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Billy Ray Cyrus plays L.A.'s Bootleg Bar

September 01, 2012|By Mikael Wood
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Twenty years ago Billy Ray Cyrus was feasting on the fruits of his debut album, “Some Gave All,” which spawned the hit single “Achy Breaky Heart” and became the biggest-selling disc of 1992.

On Friday night the country singer played a concert for approximately 200 people at the Bootleg, a funky indie-rock club near Echo Park.

Yet this wasn’t a case of a has-been music star sopping up the dregs of his residual fame. (Or at least it wasn’t that entirely.)

Cyrus, 51, was launching what he referred to as a world tour with his new band, Good Bad Habit, in front of a rowdy crowd populated by friends and family, including his daughter Miley. The show came at the start of a busy fall for Cyrus, who’s due to perform at Nashville’s hallowed Grand Ole Opry this month before joining the cast of “Chicago” on Broadway.

Near the end of Friday’s gig he asked for the Bootleg’s air conditioning to be turned off, as he was “sweating like a hog,” he said, and didn’t want to develop laryngitis before an upcoming appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

More surprising than Cyrus’ packed schedule — to anyone, that is, who’s witnessed the diminishing artistic results of his last several albums — was the quality of his 40-minute set.

Forceful, precise and clear-minded about its virtues, the show felt like the exact opposite of the straw-grasping exercise you might’ve expected. It cleared a space for Cyrus as something more than a one-hit wonder, which may have been his goal: “This was my second No. 1 record,” he said before “Could’ve Been Me,” in fact a No. 2 record according to Billboard but a very handsome tune all the same.

Backed with compact Southern-rock muscle by the five-piece Good Bad Habit, Cyrus sang “Could’ve Been Me” in an aspirated growl that sounded inspired by Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp; his voice has grown burlier and less refined since his early days, a tone the part-time actor put to natural use Friday in “Hillbilly Heart,” which he recently performed on the CW’s “90210.”

That song was one of several Cyrus played from a new album due out later this year, along with the Black Crowes-ish “Change My Mind” and a raucous number whose chorus repurposed a down-home aphorism he said he learned from his father: “The more you stomp in poop, the more it stinks.” (Cyrus somewhat famously utilized the saying on the “Today” show in 2008, explaining his reticence over a controversial Vanity Fair photo in which daughter Miley, then 15, appeared to be topless.)

The singer also did “In the Heart of a Woman,” a schmaltzy power ballad from his 1993 album “It Won’t Be the Last,” and, of course, “Achy Breaky Heart,” which rode a stiff honky-tonk groove.

But in his bumptious new material Cyrus was purposely breaking from his old image as a slice of undifferentiated country-music beefcake — Nashville’s Michael Bolton, more or less.

At the end of the poop-stomping number, his band, with one guy who looked like he might have been in Train and another who seemed on loan from some Laurel Canyon indie outfit, segued into a breakneck double-time version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” electric guitars squealing like sirens.

Presiding over a small but loyal audience, Cyrus was relishing an unlikely opportunity to be bad.

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