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A Beauty and the Beast: New Star, Sky-High Skill

Pop music review: Brilliant newcomer Allison Moorer and guitar master Junior Brown grace a memorable double bill in O.C.

October 12, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A memorable production of Beauty and the Beast played the Coach House on Friday night, and no, this was not a first experiment in children's theater for the venerable San Juan Capistrano concert club.

Beauty was Allison Moorer, a newcomer who may be the platonic ideal of a female country singer. Gorgeous in tight jeans and flowing red tresses, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter from rural Alabama is being deservedly heralded for her just-released debut album, "Alabama Song."

Moorer's 50-minute opening set took her talent to an even higher level in a performance that, for someone in her second week as a touring artist, was a near miracle of tonal richness, poise, confidence and emotional control and intensity.

The Beast was headliner Junior Brown, who looks like a car salesman and plays as if the devil is holding a Faustian contract with his signature on it. To any competitive-minded guitar player, the unpretentious, Austin, Texas-based phenomenon must look like Godzilla in a business suit and cowboy hat.

Rarely has a display of such technical mastery and precision come across with so much playfulness and earthy straightforwardness as it did in Brown's 80-minute performance on his unique "guit-steel" guitar, a blocky-looking double-necked instrument that enables him to be two lead players in one, alternating between six-string electric and steel guitar.

Even if Brown couldn't play a lick, he would be admired as a singer-songwriter who upholds the traditions of '50s-vintage country music with a resonant baritone and a witty sense of humor applied in a gimmick-free way to scenes drawn from everyday living.

Playing material from his five releases since 1990, including the current "Long Walk Back," he didn't offer the showmanship or extracurricular flair of a Stevie Ray Vaughan, the only other rock or roots music electric guitarist of the past 20 years who even brooks comparison to Brown's amazing ability. (Eddie Van Halen? Half the guitar world has imitated Van Halen; what Brown does can't be copied.) Singing well while simultaneously playing explosive, prolific, astonishingly speedy yet flawlessly articulated runs on two instruments probably involves more concentration than most humans can muster, so the absence of further frills was understandable.

The only time Brown, 46, missed a beat was when he got carried away with enthusiasm and lifted his guit-steel off the stand that holds it in playing position. Still, losing a pick proved to be no problem; he just held out his hand, and Tanya Rae Brown, his wife and rhythm guitarist, handed off her own to him without a hitch, as if they were runners on a relay team.

"Freeborn Man" was the most scintillating number of the set; its speeding train rhythm, humorous chicken-cluck skittering adornments and all-around zestfulness and technical brilliance backed up the feeling of unbounded possibilities that Brown sang about in his lyric about the rambling life. The number brought a standing ovation; rather than bask in it, Brown, who did a good job of keeping the show varied and well-paced, veered into a slow, honky-tonk lament, "I Want to Hear It From You," that provided his most feeling-filled vocal of the night.

*

Mostly Brown sang humorously about everyday episodes, many depicting a fellow with a wayward past getting his life on track, but sometimes running into reminders of his gallivanting days.

Brown's songwriting may be as country as his white hat, but his guitar playing takes him past any borders--a notion he drove home in the show's homestretch. He moved from "Stupid Blues," a straight slow-blues number, to one of his signatures, a racing medley of '60s instrumental rock nuggets--"Pipeline," "Walk Don't Run" and "Secret Agent Man."

He encored with a yodeling take on Hank Williams' "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" and a blazing bluegrass instrumental. Throughout, Brown's backing trio, which included Poco alumnus George Grantham on drums, provided the sure foundation needed for his prolific flights.

Moorer's challenge isn't to improve with experience, because she could hardly sing or handle herself better. It's to keep the freshness and spark she possesses here on the doorstep of what deserves to be a grand career.

On her album, Moore makes a virtue of vocal restraint and understatement. Onstage, backed by a flawless band playing just its third show behind her, she raised the dynamic and size of her performance without sacrificing the emotional honesty and realism that are her hallmarks.

Moorer, who writes her own material with her husband, Doyle "Butch" Primm, amplified the impact of what she sang with the small, natural, yet telling gestures that only the great ones command. Whether tossing her head, glancing sideways or assuming a mask of sorrow borne with dignity, Moorer did the subtle things that take a performance beyond the realm where songs are being sung and into the one where lives are being told.

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