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POP MUSIC REVIEW : D'Arby Puts on a Variety Show : As he attempts a comeback, the singer proves his performing faculties are intact with a Coach House appearance that rocks persuasively, funks heatedly, soars sweetly.


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — "Diversity" is the cultural watchword of the day among the politically correct, which may be enough to give a good idea a bad name.

But political correctness never has been as entertaining, and as sweatily energized, as Terence Trent D'Arby made it Wednesday night at the Coach House. For him, diversity wasn't a catch-phrase but a guiding principle for musical action.

Performing what he declared to be "my first real gig in about 3 1/2 years" (the impressive but abbreviated set he performed last month in the multi-act KROQ concert at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre evidently didn't count), D'Arby coyly apologized for being rusty.

"I'm kind of out of shape," said the man who had doffed a psychedelic floral shirt early in his 80-minute concert; he carried on with the upper half of his lithe, well-muscled physique showing, and the other half clad in white pants that only a gymnast would consider too loose. "I'm 31 years old now, I'm not as young as I used to be."

By the time he had issued this wry apology, he had executed enough snappy whirls, leaps and splits to make it clear that he is hardly over the hill. And his singing didn't reveal much rust either: D'Arby acquitted himself well throughout the set, featuring both his gritty, low-range R&B husk and, even better, his way with high-reaching, highly ornamented, creamy-toned classic soul bel canto.

As he already had shown at Irvine Meadows and on his strong new album, "Symphony or Damn," all his performing faculties are intact as he attempts a commercial comeback (album No. 2 having flopped after the great success of his debut, "The Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby" in 1987).

In his search for renewed mass approval, D'Arby has not backed off from his ideal of musical diversity, although he also has paid lip (or pen) service to the sort of diversity that has PC implications. The utterly apolitical "Symphony or Damn" concerns itself with matters of the heart and the libido, but D'Arby offers a postscript in the liner notes proclaiming pride in his own black heritage and adds a politically (if not grammatically) correct dedication "to anyone who seeks to comport themselves with grace, dignity, and a respect for themselves and for the differences of others."

For D'Arby, though, diversity isn't just a fashionable idea; it's at the heart of his musical method of operation. His concert rocked persuasively, funked heatedly, and soared sweetly and plaintively in the old soul style he borrows from Sam Cooke and other classic precursors. In each mode, he achieved spontaneity with elastic arrangements that allowed for vocal improvisation and let his five-man band cook a bit. One of the band's chief virtues was good backup singing (provided by three of the players), which preserved the melodic fullness and complexity of D'Arby's recorded work.

After a somewhat tentative start (if D'Arby was in fact feeling a little rusty, opening with the moody, mid-tempo new song "Castilian Blue" wasn't the best way to shake it off), the show came into focus with a treatment of a 1960-vintage Smokey Robinson ballad, "Who's Lovin' You."

The song opened with swing rhythms under jazz piano figures played by beret-sporting keyboardist Michael Dorian, moved into an extended pure-soul showcase for D'Arby, and ended with lead guitarist Stevie Salas playing stinging, traditional blues.

Having paid respects to a wide range of the music that black Americans have invented over the past 100 years, D'Arby reached for one of the farther-flung blossoms grown from those roots--the dense, psychedelic rock of "This Side of Love." The song rode snarling riffs from Salas, who strayed only when he dipped into cliched metal-guitar whinnying in some of his solos and fills.

One of the show's highlights was a long stretch devoted to pure funk. Starting with a leap, dropping to a split and rising again to do a body-twirl (all in the best James Brown tradition), D'Arby kicked off an exceptional medley of "Dance Little Sister" and "You Will Pay Tomorrow."

Over spiny, insistent funk guitar rhythms, he delivered his most urgent singing, biting into lyrics that (in "Dance Little Sister") spoke of the need for endurance in the face of adversity and (in "Tomorrow") conveyed the fundamental ethical insight that actions have consequences.

He didn't slack off during an encore that rocked hard with a soul-tinged treatment of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and added some rock 'n' roll ballast and drive to KC and the Sunshine Band's disco confection "Get Down Tonight."

D'Arby played only four songs from "Symphony or Damn" and could profitably have added a few more. He drew three songs from "Neither Fish Nor Flesh," the 1989 album that was such a commercial flop after his rookie success. It was as if he was standing by his work (with some justification, because it's not a bad album despite its lack of radio-friendly songs).

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