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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Buck: Just Priceless


SANTA ANA — Anyone who was at the Crazy Horse Steak House on Tuesday is undoubtedly still grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

Make that the canary warehouse.

Those lucky fans had ringside seats at a once-in-a-lifetime show, akin to what Barbra Streisand lovers are paying $350 for, and superstar tenor-lovers forked over $1,000 for last weekend.

And these folks didn't have to spend a dime.

What did they get? Just Buck Owens, one of the true giants, in a staggering 53-song, three-hour (no intermissions) free show at which the audience called most of the tunes.

With a set that expansive, it was no surprise that Owens managed to include virtually all of his hits. He also provided a wondrous dose of offbeat choices from his extensive catalogue and still had time for a good sampling of songs by fellow Bakersfield-sound architect Merle Haggard, plus snatches from Chuck Berry, Ray Price, Randy Travis, Steppenwolf, the Surfaris and even Santo & Johnny.

The icing on this unusually tasty and nourishing cake came when Owens encouraged those at the tables in front of the stage to clear a spot so people could dance.

Club owner Fred Reiser, who has been booking top-name country acts into the Crazy Horse for 15 years, grinned and shook his head in amazement as he gazed out at his dance floor full of two-steppers--with Buck Owens & the Buckaroos serving as his house band, playing request upon request.

When Owens invited the folks to ask for anything, they really took him at his word. After all, when would they ever get another chance to have Buck Owens serenade them with "Happy Birthday" or a snippet of "The Anniversary Waltz," which is just what he did.

The dancers on the floor seemed to give Owens an extra shot of adrenalin, and it didn't seem to bother anyone when he reprised a couple of numbers for the boot-shakers that he'd already covered earlier in the show.

The concert--a last-minute booking--was a shakedown run for a trip Owens and the band will be making this week to Europe. But the "shakedown" turned out to be three times as long as the entire overseas gig. Bassist Doyle Curtsinger said after the show that the European tour is to consist of a one-hour set at a country-music festival outside Geneva.

It had been two years since Owens performed anywhere live. Given the long layoff, and the fact that he turns 65 next month, he might reasonably have been expected to ease off and to use this free test run simply to get his wind back.

His years showed--in a face more weather-beaten than the rock piles in Monument Valley, and in 30- to 40-minutes of rough-around-the-edges vocals and nervous joking at the outset.


He opened with "Act Naturally," his signature behind-the-beat phrasing intact but his voice sounding somewhat restricted, as if he were battling a cold. But after a while, out came the taut, back-of-the-throat vocals that make his records instantly recognizable, and the years seemed to melt away.

From that point, he settled into peak form and appeared determined to give Bruce Springsteen a run for his money. He checked his watch periodically, but the time didn't seem to matter. Either the watch was broken, or he simply was waiting for the date to change.

He sang "Under Your Spell Again," "Sam's Place," "Together Again," "Love's Gonna Live Here," "Cryin' Time," "Streets of Bakersfield," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," "Close Up the Honky Tonks" . . .

The surprise choices included "Buck's Polka," an instrumental from 1964 in which, after allowing guitarist-steel player Terry Christoffersen to handle most of the solos, Owens let loose with a display of his own considerable guitar chops; "In the Palm of Your Hand," the B-side of his 1966 single "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line," played at the behest of and in harmony with guest singer Herb Pedersen; and a thoroughly straight reading of the traditional "Long Black Veil," and he never so much as winked at the song's melodramatics.

The Buckaroos--Christoffersen, Curtsinger, keyboard player Jim Shaw and drummer Jim McCarty--went even further afield, venturing Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" and, with Christoffersen on pedal steel, an exquisite rendition of Santo & Johnny's 1959 instrumental "Sleep Walk."

To see a musician of Owens' stature shaking off the dust and rediscovering the primal joy of making music was as much an honor to behold as a pleasure to watch--and enough to make even the most cynical viewer believe anew that the best things in life really are free.

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