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The Orange County Contenders

Jann Browne, Freddie Brooks Band and Stavesacre Have Found Their Voice and Seem on the Verge of Greater Recognition

January 06, 2000|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roots country, blues and Christian alt-rock have been three pillars of the Orange County club scene in recent years, and standouts in each field have all the raw materials they need to expand their followings in 2000 and beyond.

Jann Browne

Browne is the most experienced player in this troika of comers; she even had a brief career in the '80s as a major-label artist when signed to Nashville-based Curb Records.

But Curb couldn't produce the commercial home run Browne has since proved herself worthy of artistically in standout albums for indie labels, most notably her 1995 album "Count Me In" for tiny Cross Three Records.

The Laguna Niguel resident's singing and writing just keep getting stronger through constant gigs as a duo (with her guitarist and songwriting partner Matt Barnes) as well as regular full-band outings.

There have been hints out of Nashville the musical pendulum might swing, if not away from the fluffy pop crossover material that's given Shania Twain and Faith Hill multi-platinum albums, at least back far enough to also leave some room for the meatier stuff Browne plays.

As a singer, Browne's got the vocal power to stand toe-to-toe with belters like LeeAnne Rimes, Hill and Twain, and the emotional reach that elevates her a universe beyond them into the realm of the Emmylou Harrises of modern country.

Her focus now, she says, is on making a new album--her first in five years--which she plans to record in the spring. It will be the cornerstone for a new round of touring in the U.S. and Europe, where she's built a strong following.

These days Browne is a regular at the Old Towne Brewing Co. in Orange, the Oaks Bar & Grill in Coto de Caza and the Swallow's Inn in San Juan Capistrano.

She'll play next locally in a trio setting with Barnes and bassist Tom Clifton on Jan. 22 at Newport Landing in Newport Beach.

The Freddie Brooks Band

Orange County is the longtime home of the ever-dependable James Harman Band, the more recent headquarters of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and has always served as a second home to Riverside-based blues stalwarts Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers.

But even in this hotbed of contemporary blues, the assured performances of blues, R&B and soul on Costa Mesa harmonica player and singer Freddie Brooks' 1999 debut album, "One Little Word," sprung up as a delight out of left field.

The songs Brooks has written--alone or collaborating with band members Ron Felton (drums), Tyler Pedersen (bass) and Jeff Ross (guitar)--burst with energy, humor and, of course, pain.

The Wichita, Kan., native nails swamp-gospel in "So Damn Poor," a lament about a life in which "for every dollar comin' in/there's two goin' out the door," then shifts into the irresistible acoustic "Boogie Bill." The incandescent swing he and the band concoct for "One Little Word" practically dares you not to break into a smile.

His Freddie Brooks Band--bassist Pedersen along with a sometimes changing complement of guitarists and drummers from what he calls "the James Harman/William Clarke alumni club"--has been locked up Saturday nights recently at Alcatraz Brewing Co. at the Block at Orange and every Friday and Sunday at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach. They've also frequented Spaghettini in Seal Beach and the Renaissance Dana Point. Brooks also does duo gigs Thursdays with guitarist and singer Bernie Pearl at the new Lucille's restaurant in the Town Center Mall in Carson.

Earlier this year Brooks found himself among the rarefied company of Southland blues harp greats including the T-Birds' Kim Wilson and Lynwood Slim at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, for the annual Harp Blowdown.

All he needs now to join such blues-circuit front-runners as the T-Birds and Robert Cray is an opening slot on one of their tours.

Stavesacre

In stark contrast to so many modern rock acts whose big question of life seems to be "What's the point?," Stavesacre, like its Christian-rock brethren, argues that "All of it matters / The war and the battles and/This life is a means to an end."

The group brings that line out of "Minuteman," the lead cut from their recently released third album, "Speakeasy," to sonic life with a musical assault akin to such industrial rock outfits as Tool and Nine Inch Nails.

And where Stavesacre's musical textures would blend right in with other KROQ radio fare, its songs exploring matters of faith rely on often-enigmatic, non-didactic lyrics that also make it easy for non-Christian listeners to relate.

Singer Mark Salomon's clenched-throat vocals recall the yearning of Tears for Fears front man Roland Orzabal. The group's varied musical palette runs from the punk-metal attack of "You Know How It Is" to the heavy-rock grind of "Rivers Underneath" to the grandly slashing waltz ballad "Freefall."

Stavesacre has played to crowds of several thousand at the Suburbia Fest festivals at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center in 1998 and '99, and in the first part of the new year the group will continue focusing on the Christian crowd with a tour of churches up the West Coast.

But bassist Dirk Lemmenes has decried the glass ceiling imposed by Christian circles upon punk-influenced bands, and Salomon cited a recent show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood as one of his favorites because the crowd was full of "people who appreciate art and good music."

In addition to its church shows, Stavesacre has played all-ages O.C. clubs including Chain Reaction in Anaheim and Koo's Cafe in Santa Ana.

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