SANTA ANA — One would expect a group called the Dalton Gang to have at least some outlaw tendencies: unlicensed pets; poor dental hygiene; bad haircuts; even, dare one hope, an unruly rambunctiousness to their music.
But there was nary an incisor or synthesizer note out of place when Lacy J. Dalton and her Gang played Monday night at the Crazy Horse Steak House. Their 65-minute performance was an improvement over some past shows--with less scripted clowning and a more focused musical performance--but it still felt more like Naugahyde than leather.
Dalton has a rough-grained, Bonnie Raitt-like voice that can be a fine emotional conduit given the right material and arrangements. Such moments were few and far between Monday. Her pat, imagination-less rendition of Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby" only reconfirmed his as the definitive version.
There also was little life to her set standards "Crazy Blue Eyes" (her first hit, from 1979), "I'm a Survivor," the band-on-the-road tune "Silver Eagle," "Golden Memories," or the Jimmy Buffett-like "Takin' It Easy," which was further diminished by an ultra-schmaltzy piano accompanyment. As usual, "Wild Turkey" became an occasion for some mirthless, prefab yuks between Dalton and the musicians.
The low point (as with previous local appearances) was "Hard Luck Ace," a song Dalton said is about her "favorite survivors." The cloying, Nashville-at-its-worst conventions of the song seem an odd way to celebrate the independent spirits of whom she was singing, and they trivialized the hardships and tragedies of the song' subjects: Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr. and Janis Joplin who, by the way, doesn't quite qualify as a survivor.
At mid-set Dalton exclaimed, "Sometimes our show reminds me a bit of 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' because things never change." As fair an appraisal as that may have been of much of her show--and indeed of a great many country acts whose grueling road schedules turn their shows into robotic routines--Dalton's wasn't without its human moments.
She brought a warmth and ache to the ballad "16th Avenue," her 1982 hit about scuffling Nashville songwriters, and to "Little Boy Blue," a touching song affirming the love between a working mother and her son (Dalton actually co-wrote the song with her own young son).
She conveyed a sense of contentment--which can be a tricky emotion--with "Ain't No Question." And, curiously, "Black Coffee," the set's most overtly crossover-tailored number--with heavy-metal guitar even--featured some of the most spirited performances from Dalton and her quintet. If such liveliness could become the norm for Dalton, rather than a rare peak, her splendid voice would be getting its due.