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Pop Music Review

And a Good Time Was Had by All

Others Rockers May Be Disgusted, but Frank Black and His Fans Are Just Amused

November 07, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many modern rockers, the point is to unleash disgust. During and since his tenure with his influential first band, the Pixies, Frank Black mainly has tried to stay amused.

Space exploration and UFOs, barbed pop-culture hero worship, sex and death and fractured historical musings have shown up regularly in his songwriting; his performances are often revved up, yowling and barking attempts to break out of ordinary life into some special realm of release.

It was a surprise, then, to hear Black open his show Thursday for a half-capacity, but adoring, crowd at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano with a controlled baritone croon on a slowed version of the Pixies nugget "Wave of Mutilation."

Was Black about to reveal a matured new tack as a real singer, like his fellow '80s alterna-rock eminence, Paul Westerberg?

Not really. As Black's 90-minute set progressed, there was barking and yowling aplenty. When he sang "I Need Peace," one of several songs from his new album, "Frank Black and the Catholics," he concluded in the final verse that peace is to be found in music "turned up so loud."

Black, who looked like Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan gone to seed with his shaved head and a dark suit draping his ample girth, did go down a couple of Dylanesque byways, but mainly he and his three-man band pounded through the performance looking for liftoff.

They found it only intermittently, but the highlights reached a high orbit indeed. The peaks were "I Switched You," a dark blues-and-rockabilly-tinged number that zoomed ahead while Black did a credible approximation of the Steven Tyler monkey-screech, and the clenched, sumptuously melodramatic reading of an obscure 1969 Del Shannon song, "Sister Isabelle," that closed the set as Black hollered with the urgency of vintage Eric Burdon.

Black seemed so spent at song's end that it took an effort for him to ring down the final guitar chords before leaving with a pleased wave and smile while the audience went nuts. Liftoff achieved.

It probably could have been more consistently achieved, however, with a meatier, more ornery and rough contribution from lead guitarist Rich Gilbert. Drummer Scott Boutier and bassist Dave McCaffrey were reliably propulsive, but Gilbert, a newcomer to the trio that backs Black, went for flashy, liquid-sounding licks that got washed away in the storm of sound.

While some bands defy an audience to sit still, the second-billed Ziggens would, if they were the defiant types, defy you not to smile through one of their entertaining, silly but substantial sets.

The Orange County band had a typically fun outing opening for Black, who counts himself a fan. Several neo-surf rock originals were done with an understanding of the drama and pure fun required for good surf rock.

There were unlikely stylistic juxtapositions, especially when front man Burt Susanka sounded like Paul Simon fronting the Grateful Dead on the reflective "Strange Way to Live," then came out bellowing like a punk rocker on the next tune, "I Love a Parade," which brought an attack like X or the Buzzcocks to bear on Susanka's silliest musings.

The Ziggens played country clop-along beats and zoomed through a rendition of a Judas Priest metal chestnut, "Breaking the Law." Brad Conyers, one of the county's best rock drummers, teamed with bassist Jon Poutney to give the Ziggens an energetic, supple foundation.

So why haven't the Ziggens taken off? They're like one of those Hollywood scripts that never gets made into a film because it can't be summarized in one sentence. (The set also included a lighthearted Christian rock song, "I'm Tryin'.") But try this one: If you like rock 'n' roll and you like to smile, you'll like the Ziggens.

Pinwheel spent its set on the wrong side of the glass ceiling that separates credible bands from incredible bands. There was nothing wrong with John Surge's song-craft, with the band's ability to put a rocking charge into it or with Surge's urgent, Roger Daltrey-like grainy voice. But neither was there anything special about it.

On the charging "Everything," Surge showed a hint of the hard-to-define special something needed to crash through the barrier that separates rock's maybes from its absolutelys.

The Long Beach band was breaking in a new bassist, but it also needed a more distinctive contribution from lead guitarist Jeff Donahue, whose razory lines routinely fell into the cloud cover of Pinwheel's dense sound, rather than jolting through it like a lightning bolt.

Here's hoping Frank Black, whose real name is Charles Thompson, was in the club early to hear "Oh, Charles," Pinwheel's affectionate and catchy fan's note to him.

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