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Pop Music Review

Plain-Spoken, Expert Lyrics From Clark

March 03, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Newport Folk Festival touring show barely hints at the scope of the grand-daddy of folk-music celebrations, but the three performers with the edition that visited UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday gave a healthy sampling of the quality that is the Rhode Island event's hallmark.

Alt-folk/country darling Nanci Griffith is the headliner, and she got the longest set on the three-hour show's second half, but the deference she and opener Rodney Crowell displayed to fellow Texan Guy Clark made it clear who the musical figurehead is.

Four years after the death of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Clark stands as the dean of Texas troubadours, and not merely by default. His songwriting is masterfully plain-spoken, the result of his knack for making expertly crafted lyrics sound as though they'd just tumbled spontaneously from his lips.

*

Crowell leaned heavily on his strongly autobiographical new album "The Houston Kid." His writing skills are at their peak on a one-two punch of "I Wish It Would Rain," about a gay hustler with AIDS, and "Wandering Boy," the response from the hustler's once-homophobic twin brother. It's an invented scenario he made deeply touching, never maudlin.

His and Clark's sets brimmed with the levity, irony, gravity, stupidity, greed and compassion that define human existence, dimensions that brought welcome balance to Griffith's overwhelmingly serious-minded performance.

She lightened things a bit with some banter with her longtime keyboardist and bandleader James Hooker, but the majority of her set was so unremittingly weighty it almost sank under the burden of her good intentions.

That set, however, like those that preceded it, ended with one or more of the other performers called out to collaborate, which heightened the show's refreshingly chatty, living-room ambience.

* Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell play tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 15700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. $30 to $40. (800) 300-4345.

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