ON the cover of T Bone Burnett's current album, "The True False Identity," the veteran musician slings his guitar upside-down over his shoulder, like a bat ready to swing. But even though the spooky, forceful music inside is a sweet sonic bludgeon, full of intimate ruminations and accusatory rants to power, he connected without ever hitting folks over the head during his El Rey Theatre performance on Tuesday.
Which is not to say the singer-guitarist and his ace band of stellar guitarist Marc Ribot, longtime drummer Jim Keltner, upright bassist Dennis Crouch and keyboardist Keefus Ciancia didn't electrify the packed house with their blend of Howlin' Wolf-style blues, New Orleans funk, folk and rock. This was the L.A. resident's local stop on his first tour in almost two decades, and he started by apologizing for the confusion caused by the show being moved from the Wilshire Ebell Theater to the smaller-capacity El Rey. Then he blew away any lingering irritations with the rollicking, cryptic stomp "Seven Times Hotter Than Fire."
The Texas-raised Burnett, 58, may be best known to the public as composer and music producer of the Coen Brothers' 2001 hit film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" But his own critically acclaimed work stretches back to the early '70s, and, among other things, he's also produced albums by such artists as Los Lobos, Sam Phillips and Elvis Costello.
The 90-minute set drew mostly from the new collection, his first since 1992, sprinkled with other material such as Clarence Garlow's "Bon Ton Roulet" and Burnett's twangy "A Lonely Man," penned for Wim Wenders' 2005 film "Don't Come Knocking."
Tall and old-time courtly in his three-quarter-length coat and high-buttoned vest, Burnett offered tunes with the spiritual themes he usually explores, full of clever couplets and playful rhymes often aimed directly at President Bush, Hollywood, the mass-media-fostered climate of fear, or the folly of legislating morality. Yet they were also open to interpretation. The rattling "Zombieland," a dub-tinged, Haitian-flavored tour de force, could have bemoaned modern cubicle culture or a general societal numbness.
Lighter and more celebratory than the layered, claustrophobic album, the show felt more accessible to some fans, and it indeed was more restorative tonic than dark brew of provocative ideas.
The players preserved the songs' percussive, rhythmic foundation, however, with Ribot providing glorious waves of furious, distorted guitar on which to surf above Keltner's complex, leg-shaking beats. It was certainly more effective than smacking people with either dogma or an instrument: When the three-song encore ended, they were still begging for more.