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POP REVIEW : Rock of Ages

April 03, 1992|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

For much of the evening, the Walden Woods benefit concert on Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre offered a teasing preview of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner that will be held in Los Angeles in January.

That was good and bad.

On the down side, the concert was reminiscent of many of the Hall of Fame dinners in New York in that it was a l-o-n-g, l-o-n-g, l-o-n-g affair.

For almost half of the five hours, the audience was left with little to do but watch workmen move equipment around a darkened stage, preparing for the next act.

On the more important upside, the evening offered warm, spirited performances by three of the greatest West Coast-based figures ever in rock: John Fogerty, Neil Young and Don Henley.

The first two are odds-on favorites to be voted into the Hall of Fame as part of the January induction class--Fogerty for his work with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Young as a member of the Buffalo Springfield.

As a member of the Eagles, Henley is almost certain to be inducted in 1997, when the group becomes eligible under Hall of Fame rules that don't consider nominees until 25 years after their record debut.

For all their shared excellence, Fogerty, Henley and Young have widely different approaches to rock--and their separate sets Wednesday reflected those differences.

The concert--the second of two Amphitheatre benefit performances that raised approximately $400,000 for a campaign to preserve the historic Walden Woods open spaces in Massachusetts--was Fogerty's first advertised performance in Los Angeles since his 1986 solo tour.

The reason it made sense for him to focus on Creedence hits from the '60s and early '70s rather than his more recent solo material is that Fogerty, because of bitterness over publishing rights and other business reasons, didn't perform any of the classic tunes on that tour.

But he has since recognized that those songs are part of his legacy and rock's heritage, and there was a cleansing feeling in the room as the guitarist led a three-piece band through such landmark numbers as "Born on the Bayou," "Fortunate Son" and "Proud Mary."

With Creedence and on his own, Fogerty has shown a remarkable gift as a songwriter for weaving social commentary and observation into his songs without violating the economy and energy of the language and sound of '50s roots-rock. Equally captivating as a singer.

Because Young has toured extensively in recent years with the powerhouse Crazy Horse trio, his emphasis on new material in a solo acoustic set was as refreshing as Fogerty's salute to the past. Though some in the capacity crowd grew restless listening to the unfamiliar material, Young injected the new songs with the intensity of a final-take recording session.

Unlike Fogerty, Young writes in an elliptical manner, often weaving together what appear to be random or obscure images. Yet the songs--which range on record from tender folk strains to urgent power-rock assaults--somehow come together in ways that are mysterious and masterful.

In the night's only hourlong set, Henley--the evening's host and the catalyst behind the Walden crusade--was joined by his touring band for what was largely a repeat of his last national tour.

The exception: a coupling of "Month of Sundays" and "Sunset Grill," songs that reflect on the erosion of traditional values and that served as the evening's most eloquent summary of the sentiments behind the preservation goals.

Unlike the freewheeling Young, Henley is a formal songwriter who applies the discipline of an essayist to traditional pop, rock and country structures. While the approach in many hands could be self-conscious, Henley's music combines passion, grace and insight.

Joining the West Coast rockers (and opening act Big Head Todd & the Monsters) was former Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters, who was backed by Henley's band on a partial journey back to "The Wall."

Though Waters stirred some of the evening's strongest response, his music, while sonically spectacular, often tends to be heavy-handed, especially lyrically. Still, Waters may be reunited with Fogerty and Young at that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner in January. Pink Floyd, too, is now eligible for induction.

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