SANTA ANA--It wasn't quite roaring, but the voice that gave the feminist movement its mainstream anthem two decades ago still can be a pretty compelling instrument.
Helen ("I Am Woman") Reddy's not quite invincible, though, as attested by a broken leg she sustained right before her recent world tour and was still favoring Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House. More vulnerable, though, was her choice of material, an uncomfortable balance between lounge-ready versions of her hits and songs that call for some real artistry.
The '70s were awful in many respects, with such then-prevailing factors as Don Kirschner, "Rhinestone Cowboy," rock musicals and flared trousers. Reddy's early hits generally weren't much above the weird schmaltz of the time. Consider "Angie Baby," with its story of a disturbed girl who shrinks her lovers and makes them disappear into her stereo.
Balancing out the oftentimes less-than-splendid fare, the Australian singer's voice had both an engaging, personable quality and a rich, rounded tone with fine diction and peculiar, immediately recognizable phrasing. Her singing still has those characteristics, though it clearly flies in two directions these days. At times, it is abetted with a jazz nuance that makes her an effective interpreter of standards. Just as often, though, she seemed to fall into cliche Monday, substituting style for feeling.
That was most evident during "I Am Woman," a song she justifiably could be fed up with singing. But she gave it such a chirpy, vacant, up-beat arrangement that one would think the women's movement had succeeded wholly and been forgotten centuries ago. "Angie Baby" was further burdened with mock dramatics, with Reddy turning her head and making horrified faces.
"Delta Dawn" also seemed emotionally uninhabited. But Reddy struck home with a couple of her other oldies. Her opening tune, "Ruby Red Dress," was given a jazzy revamping with three-part vocal harmonies from members of her four-piece band and clever quotes from Dion's "Ruby Baby." The ballads "You and Me Against the World" and "No Way to Treat a Lady" both featured subtle vocal turns.
Reddy's greatest strength these days lies in her balladry. Her interpretive skills may not place her among the great torch singers (though she has toured alongside Mel Torme), but at least she has a classier way with a standard than Linda Ronstadt did.
Reddy wrapped her lush voice around this more substantial material, which included "The Man I Love" (half sung in French), "Come Rain or Come Shine," "That's All" and rousing versions of Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town" and the Judy Garland show stopper "Get Happy."
"Here in My Arms," a poignant ballad from her 1990 "Feel So Young" album, carried an emotion that justified her dedicating the tune to the friends she's lost to AIDS. (Though "Feel So Young" includes remakes of some of her '70s hits, the album shows Reddy to be a '90s gal as well: Its packaging is minimal and uses recycled materials.)
While the members of Reddy's quartet all seemed to be playing fine stuff individually, they didn't always mesh as a unit. During "Nice to Be Around," for instance, guitarist Teresa Russell's arpeggios clashed with keyboardist Karen Hammack's comping (Hammack works locally with jazzman Eric Marienthal and others). The group also features bassist Bill Breland and drummer Milton Ruth, Reddy's husband. Through no fault of its own, the group often was too loud in the sound mix, not leaving much room for Reddy's voice.