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O.C. POP ALBUM REVIEWS : Travelin' Bands Hit Points of Interest

March 26, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today's crop of local album reviews finds Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers visiting Memphis (not to see Graceland, but to play the blues for their new live album) and Barrelhouse drawing its inspiration from Memphis via the Stax soul sound. Fu Manchu goes cruising with a hard-rock album about fun on wheels, and Atomic Boy tunefully vents its frustration at not getting the desired chain reaction from big-label deal-makers. Ratings range from * (grounded into double play) to **** (knocked it 450 feet over the center field fence). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.

** 1/2

Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers

"Live at B.B. King's, Memphis"

Big Mo

Here's one for those nights when you want to get out of the house for some good-time blues but nothing good is playing in the vicinity.

The Riverside-based Piazza and his band don't push traditional blues in new directions, nor are they concerned with tapping the deepest emotional possibilities of their genre. What they do best is play the blues with a rare verve and pleasure, and exceptional skill.

This 72 1/2-minute CD, drawn from two Beale Street club gigs in December, is loaded with hot, interactive playing that achieves a live album's desired you-are-there effect.

Piazza applies his wry, conversational voice mainly to humorous songs about bad women and worse luck; he'd do well to go for more of a thematic mix. Musically, though, the program is reasonably diverse. Such numbers as the tense "Murder in the 1st Degree," the sultry "Blue Hour," and a slow-burning guitar showcase, "Down So Long," balance lighter fare built on jumping rhythms.

Piazza's harmonica playing is full of surprising twists, with the nervous leaps and slides of "Murder" a prime example. Guitarist Alex Shultz spins out solos that say something different and delightful with each chorus, while piano player Honey Piazza, the bandleader's wife, can boogie hard or trill nimbly as the situation requires.

These three soloists also function well as supporting players who can add interesting accents to a song even when the focus of attention is elsewhere. The hollow, pinging quality of the digital piano is a drawback, although it is understandable that a hard-touring band without deep pockets would go for the easy portability and low-maintenance of an electronic keyboard.

Playing mostly original material by both Piazzas, the band keeps things cooking until the final number, an anticlimactic, slow-grinding "Mannish Boy" knockoff called "They Want Money."

In it, Piazza grouchily brands all women as gold diggers. Some stereotypes just don't fly anymore, and even as traditional an outfit as the Mighty Flyers had best evolve beyond them.

(Available from Big Mo Records, (800) 647-4583, or RR1 Box 389C, Norwich, VT 05055.)

** 1/2

Barrelhouse

"Blues on 10th 'n' Central"

The place name in the title of this self-financed cassette release refers to a band member's pad in Seal Beach, but Barrelhouse's sound issues straight from McLemore Avenue. That was the Memphis address of the Stax Records studio, birthplace of the gritty Southern soul music of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.

Not many singers are up to emulating the likes of Redding and Pickett, but Barrelhouse front man Steave Ascasio is the authentic item. He is a natural soul singer with a rich, grainy voice that has real presence, coupled with the sensitivity and nuance to burrow deeply into a lyric.

You wouldn't expect those qualities in a 25-year-old suburban kid from Laguna Niguel, but Ascasio joins blues man Robert Lucas and rockabilly Robert (Big Sandy) Williams as one of the best young roots-music singers on the local scene.

What's more, Barrelhouse writes songs good enough that Redding or Pickett might have wanted to record them. The lyrics are simple but heartfelt, the funk grooves on the fast tunes are pulsating, and the ballad melodies--ballads being the cassette's particular strength--are graceful.

The album is far from perfect. The arrangements cry out for the horns and keyboards of classic Southern soul; given the financial strictures of being a young, grass-roots band making a do-it-yourself recording, Barrelhouse sticks to a bare-bones, guitar-based sound.

Even within these limitations, the instrumental work could stand improvement. Guitarists Mark Cerneka and Dave Metzger do well with sparse, scratchy funk rhythms a la Stax stalwart Steve Cropper, but neither comes through with the confident, imaginative soloing that could have lifted several songs.

The band sounds most at home with "Mazy," the album's bluesiest track; elsewhere, the guitar solos are tentative, and the arrangements sometimes sputter.

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