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Pop music review: The Destroyers don't change much but in O.C. showed they can still rekindle the raunchy fun of early rock.

March 20, 1997|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — George Thorogood & the Destroyers are living proof that rock 'n' roll never forgets, as long as you don't give it anything very complicated to remember.

The key to Thorogood's success over the past 20 years has been his ability to embody the raunchy, sweaty, fun spirit of rock's early days, and never mind trying to push beyond any frontiers explored after 1964.

Thorogood inhabits a world where Bob Dylan never picked up a pen, the Beatles never started fiddling with pianos and strings and running tapes backward, and almost everything played is in the key of B: blues, Chuck Berry and a backbeat you can't lose, and, for subject matter, babes, belts of booze and being bad.

His fans knew what to expect Tuesday night at the Coach House (which was packed), and he didn't disappoint them (he also was scheduled to play Wednesday and tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana).

The promise of familiar pleasures earned the 44-year-old native of Wilmington, Del., a rousing ovation as he strode onstage, and he accepted it with the words of Jackie Gleason ("How sweet it is!") and the upraised-fists pose of a pro wrestler.

To prove he was going to play it straight, he began with a Berry number, complete with duck walk, plus a 360-degree spin for good measure. Thus he confirmed many of the old verities of rock 'n' roll in one number and restated them with great enthusiasm.

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One of the things that makes Thorogood a likable bar-rocker (albeit one whose four gold and two platinum records probably place him behind only the J. Geils Band and Hootie & the Blowfish on the bar-band scale of success) is his explorer's affection for rock's roots: That Berry number wasn't some obvious hit, but an obscurity, "Hello, Little Girl."

As the evening went on, he dipped into good blues sources (the crunchy Bo Diddley beat of "Who Do You Love") and the country tradition (the rocking version of Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" that is one of Thorogood's signatures, and which had some in the crowd jitterbugging ecstatically in the aisles).

Thorogood's lack of pretentiousness also is appealing. He has never claimed to be a good guitar player, only a simply emphatic one. As for his singing, this confirmed baseball nut regularly makes fun of a thin but braying voice better suited for razzing umpires than for challenging the supremacy of his honored rock 'n' roll forebears.

*

For all that he sings about boozing and being "Bad to the Bone," Thorogood manages to inject a bit of wit into the material. There even was a sort-of-thoughtful combination of songs midway through his 100-minute set, when he played two selections from his new album, "Rockin' My Life Away."

The first, "Trouble Everywhere," was a surging, throbbing blues-rocker written by Frank Zappa that--in a rarity for Thorogood--surveys the state of humanity and, in a routine conclusion for Zappa, finds it worse than absurd.

Thorogood followed it with his own "Get Back Into Rockin,"' a good song with a touch of Fats Domino's amiable wistfulness. Its lyric preaches a deliberate use of rock as escapism to ward off harsh realities of the sort confronted head-on in Zappa's song.

Get back into rockin,'

let the rest of the world go on. . .

Get back into rockin'

and all of your dreams come true.

Bassist Billy Bough and drummer Jeff Simon kept everything moving (except for a slow blues chestnut, "The Sky Is Crying," in which Thorogood's limited talents were overmatched by the emotional requirements of the song), and saxophonist Hank Carter honked away, filling out the sound in traditional '50s yakkety-sax style.

Thorogood ended with "Rockin' My Life Away," one of Jerry Lee Lewis' signature songs, and by the time it was over, he was flat on his back on the stage, playing dead like James Brown. It summed up the purpose of Thorogood's music, which is to provide a loud, brash and festive form of ancestor worship.

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It's not every day you get to hear a band from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan--the hometown of Wide Mouth Mason, a very young band playing its first U.S. show. The blues-rock trio, whose debut album is due in July from Atlantic Records, played with plenty of confidence, born of fine instrumental skills: Drummer Safwan Javed and bassist Earl Pereira are a flashy duo who made like a less pretentious equivalent of Rush's Neil Peart and Geddy Lee.

Shaun Verreault's shiny falsetto was more impressive than his guitar work. A couple of songs showed promise, but on first listening it was the Canadians' assured musicianship that registered more than the songwriting. And--in the long run--the songwriting is probably more important.

* George Thorogood & the Destroyers play tonight at 8 at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $32.50-$34.50. (714) 957-0600.

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