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Pop Music Review : Jackson Stays Clear of Deep End at The Pond

November 19, 1994|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — If the music industry gave awards for niceness, country singer Alan Jackson would have a bushelbasket full.

Oh, that's right. They do--and he does.

You really couldn't ask for a more congenial, from-head-to-toe likable star than this long, tall Georgian. For close to 90 minutes Thursday at The Pond, Jackson oozed gawrsh-ma'am sincerity and Gary Cooper-like decency.

Those qualities, with a strong measure of all-American good looks to boot, are every bit as important to Jackson's remarkable commercial success as his singing or his songwriting, which are, at best, modestly above average.

Not coincidentally, friendliness, sincerity and physical attractiveness are at a premium in country music today--more important, it can be argued, than talent alone. Hence Jackson keeps raking in the industry's top awards even though there are far better singers, more dynamic performers and more consistently insightful songwriters.

What he does as effectively as anyone in the game right now is play to his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.

Through 19 songs--virtually the same set list he performed here almost exactly one year ago--Jackson steered his expert Strayhorns band smoothly around any and all pockets of turbulence. It's a great quality in an airline pilot, less desirable in a country singer.

Such emotional evenhandedness provides a comforting consistency but doesn't allow for the joyous highs or melancholy lows the best country singers hit. An exuberant exception was "What Kind of Man?" a traditional bluegrass-gospel roof-raiser that came mid-show. But then, in gospel music, spirit of delivery is more crucial than vocal power or gymnastics, and Jackson truly seemed to come alive on that one.

He left it to his band to provide the rest of the show's musical sparks: guitarist Danny Groah, fiddler Monty Parkey and, especially, steel guitarist Robbie Flint often evinced the heartache that their boss merely described.

As a writer, Jackson connects two or three times per album--not an impressive average, but often enough to keep alive the hope that he'll come up with a truly special album one day. If everything he wrote was as revealing as "Tonight I Climbed the Wall," a 1992 study in pride swallowing, Jackson would be more deserving of those songwriter trophies he keeps accumulating.

But singing and songwriting--once upon a time the alpha and omega of country music--were just two of many components, and often not even the two most important, of Jackson's multimedia production. Make that Production.

*

Video was the dominant element in at least half the songs. Footage from his music videos--Alan skiing, Alan four-wheeling, Alan pining--was interwoven on the plentiful video screens with live shots of Jackson and his band members. In some cases, videos were shown virtually uninterrupted. If he didn't seem so genuinely unassuming, you'd get the idea he had a big ego.

By relying so heavily on electronic visuals, Jackson telegraphed a lack of confidence in his ability as a singer to conjure images, situations or emotions. Perhaps in his case, it's justified. While his voice is as pleasant as a glass of warm milk, it's also every bit as mundane.

In fact, the crowd erupted with some of its biggest cheers not in response to a skillful vocal turn or a particularly meaningful lyric, but at the derring-do stunts Jackson was performing on screen. So much for the virtues of in-the-moment live performance.

*

Opener Faith Hill let loose with more vocal power than on her thoroughly unremarkable debut album "Take Me As I Am." She even managed a couple of gutsy growls and leaps into falsetto range during her 45-minute set.

But her voice has little inherent character, and the 27-year-old Mississippian with the fashion-model face and figure did little with it except belt, belt, belt. Then again, she wasn't helped by a muddy, booming sound mix that left Hill and her band sounding as if they were swirling around at the bottom of a cement mixer.

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