SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Reserved rock bands have about as much chance of success as presidential candidates who can't turn a coherent sentence.
The syntax-garbling George Bush is in retirement, and the inscrutably terse Bob Dole is at liberty to do whatever. Meanwhile, the glib and gregarious Bill Clinton, vanquisher of both, gets four more years.
The promising alternative-rock double bill Friday night at the Coach House lost its chance to win by a landslide when the Connells, a good, veteran band on record, failed to shed its reserve on stage. But the headlining Grant Lee Buffalo mustered enough offhanded charm and high-impact drama to carry the ticket.
Like Clinton, GLB's front-man, Grant Lee Phillips, may be a tad too comfortable and carried away with his own oratory. His singing style is strictly declamatory, and you get the sense he's always barking from a pulpit or a lectern. A bit of understatement and restraint in his vocal delivery would have given this promising L.A. band another dimension.
But this was a case of too much of a good thing rather than a damaging flaw: The trio's promise resides in its ability to make Phillips' dramatics seem real and justified instead of hollow and forced.
Phillips' delivery sometimes echoed U2's Bono Hewson and Liam O Maonlai of Hothouse Flowers, Irish singers with pulpit-pounding propensities. (Actually, Phillips sounds especially like a third Celt, the Waterboys' Mike Scott; maybe the band should have been named Grant Lee Shillelagh.) But unlike O Maonlai and Hewson (and more like Clinton), the tousle-haired, moon-faced Phillips has the common touch.
Early in the show, he forged a close connection with the audience through the idiosyncratic charm of his clever but scatterbrained stage persona. He was repeatedly able to turn the night's main technical obstacle--tuning problems with his highly amplified, electronically steroidal 12-string acoustic guitars--into occasions for fun and improvisation.
Further dispelling any aloofness or excess self-seriousness was the happily collegial band personality of Phillips, drummer Joey Peters--who spent much of the night grinning like a small boy looking at his birthday cake--and the valuable, highly engaged bassist-keyboard player-backup singer, Paul Kimble.
They seemed to deeply enjoy each other's playing and presence. The mood also benefited from the Coach House making a rare exception to its sit-down policy by clearing away tables to permit stage-front standing room. It enabled the fans to become a close-in part of the interaction.
The music was folk-grunge, with Phillips' guitars rigged to produce wailing shrieks and Black Sabbath-like fuzz-tone rumbles, sometimes together with standard acoustic strumming. If the Violent Femmes wanted to make music full of gravitas instead of wisecracks, they might have ended up like Grant Lee Buffalo.
Dynamic shifts, intense playing and the occasional funky or quietly simmering folkish interlude helped compensate for the declamatory sameness in Phillips' delivery. Especially strong were moments that took a Bowie-ish pop turn, with Kimble providing excellent high-harmony singing.
This side of the band was most evident in "Fuzzy," "Mockingbirds" and "Jupiter and Teardrop," the most accessible songs from GLB's first two albums. "Honey Don't Think," a winsome, simple folk song, was another highlight.
On its third and latest album, "Copperopolis," GLB goes more for density and portentousness. That approach had its moments, but the band's pop side worked best.
In covering an obscure Neil Young song, "For the Turnstiles," GLB declared its affection for noisy, off-center folk-rooted rock. But Young's concise song craft and accessible melodies are worth bearing in mind for a band that sometimes gets carried away with its love of big gestures.
The Connells are a North Carolina band that sprang up in the mid-'80s, when the South rose again with jangling guitar rock in response to the salvo fired by R.E.M. The band came armed with a good deal of solid, wistfully tuneful material (especially songs from its good recent albums, "Ring" and "Weird Food & Devastation").
Cohesiveness and experience are other assets: the Connells' five core players have been together since 1986, and new-guy Steve Potak, who joined five years ago, fit in fine with his whirring organ accents.
But the 75-minute set was an underachieving disappointment that made the least of these strengths. The Connells on record are like a less-overt Gin Blossoms, spinning catchy melodies while letting the songs unfold a bit more obliquely, darkly and gradually, without so much overeager repetition of chorus hooks.