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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Crowell Sets a New Gold Standard


SANTA ANA — Everyone should try being miserable for a couple of years. At least that's the impression one got from Rodney Crowell's stunning performance at the Crazy Horse Steak House Monday night.

The singer/songwriter has been through some rough sledding. There was the emotional turmoil and public scrutiny of his divorce from Rosanne Cash, a period encapsulated in the title of his 1992 album "Life Is Messy." Then, since that album, he lost his recording contract, disbanded his band and slipped into a funk during which he thought about quitting music entirely.

Coming out of all that, Crowell appears to have spun his troubles into gold and, at 42, is making some of the finest, most focused music of his career--a high standard indeed, given the rare excellence of his previous work.

He is writing and singing such feisty dust-devils as the hit "She's Crazy for Leavin'," and he's even better at songs so sadly beautiful that they rise to the same aching plateau reached by Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers a generation ago. For all the solid tunesmithing and glorious hooks that go into his songs, they are hardly ever slick, hitting home with intimacy and honesty.

Those qualities were made only more apparent in the pared-down acoustic duo state in which Crowell performed Monday (in the first of four Crazy Horse shows over two nights).

His band had been a remarkably responsive unit but even it didn't attain the immediacy and empathy that clearly has sprung up between Crowell and guitarist/mandolinist John Jorgenson. The Orange County-raised ex-Desert Rose Band member and current Hellecaster player has long been a masterful musician; now, like David Lindley once did with Jackson Browne, Jorgenson seems to have found a musical soul mate whose songs push his talents to an emotional height.

"We are a band," Crowell declared after one particularly heated song, and there was no denying it.

So many over-worked country acts rely on rote razzle-dazzle sets to win over audiences at the Crazy Horse that one sometimes can forget what an intimate room it can be. Monday, the feeling in the songs and the immediacy of Crowell and Jorgenson's create-as-you-go playing made the club seem like a porch, albeit one where the music was so simultaneously down-home and in-the-stars that it drew three standing ovations from the crowd.

Though he played a goodly selection of hits and requests (despite his announcement that "you only get your request if you write it on a napkin and hit me square in the head with it"), Crowell didn't hesitate to trust the audience with less familiar songs and a brace of new numbers during the nearly two-hour show.

Even the highly traveled tunes seemed to ring truer than they sometimes have before. Ringed by Jorgenson's haunting mandolin, Crowell's vocal during the often sad "Last Waltz" reeled out slowly, embracing and dancing with the listener. The similarly bittersweet "After All This Time" found his reflective vocal underscored by shimmering guitar notes Jorgenson sent singing in from nowhere with a volume pedal. The pair made a stinging rocker out of "It's Not for Me to Judge," rubbing salt into the T-Bone Burnett-like moral dilemma of the lyric.

Other songs included "Til I Gain Control Again," "Lovin' All Night," "What Kind of Love" and "Many a Long and Lonesome Highway." Most featured harmony vocals from Jorgenson, who took the lead on "Half a Heart."

The only tune that didn't seem deeper than ever with Jorgenson on board was "Things I Wish I'd Said," Crowell's reflection on the death of his father--understandable, considering the first time we heard Crowell sing it (at the Coach House) was on Father's Day, 1989, three weeks after his father's death.

Among the new songs was one possibly called "Who Do You Trust," with a light country blues feel similar to Tim Hardin's "Don't Make Promises." In one verse Crowell playfully bemoans his place in the music world:

Garth gets all the money, Billy Ray gets the girls, Reba gets to ramble on, Dolly gets the pearls, Kristofferson went to college, Johnny went to work, Rosanne got the knowledge. I got all the dirt.

In another song, he emerged as possibly the only country writer to not only use "sauerkraut" in a lyric but to make it say something. In a tune centered on the solitary growth one can experience after a loss, he sang:

This old world is a funny thing. One day you're up, the next day you're out. Sometimes they treat you like a king, And the next thing like sauerkraut. I feel like I just woke up from a long, long dream and the thing is, I'm happy for the first time in a long time.

Crowell and Jorgensen also debuted a new shouter, "Say It," with a driving "Cherry Cherry" guitar riff, and another reflective tune in which Crowell takes a piece of "don't push the river" advice from Van Morrison, declaring, "Let the picture paint itself and it'll be all right. You don't have to try so hard. You don't have to hold on so tight."

The strongest of the new songs is one co-written with Guy Clark, likely called "Stuff That Works," a celebration of the everyday possessions and friends that will see you through a hard time:

I got an old blue work shirt that suits me fine. I like the way it feels so I wear it all the time. I got this old guitar that won't ever stay in tune But I like the way it sounds in a dark and empty room . . . The stuff that works, the stuff that holds up, Is the kind of stuff you don't hang up on the wall. The stuff that's real, that stuff you feel, Is the stuff you always reach for when you fall .

That common, enduring quality could also be the mark of a good country song--a bit of knowledge that might be lost on record label and radio stations executives these days, but certainly was no mystery to the standing, cheering crowd at the Crazy Horse.

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