in his two lead vocal turns. The three-part harmonies behind Shorrock were exemplary, although the CS&N parallels were unmistakable. Lead guitarist Stephen Housden reinforced the emphasis on melody with his clean, lyrical lines.

For the most part, the band played with a low-keyed, but visible sense of enjoyment. It got in trouble only when it tried self-consciously showy flourishes. False steps included a tinny, Las Vegas-style taped fanfare as the band walked on stage (introductory tapes are almost the norm nowadays, but the best way for a band to begin a show is simply to begin) and some contrived mugging between Shorrock and Housden during the jaunty "If I Get Lucky."

The show bogged down with a rendition of the awful "Baby Come Back," a saccharine 1977 No. 1 hit by Player--included in the set because former Player guitarist Peter Beckett is now in LRB. The near-capacity audience loved it. A reprise of "Soul Searching," one of the strong "Monsoon" numbers, also was ill-conceived: having sung the yearning ballad just fine in his own voice, Shorrock repeated it while imitating Joe Cocker's singing and mannerisms. Shorrock's Cocker sounded reasonably like the real thing, but his aping of Cocker's spasmodic stage moves conjured up visions of Ed Sullivan doing an impression of a drunken penguin. The whole exercise was pointless, unless LRB is honing its skills for casino showrooms.

Far better was a show-closing rendition of Del Shannon's "Runaway," which struck a nice balance between the original's familiarity (keyboardist Tony Sciuto duplicated the signature solo break to the note) and LRB's own restructuring. The arrangement built from a simple acoustic guitar ballad into a sweeping, valedictory tribute to Shannon.

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