This has been a notable year for rock 'n' roll in Orange County. Not in terms of the big touring acts being imported to local stages: For that, 1990 has been about average.
But for the grass-roots rock scene, this has been a boom year, with an unprecedented number of high-quality albums by county-based acts. A good sampling of the local talent responsible for this surge of quality is in action in the coming days.
Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts. A lot of country music nowadays is stuck in the mud of traditionalism that has dried out and turned into conventionalism. Gaffney's brand of country is unpredictable, adventurous and full of individualism. The Costa Mesa resident is one of those wonderful songwriters who draws on established traditions without letting them interfere with his own cockeyed way of looking at the world. His current album, "Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts," has echoes as wide ranging as George Jones, the Band, Los Lobos and Cajun music, with lyrics that tell memorable stories in a distinctive, humorous songwriting voice. In perhaps the greatest injustice on the local music scene, Gaffney, who works by day in a Newport Beach shipyard, has gone largely unnoticed in his home county. Maybe he and his band, the Cold Hard Facts, can start correcting that problem with their current stand at the Upbeat in Garden Grove.
Who: Chris Gaffney.
When: Wednesdays though Sundays from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. through Sept. 30.
Where: Upbeat, 12745 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove.
Whereabouts: From west: 22 Freeway to Harbor Blvd., go north to Garden Grove Blvd., then right. From east: 22 Freeway to Haster St., go left to Garden Grove Blvd., then right.
Wherewithal: Admission is free.
Where to Call: (714) 530-4101.
James Harman Band. Harman's latest release, "Strictly Live in '85," looks back on a performance by the ferociously motivated, wonderfully focused unit he led during the mid-'80s. Harman himself is the only remaining link between his current band and that lineup. But if his band has been in transition, Harman remains one of the most reliably zestful and rewarding performers on the national blues circuit. He's a walking encyclopedia of the blues who is able to sound authentic without being hamstrung by his reverence for the blues past. The key to this Alabama-bred, Huntington Beach-based singer and harmonica player isn't so much his obvious mastery of a wide range of blues-related styles, but the winning personality that comes across, no matter what he's playing.
Who: James Harman Band, opening for the Paladins.
When: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 7:30 and 10 p.m.
Where: Peppers Golden Bear, 300 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach.
Whereabouts: Pacific Coast Highway to intersection of Main Street. Peppers is inside the Pierside Pavilion.
Where to Call: (714) 374-2327.
Eggplant. The band is a lot like its name: humble and unassuming, perhaps a bit eccentric, but tasty and substantial enough to sample again and again. Eggplant's 1989 debut album, "Monkeybars," established it as one of the most appealing of the many young bands inspired by the Velvet Underground, the 1960s group that pretty much invented alternative rock. There is no sophomore slump with "Sad Astrology," the new Eggplant album about to be released by Dr. Dream Records. Eggplant gains strength and diversity from the fact that it has two singer-songwriters in Jeff Beals and Jon Melkerson. Melkerson, who takes most of the guitar leads, is a sinewy, melodic player who favors distortion without sacrificing strong melody lines. Dave Tabone, the drummer, is emerging as a real powerhouse player in a band that plays with a fine sense of dynamics.
When: Thursday, Sept. 20 at 1 and 3 p.m.
Where: The Pub in the University Center, Cal State Fullerton campus.
Whereabouts: 57 Freeway to Nutwood Ave. exit; go west to campus and stop at information booth for parking and directions.
Wherewithal: Admission is free.
Where to Call: (714) 773-3501.
Burning Tree. If you're looking for a young guitarist who might be able to carry on the legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of the most promising contenders has to be Marc Ford of Burning Tree. In fact, the baby-faced La Palma resident says that seeing Vaughan at the Greek Theatre in 1987 inspired him to want to front a band instead of just being a guitar-slinging sideman. Ford, 23, has star-quality chops and charisma. He also has two band-mates, bassist Mark Dutton and drummer Doni Gray, who also make substantial contributions as singers and songwriters in a trio that operates as a consortium of creative equals. "Burning Tree," the band's debut album on Epic Records, is steeped in the influence of such fine hard-rock sources as Cream and Jimi Hendrix, as well as Vaughan. Like a lot of young bands, Burning Tree's style is still a bit too close to its influences. But the album is loaded with strong, pointed songs that use past references to make a statement that is Burning Tree's own.