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On Country's Borders

Jann Browne pushes frontiers but remains in uncharted territory. Rick Shea gets far with restraint and good material.

August 23, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Sometimes a critic goes to a show and wishes the performers were somewhere else.

It was like that with the Jann Browne/Rick Shea double bill Wednesday night at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

For her sake, one wished that Browne's outstanding concert of muscular progressive-country and hard-twangin' honky-tonk could have taken place on "Austin City Limits," "Mountain Stage," TNN, or wherever it is that a little-known master of her genre might go to suddenly be transformed into a widely hailed master of her genre.

As it was, Browne had to settle for the museum's waterfront lawn--if "settle" is an applicable word for one of the area's loveliest and best-sounding spots for a pop concert. Her audience of about 550 picnicking listeners didn't have to settle for anything, as they got Browne and her Dangerous Neighbors band on a prime, kicking night. Shea, in his more modest way, was also first-rate on a bill that was a local progressive-country equivalent of going to a Dodgers doubleheader in the mid-'60s and watching Don Drysdale pitch the opener and Sandy Koufax the nightcap.

A favorite on the Orange County country music scene since she moved here from her native Indiana in 1978, Browne plays, at most, a few shows a year locally; she concentrates her performing in Europe, where she has a record deal. Mainly, she has been devoting her energy to riding a songwriting streak so hot and fast-moving that it's beginning to resemble a comet.

*

Browne's 1994 album, "Count Me In," is one of the decade's best records (and one of its most ill-fated: After struggling to get the European release put out in the United States, Browne struck a deal last year with an ambitious independent label, Cross Three, only to have the company soon fold).

Almost any artist who harvested a vintage so intoxicating would tap it in concert as if it were a keg of the finest cognac. But Browne, a tequila drinker herself, performed only two songs from "Count Me In," instead loading her 80-minute set with an album's worth of equally good, more recent material.

Browne's high artistic aims were apparent from the start. She began with a cover of "Crescent City," a wistful, emotionally charged country-rock anthem by Lucinda Williams that is in the good-as-it-gets category of songwriting (check out Emmylou Harris' version on her fine "Cowgirl's Prayer" album). It was as if a high-jumper decided to start warmup leaps at a height within inches of the world record.

Next, the pixie-sized Browne established just how dangerous she and the Dangerous Neighbors could be with a sassy reading of "You Ain't Down Home," the Jamie O'Hara composition that was a semi-hit for her in 1990, during her two-album previous incarnation as a new-traditionalist mainstream country artist trying to do things to suit Nashville's demands. Browne sang the dismissive kiss-off tune with the verve and bite of a woman you wouldn't want to cross but also with a playfulness that drew you in.

The number turned into a platform for a great band workout, with the valuable Shea, sitting in on pedal steel guitar, taking a lively solo, passing the baton to mandolin player Kenny Blackwell, then on to lead guitarist Matt Barnes, who played with a crackling rock edge. Throughout, Blackwell's folksy accents provided a link to deep country tradition, countering and complementing Barnes' rowdy desire to power the music toward the frontier of rock.

Browne then moved into songs she has written to meet nobody's demands but her own, and the sequence was almost nonstop remarkable. "Heart of Mine," a bright, celebratory love song; "Don't Do This," an instantly memorable honky-tonk acher (with O.C.'s Patty Booker as a fine, twangy-voiced duet partner); "Hearts on the Blue Train," a grand, chiming anthem for the lovelorn; and the straining, passionate, "Cold Here in London," featuring Barnes and Browne's husband, Roger Stebner, crooning Brit-rock backing la-la-la's as if it were a 1967 Who concert and they were John Entwistle and Pete Townshend singing behind Roger Daltrey--this was sure evidence of that cometing hot streak.

And there were many more to come. "After the Hurricane" was a soaring anthem of resiliency, one of Browne's favorite topics and one she knows about firsthand--although "Hurricane" was written by Nashville-based friend Tim Carroll. "Don't Be Mad" was a winning song about trying to hold together a jeopardized romance, as Browne showed her ability to plead tenderly without losing her sense of dignity and strength.

A hot encore featured the rocketing, soul-flavored "Lost Love Thing," in which Browne stretched out vocally in a pretty fair Dusty Springfield approximation, and "The Lucky Few," a trenchant, hammering rocker about having the grit to live through loss, frustration and envy.

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