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Rooting around in nation's musical past

September 11, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

David Johansen, no stranger to the blues as a lipsticked glam-punk with the New York Dolls or as his loungey alter ego, Buster Poindexter, remembers when he rediscovered American roots music.

"I saw this show once on TV, it was George Jones and Merle Haggard, and they were sitting there talkin'," Johansen says in his gravelly growl. "George says, 'Oh, Merle, remember the time you set the house on fire? Ha ha.' And then they picked up guitars and started singing, and their pitch didn't really change. I thought, 'You know, that's a really good way to sing.' "

Whether delivered as a quiet conversation or as a roof-raising blast of idiosyncratic stylization, the blues, folk, jazz and country that are the basics of American roots music share a rich tradition that is the focus of UCLA Live's Roots Series.

"The Joint Is Jumpin'," the kickoff event to UCLA's 2003-04 performing arts season, features three treatments on the idea.

Johansen's new band, the Harry Smiths, is a kind of living tribute to musicologist Smith's essential 1952 collection of folk and blues, the "Anthology of American Folk Music." Guitarist Smokey Hormel will lend his talents to the ensemble.

Since the 1960s, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks have played a wry, humorous blend of styles that Hicks sometimes calls "folk jazz," mixing swing, jazz, folk and country in up-tempo music that's equal parts jazz precision and barn dance.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's Louisiana-inflected mix of R&B, country, jazz and Cajun bayou music is an eclectic Southern taste that has inspired admirers from Frank Zappa to Joe Louis Walker.

The lineup, and the series, is united by American idioms that celebrate love, survival and a kind of poetry that resonates in our national identity.

Artists featured in this season's series include David Lindley, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Compared to the depth of experience represented by Hicks and Brown, Johansen's Harry Smiths might seem like newbies, having just released their second album, "Shaker." But Johansen says a certain cathartic darkness, a distinctly American macabre, has been a through-line in all his work. This, he says, shows how roots music informs all the rest, including new work by bands such as the White Stripes.

"Yeah, generally somebody dies in the song, and sometimes everybody does," says Johansen of his "Anthology" covers. "[Songwriter] John Sebastian was saying to me recently: 'Oh, man, I see you're really getting into that mortality.' But I always have been."

*

'The Joint Is Jumpin'! '

Who: David Johansen and the Harry Smiths; Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks; and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA

When: Sunday, 7 p.m.

Cost: $25-$45

Info: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org.

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