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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Big Head Full of the Heartland : Todd & the Monsters please a young crowd at the Coach House with earnest emotion, but they have room to grow.

March 16, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — For several years now, heartland rock has been on life support.

The rise of the grunge-alternative movement seemed to turn the page on the Bob Segers, Bruce Springsteens, Tom Pettys and John Mellencamps who dominated the charts for most of the 1980s but have seen recent releases fall short--sometimes far short--of their accustomed blue-chip results.

Lately, though, the old heartland sound has been registering renewed vital signs, thanks to CPR administered by younger bands and younger fans.

Counting Crows is perched in the Top 10 with "August & Everything After," a platinum album full of Petty-ish vocals. Its breakthrough hit, "Mr. Jones," was a knockoff of "Wild Night" by Van Morrison, one of the heartland rock movement's prime precursors.

Now come Big Head Todd & the Monsters, whose first album for a major label, "Sister Sweetly," has just topped the gold sales mark of 500,000.

The Colorado trio played to a packed house of mainly college-age fans at the Coach House on Monday night. It won ovation after ovation for an approach practically bursting with earnest, fervent emotional expression (a heartland staple) while taking musical cues from some of the same roots-rock antecedents that inspired the big-name heartlanders.

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Bandleader Todd Park Mohr--a strapping fellow who is big all over, not just above the shoulders--had a husky, drawling, passionate delivery that sounded, at various moments, like Springsteen, Seger, John Hiatt, Eric Clapton or some combination of the Band's Levon Helm and Rick Danko.

The nearly two-hour show hit a few impressive peaks provided by a smattering of well-wrought songs (especially the winsome "Bittersweet") and Mohr's ability to achieve liftoff at least occasionally with his fast-flurrying, Hendrix-inspired guitar work.

But the bulk of the evening showed that, while they are promising in several respects, Mohr and his band-mates--drummer Brian Nevin and bassist Rob Squires--still have a lot of craft to learn before they can measure up to any of heartland rock's heroes.

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Mohr needs to become a more varied and resourceful guitarist, especially if he is going to remain the point man in a trio. While he was hot enough to ignite the audience with emphatic, flurrying explosions, hot was his only temperature.

Mohr's fret work quickly became repetitious as he stuck with the same thick, throaty guitar sounds and the same wailing, chordal solos. Mohr has mastered the trick of twiddling a volume knob to get a sob-like, bowed-string vibrato effect. It's a nice card if you play it once; he tediously dealt it four or five times.

He proved himself a sometimes powerful but ultimately unimaginative and one-dimensional player, and that's not especially good news for a trio. Mohr has the hefty throb but needs a Nils Lofgren-type sidekick to complement him with more nimble, stinging, cleanly etched counterpoint.

The sultry, funk-based number "Sister Sweetly" especially could have used some coy, slinky, sexy touches instead of Mohr's blatant wah-wah wailing.

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Nevin and Squires were serviceable if unremarkable players. It was no help at all that Nevin's massive drum kit was over-miked, leading to a dense sound mix that intruded on Mohr's vocals.

Mohr's material worked best when the melodies allowed him to soar into his emotive high range. Meditations on failing relationships made up the bulk of the show, although several songs showed an ability to work on a larger canvas.

"Dinner With Ivan" (which nicked a riff from Elton John's "Love Lies Bleeding" and borrowed other stormy licks from Dire Straits) was a caustic narrative in which Mohr loses patience with a friend's self-pity.

"Ellis Island" effectively conveyed sorrow over soured American dreams. "Monument in Green" was an epic lament for the bloody past and environmentally fallen present of the American West, told (in an imaginative stroke) by the now-disillusioned ghost of a pioneer who had thought that the harsh means he took in his lifetime would lead to more fruitful ends.

Mohr followed that stormy epic with a laid-back version of "Everyday People," Sly & the Family Stone's hopeful broadside against bigotry. In a nice touch, Mohr, who comes from Korean stock, dabbed a distinctive musical touch of his own onto this R & B anthem for a rainbow coalition: His concluding guitar solo had a distinctively East Asian cast.

Aside from his flashy, guitar-gladiator moves (shaking the guitar neck until it almost choked, slashing dramatically at the strings with his strumming hand), Mohr was a restrained performer who confined himself between songs to broad smiles and sincere expressions of thanks.

Humor wasn't high on the agenda, but it did turn up in a partly fond but primarily joking rendition of the Nat King Cole chestnut "Mona Lisa." After a bleary, crooned intro that sounded like Tony Bennett on a bender, the band cranked the song out rockabilly style.

Give them credit for the idea and the attempt, but it would have been much better if they could have made it swing.

The Freddy Jones Band, a Chicago band with nobody named Freddy Jones in it, opened with a fine display of musicianship. Churning, coursing rhythms conveyed a sense of purposeful but free-ranging motion, while an excellent guitar tandem worked in a country and blues tradition carved out by the likes of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band.

A couple of songs had glistening folk-pop arrangements that might have suited James Taylor. Add an appealing, three-voice harmony blend, and you have every ingredient for excellence except the one that the Freddy Jones Band unfortunately lacks: striking material.

The mix didn't allow many lyrics to get through, but that was no great loss: The band's debut album, "Waiting for the Night," is stocked with homilies, advice and other stock sentiments. But the quality of the playing momentarily made up for what was missing.

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