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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Diluting His Southern Discomfort : A relatively recharged Charlie Daniels tones down his hate lyrics of yore and revs up his signature boogie style of playing in a show at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana.

August 18, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — For years, Charlie Daniels has been crowing "The South's Gonna Do It Again." When the singer-fiddler-guitarist first recorded that song back in 1975, he was talking about how Southern boogie bands such as his, the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band were on the move, in some manner echoing the way that the South was, shall we say, asserting itself back at Ft. Sumter in 1861.

In the 18 years he's been singing his song, Daniels slowly devolved from an arena act to a club band, and his sometimes pat, effortless performances were a good indication of why that happened.

At the Crazy Horse Steak House on Monday, Daniels was performing like he's ready to do it again, again.

Though it was a relatively reinvigorated artist playing Monday, that doesn't necessarily mean it's time for fireworks, given what a low point he's rebounding from.

When this writer last saw Daniels three years ago, it was just about the most lifeless and cynically calculated show I'd ever seen. There was no fire to his playing or singing, and a large digital clock on the stage even let the audience see that his $29.95 show, including encore, clocked in at an hour, nearly to the second.

What little energy Daniels put into that show seemed to be reserved for when he was squirting venom in his songs and speeches extolling violent sexual bigotry and lynch mob justice.

Daniels once wrote, and still performs, a song that demands: "If you don't like the way I'm living, Why don't you leave this long-haired country boy alone?" Why indeed, you might ask a fellow who then turns around and updates his 1973 "Uneasy Rider" (which originally decried redneck intolerance) in 1988 to suggest that it's just dandy to go into gay bars and beat up homosexuals.

Daniels has recently changed record labels, and it's not impossible that its publicity people suggested to him that hate speech is a tougher sell in 1993, because it was toned down in his show this time around.

His only nod of the cudgel in that direction came in his 1990 "Simple Man" celebration of vigilante justice, which he preceded this time with an attack on "intellectuals" and talk-show hosts, including aspersions he cast on Phil Donahue's sexuality.

The song itself plays on the righteous indignation most folks feel when a criminal walks free, but suggests that the solution is "a big, tall tree and short piece of rope." In its disregard for due process, though, the song carries the message that it doesn't so much matter if you have the wrong man as long as you have the right tree.

If one can get past that, Daniels' show was pretty enjoyable fare this time out. Though his recent album, "America, I Believe in You" only made it into the bottom of the country chart for one week, he was playing as if he has a new lease on life.

Daniels used to be a prime Nashville session man, playing on everything from Flatt & Scruggs records to Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" (not to mention that he produced the Youngbloods' fine "Elephant Mountain" album).

He put those skills to work Monday with some hot, flashy fiddle work on "Drinking My Baby Goodbye" and his 1979 No. 1 hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," which he delivered at a breakneck pace, slicing his bow wickedly through the air.

He played some similarly heated banjo on "Rocky Top," and his trademark Southern-boogie guitar work was also in good form on other tunes. Singing has never been his long suit, but he delivered an emotive, Willie Nelson-influenced vocal on "Little Folks," a mawkish but still touching song about children.

The cliches worked less well on the title track of his current album. "America, I Believe in You" proved to be just one more advertising jingle-like example of the "America, we're so wonderful that we have to remind ourselves of it every five minutes" songs that have glutted the market in recent years.

For all the new verve and seeming spontaneity Daniels was applying to most of his music, there's one thing that didn't change: His performance clocked in at exactly one hour.

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