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O.C. POP BEAT / MIKE BOEHM

Cohn Should Move to the Edge

September 02, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

"All things in moderation" may be fine advice for living, but it's no way to go about playing pop music, especially pop grounded in Southern soul and R & B.

It helps to have "something wild" inside if you're going to walk in that tradition, as John Hiatt, a master of it, proclaims on his new album. Marc Cohn's concert Tuesday night at the sold-out Coach House was more often something mild.

A capable songwriter and earnest performer, Cohn is not out of his depth as he attempts to build a pop career out of R & B roots (Willie Dixon, Van Morrison and Al Green were among the sources he covered or alluded to during his two-hour performance).

Cohn has a good ear and usually comes up with attractive melodies. He draws on believable emotional situations in his songs, avoiding cliches, while often seeming to write from his own experience. And his husky voice, while limited in range, has a fair amount of grit in it--enough to make him sound at home with his influences.

Those abilities have resulted in two moderately appealing albums: "Marc Cohn," the 1991 debut that went gold and won him a best-new-artist Grammy, and "The Rainy Season," a new release that has had a slow start on the charts, perhaps due to the predominantly downcast mood, full of intimations of mortality, that actually makes it the more interesting work.

What limits this New Yorker is his restraint. He has an evenness of artistic temperament that won't let him tap into the wired strangeness, the extremity of feeling and experience, that you're apt to get from a hotter-blooded rock-R & B exponent such as Hiatt (who headlines at the Coach House on Tuesday).

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Cohn's often-melancholy repertoire certainly dwells upon troubles and yearnings, but they never take on the stature of torments and obsessions.

In "Rest for the Weary," for example, Cohn, singing the part of a son remembering his self-enslaved, workaholic father, doesn't venture beyond wistful melancholy as he portrays a situation rife with possibilities for bitterness.

His songs allow for sadness, but seldom tragedy (tellingly, Cohn did not play "Mama's in the Moon" or "Medicine Man," two songs from his new album that look at death head-on and consequently gain a sense of haunted mystery). In upbeat moods, as on his breakthrough hit, "Walking in Memphis," there is similarly something circumspect in Cohn's celebration.

A slick recording approach enforces that evenness on record. Live, one hoped, Cohn would be able to break through and present his music free of fetters.

No such luck.

The Coach House show was Cohn's tour-opener. Last time around, he played with a single sideman; now he was debuting his first touring band. Unfortunately, it was a ho-hum ensemble that stuck close to the approach of his records.

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Cohn asserted his serviceable but not daring keyboard style on an infernal digital piano that had that canned, tinny, chingy sound to it. He also played a bit of left-handed acoustic guitar.

John Leventhal, the lead guitarist, was a holdover from Cohn's studio ensemble and, as Cohn's co-producer on "The Rainy Season," is a key architect of its too-smooth sound.

Leventhal, who also has lent his pristine neatness and bland atmospherics to albums by Shawn Colvin and Rosanne Cash, was no cook to fire up a satisfying R & B barbecue. That calls for some hot sauce and grease-spattered sizzle in the playing; Leventhal is strictly a low-cholesterol guitarist. His muted, too-placid tones were as plain as celery, and his stage presence was itself only a few degrees removed from a vegetative state.

Ditto for the bassist, Zev Katz. Only Dennis McDermott, who laid down a crisp foundation on drums, showed some verve as he played. Cohn and his band had their brightest moments on "Walk Through This World" and "Miles Away," chunky, bouncing numbers that were fairly exuberant.

Cohn was a low-keyed but likable personality whose main way of connecting with the audience--aside from the earnest conviction of his singing--was to engage it in extended call-and-response choruses and address it with improvised half-sung, half-spoken vamps patterned after black-gospel testifying.

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He leavened those segments with a sense of humor--for example, declaring in his sung introduction to the Willie Dixon chestnut "29 Ways" that he had earned the right to sing the blues by touring in a bus that "smells like Lysol and there ain't no (expletive) ventilation. . . . Now I know what to tell them what (it means) when you win a Grammy. I say, 'Absolutely nothing--a bus that smells like Lysol.' "

Having clearly built up a strong fund of goodwill in previous visits to the Coach House, Cohn had no problem getting the responses he wanted from this already-converted congregation.

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Unfortunately, he got carried away with the interaction, carrying on the call-and-response stuff ad infinitum during "Walking in Memphis," which he used as a pre-encore set-closer.

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