If the future of Squeeze seemed uncertain when the veteran British pop rockers invaded the Galaxy Concert Theatre in February, it's even murkier now.
Rhythm guitarist, lyricist and vocalist Chris Difford was a no-show then. Nor is he on Squeeze's current U.S. tour, which arrived Saturday night at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim.
Saturday's two-hour performance drew only a handful of tunes from Squeeze's bland new release, "Domino," its first domestically available album in three years. The collection offers little that lingers in memory.
So it wasn't surprising that each new selection was met with general indifference by the sparse audience. It was left to such reliable warhorses as "Up the Junction," "Take Me I'm Yours," "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)," "Another Nail for My Heart," 'Footprints" and "Hourglass," among others, to carry the nostalgia-heavy show.
On stage, the Difford-less quartet--which includes singer and lead guitarist Glenn Tilbrook, bassist Hilaire Penda, keyboardist Chris Holland and drummer Ashley Soan--is a harder-rockin', more groove-oriented machine.
Unfortunately, its precise, muscular attack lacks much of the subtlety and color typified by the old Squeeze, which in its prime included keyboardist Jools Holland (Chris' older brother), drummer Gilson Lavis and bassist Keith Wilkinson.
So where is the froggy-voiced Difford, and why--again--isn't he on the road with his mates? Squeeze's management said in a statement: "Having tackled a longtime drinking problem several years ago, Chris Difford feels that going out on the road at this time would compromise his sobriety."
Reached last week at his home on the south coast of England, Difford tried to clarify: "I've got no temptation for alcohol and drugs--that's long past. It's the surroundings of touring--the lack of a support system--that has lost its appeal for me."
Is his absenteeism permanent?
"I'll admit, when I saw the tour itinerary, saliva did start forming at the sides of my mouth," he said. "I do hope that at some point, perhaps down the road, my enthusiasm would be such that I'll be able to rejoin the group. But I honestly don't know."
Saturday night's show proved that Squeeze suffers without Difford, whose grainy vocals provide just the right contrast to Tilbrook's sweet tenor. Their signature harmonizing was sorely missed, particularly during a mediocre version of "Annie Get Your Gun."
Also lost is the playful interaction between Tilbrook and Difford, which is as much a part of Squeeze as its long list of glorious singles.
For most of the evening, it felt like "The Glenn Tilbrook Show." The hard-working, multitalented front man played an engaging, three-song solo acoustic segment and previewed a promising new tune, "Interviewing Randy Newman," from an upcoming solo recording he plans to make after the band's United Kingdom tour in late November.
At least the band hadn't lost its sense of humor. Fliers distributed at the gig listed its itinerary under the apt moniker "What's Wrong With This Picture? Squeeze U.S.A. Tour '99."