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POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Guitarist of Notes : Junior Brown, Among the Best in Country . . . Blues and Rock, Shows Why Two Necks are Better Than One

August 28, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Junior Brown apparently started out from the same point--basic surf-guitar licks--as many a typical rock 'n' roll kid of the 1960s. This may or may not be of some comfort to all of the celebrated electric-guitar heroes (i.e., virtually every one of them) who today can't touch him.

Brown capped his set Saturday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre with a medley of surf instrumentals, songs he has been playing since his Indiana boyhood. He began this fleet, flying, delicious sequence with "Pipeline," literally bringing it all back home for that venerable classic, which the Chantays concocted in a Santa Ana bedroom. He zoomed on, into the Ventures' "Walk, Don't Run," then the "Secret Agent" theme.

It was exquisite fun, and it was seriously good. It also was just kid stuff for Brown in more ways than one: He wasn't even using half of his arsenal; he played the medley only on the upper half of his "guit-steel," the custom-designed double-necked instrument that is half regular guitar and half country-style steel guitar.

Brown's primary style is country music--the most traditional forms of the genre. He writes and sings honky-tonk waltzes and strolls and energetically twanging tunes, playing things today much as Ray Price and Buck Owens did in the '50s and '60s. Hence the need for that second neck, which allows Brown to save on hired steel guitar accompaniment while still having his songs decorated with all manner of colorful quavers, train-whistle moans and crisp, pealing bell-tones. In his case, the adage, "if you want something done right, do it yourself" was never more true.

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Brown did have minimalist help from a trio that included a single snare drum played with brushes, a bass fiddle and the energetic but inaudible acoustic rhythm strumming of his wife, Tanya Rae Brown. This rhythm section provided solid foundations for the always-dominant lead.

Skittering lightly, sprinting through bristling, crisply intoned speed runs, doing the Duane Eddy bass-string twang, or plucking out scratchy and cackling tones that evoked a barnyard full of agitated hens, Brown had all the devices he needed to fill out a country song. It wasn't a gimmicky display. Brown, who sported a white cowboy hat and a blue jacket with tie, made every lick fit into an exciting flow in which the playing was prolific but never overbearing. As he played, Brown's face was a canvas of purse-lipped concentration; sometimes he would hunch low over his fret board, like a sculptor wanting to smell the clay he's molding. Tanya Rae Brown would look over from time to time and smile to herself, appearing to be tickled once again by the playing she hears every night.

The singing and the songs--culled from the two 1993 albums and the recent EP the Austin-based Brown has released in his bid to become more than a Danny Gatton-like underground guitar legend--were strong in their own right. Brown's deep baritone was full and resonant, and his mainly lighthearted material contained lots of smile-inducing lines.

At 43, Brown has settled down after wilder, oat-sowing days, and many of his songs were wry looks at fellows not unlike himself, who have learned from hard experience not to seek out the "Party Lights," as one song put it, and to keep their distance from the likes of the alluring, tight-jeaned, honky-tonk temptress of "Venom Wearing Denim."

Though the singer-songwriter is an able foot soldier in the struggle to reconnect country music to its glossed-over roots, his 10 fingers are all five-star generals. Country and surf music weren't all he played. An extended, "Red House"-style slow blues had such virtuosity that Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy might want to A) sit in with Brown some day, or B) stay as far away from him as possible. One couldn't help thinking that Brown would be a far bigger name right now if he were primarily a blues player, a medium in which the guitar-slinger is king, unlike country, which, Chet Atkins aside, belongs to the crooners.

Brown's closing number, "Sugarfoot Rag," was a kaleidoscopic summation of his talent. It went from a blues intro to racing bluegrass runs played over a pulsing, oom-pah-pah beat. Then came improvisations and rock-riff interpolations that had a dash of Duane Allman and a strong, venturesome taste of Jimi Hendrix (Brown might consider renaming the number "Crossfarm Traffic"). It wasn't music-making by the book, unless the book is about alchemy.

Brown earned numerous whoops and cheers throughout his wizardly 80-minute performance. When it was over, a listener could only sit there in happy dazzlement. Astaire in his ballroom, Van Gogh at his easel, Jackie Robinson on the base paths and Einstein at his chalkboard--all were incomparable masters creating in their element, like Junior Brown at that strange, twin-necked, open-sided parallelogram he conjures with.

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