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Wray Has Ax to Grind, and Grind

Pop music review: Veteran rocker can bring on the noise, but the times that should be a little quieter vex him.

March 07, 1998|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — There's no denying that Link Wray is one mean guitar slinger. Heck, back in 1958, he helped usher in a raw and gritty style of rock 'n' roll with his menacing instrumental hit, "Rumble."

As he showed to a half-empty Coach House crowd on Thursday night, the North Carolina-born, Denmark-based musician can still bring on the noise--and plenty of it. Backed by drummer Danny Heep and bassist Atom Ellis, both on loan from the San Francisco roots-rock band Dieselhed, the 68-year-old Wray unleashed heavy, relentless sheets of metallic- and punk-tinged riffs.

Played fast and furious, the sonic fury reached a feverish pitch during several selections, namely "Jack the Ripper," "Rumble" and the title track from his latest release, "Shadowman." (Dig the sinister song titles?)

Still, for those craving more than a primordial display of aggression, Wray stumbled over the course of an 85-minute set sorely lacking in subtlety. Man, it would have been nice to hear his guitar gently weep even once. As impressive as his technique can be, particularly his distortion, vibrato and wah-wah effects, such a singular focus undermines the performance.

In fact, his muscular note-bending couldn't mask several deficiencies in other key areas. For instance, a poor mix in the few numbers that Wray sang rendered the lyrics indecipherable. Even when clearly heard, his vocals proved thin and unconvincing, particularly during an ill-advised cover of Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)." This demanding weeper is best left in the hands of its creator, or at least a Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash.

Several missing links also weakened the concert. A newer melodic, pop-rock number, "It Was So Easy," seemed an ideal place for the band to lighten up. Instead, the tune was revved-up and punkified, burying the likable textures.

In addition, Wray, who was scheduled to play the House of Blues on Friday night, offered no window into the man behind the music. We know he can crank up the volume and still kick some tail. But it wasn't enough.

The second-billed roots singer-upright bassist Lee Rocker gave a generous, hourlong performance spotlighting his vastly improved lead vocals--the first-rate material from last year's LP, "No Cats"--and a finely tuned, four-piece ensemble.

Without missing a beat, the Laguna Beach resident confidently shifted from slower-paced, soulful ballads ("Find Another Man") and more demanding, moodier, Chris Isaak-like numbers ("The Screaming Hunger") to free-spirited, up-tempo shuffles ("Call Me the Rocker") and sexually charged tales ("Baby, I Want to Hear You Moan").

*

Orange County's Hellbound Hayride opened the triple-bill with a brief set of uneven punkabilly. On the downside, the quartet lacks distinction and too often gets mired in the trite lyrical arena of hot rods and hootenannies. But a respectable stab at jump blues ("One Track Mind") and a spooky, complex love song ("Doin' Time") showed promise.

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