Youll Die of Pleasure!

A roots week during which you may discover the point of the Japanese porn film Empire of the Senses

I cannot believe how much is happening this week in OC, at a time of the year when we're normally reduced to paying scalpers' prices to see Barry Manilow because everyone else has taken a rest from the road for the holidays. Last summer, while visiting Austin, Texas, I caught DALE WATSON AND HIS LONE STARS at some tiny honky-tonk about the size of a honey bucket. The temperature was nearly 100 degrees outside that night, so I assume it was close to 120 degrees inside; it was as humid and smelly as a WWF wrassler's armpit, and my California ass was reeling dizzily in the oppressive environs. But those gosh-darn local yahoos were too blissed-out to realize it was unfit for human habitation in there as they danced the night away and, as the song says, drank whiskey like water, gin like lemonade.

Such is the magical effect Watson has on white people in cowboy boots. This guy is a Texas troubadour in the grand tradition, serving up hard-as-pig-iron honky-tonk homilies in the spirit of men with names like Lefty, Buck, Merle and Waylon. He sings of semis and jail cells, cheatin' hearts and rockin' roadhouses with a voice that twangs like a 50-pound rubber band and a backing group that kicks like a pissed-off rodeo bull.

Watson's latest album, People I've Known, Places I've Been, is his best effort yet. A collection of surprisingly literate character studies and yarn spinning, the songs will make you alternately want to laugh, cry, ponder, drink and travel to Texas to dance like a cretin oblivious to inclement weather conditions in a bar that smells like human drippings. Try the next best thing: Watson and His Lone Stars play at Abilene Rose in Fountain Valley on Friday night.

OC's own truckin' troubadour, JOEY RACANO, returns home this week following a tour of the Bay Area on the heels of his recent debut-CD release, Wild Bird. The album is a little heavy on the overdubs and production for my taste (what's up with that drum machine and all those layered vocals?), but it is redeemed by the simple, plain-spoken beauty of such Racano originals as "Fabric of Society," the chooglin' country-rock of "Forgiven," the poetry of "Angel (Misty's Song)" and the pop-hook boogie of "World of War." Racano sings largely autobiographical, blues-based songs from deep within his soul, and he donates most of his efforts to environmental and animal-rights causes (much of his time up north was spent playing benefits). Racano is a local hero for his selfless spirit of giving as well as his music. Welcome Joey home on Wednesday at Gallagher's in Huntington Beach.

It has been an extraordinary year for the blues, and of all the great albums I've heard in '99, TOMMY CASTRO's Right As Rain gets my top nod—even though the album is really more of a blue-eyed-soul affair than by-the-book blues. San Jose's Castro, formerly of the Dynatones, belts out R&B like no white boy you've ever heard, storming a mic with the greasy attack of giants like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and James Brown. The fact that his songwriting and guitar-playing abilities keep pace with his buff vocals makes Castro triple trouble. Check him out Saturday night at the Blue Cafe.

If geezer arena rawk is more your shtick, head to the Pond on Saturday night to catch a double bill with ZZ TOP and LYNYRD SKYNYRD. While the notion of Skynyrd in '99 is a bad joke of the worst order, ZZ Top is another matter. The little ol' band from Texas remains very much alive and kicking, as evidenced by their hellaciously rockin' 30th-anniversary album, XXX. Sure, there's more than a bit of a cartoon show about the whole thing, but hey, it's a pretty damn entertaining cartoon, ain't it? Admit it! You'll feel better.

If these tree-bearded sillies didn't invent power-trio blooze rawk, they refined it to a science and infused it all with a winking sense of humor that may be as lowbrow as a beer fart but remains just as likely to make you laugh. That XXX adds hip-hop flourishes to the formula and somehow makes it work rather than coming off like the desperate act of fiftysomethings trying to keep up with the times says that these guys remain a factor in the grand scheme of pop, whether or not your alterna-rock-worshiping ass thinks they're dope.

The '80s may have been the single worst decade in rock history; there was very little in the way of non-hair-spray music to pull a po' boy through it all. One of the bands that shone like a beacon through the sea of shit was THE SMITHEREENS, a group out of Jersey who took East Coast intensity and smoothed it out with a Brit-pop instinct for melody and then roughed it back up again with caustic, churlish lyrics. "Behind a Wall of Sleep" makes my Top 10 list for coolest rock songs of the decade, and brain trust Pat DiNizio was singing about being "Sick of Seattle" years before everyone else burned out on that lame scene. Unfortunately, the grunge revolution doomed the Smithereens' brand of thoughtful, intelligent rock to popular irrelevance, and they've never recovered, commercially speaking. That'll make me root all the harder for them when the Smithereens appear Friday at the Coach House.

Blues math: KEB MO' equals Robert Johnson plus Robert Cray, minus Satan. The man plays one truly spiffy acoustic guitar and is something of a technical wizard. But, like Cray, he somehow always comes off as safe and sterile, even when your ears tell you the man can play and has a lot of soul. There's no place for safe and sterile in the blues, but I can't deny the man his props when my head tells me he's a good'un, even though my instincts distrust his intentions (to be the male equivalent of Bonnie Raitt, perhaps?). If the notion of a shiny, happy bluesman doesn't bug you, check out Keb Mo' on Sunday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

Final word: DOUG SAHM died of an apparent heart attack last week, which really, really sucks. Best known for his work with the Texas Tornados in the '90s and the Sir Douglas Quintet ("She's About a Mover," "Mendocino") in the '60s, Sahm's career predated the Quintet with work in various San Antonio greaser bands and thrived, artistically if not commercially, through the lean years of the '70s and '80s. He was Texas music royalty. My Lone Star State music-expert pal Steve Dean sent me an e-mail in the wake of the bad news, which eulogized Sahm better than I ever could. Read it and weep: "I think he was one of the most important talents ever to come out of Texas. He could do it all: country, blues, Tex-Mex, rock & roll, and more—all well. [He was a] soulful singer and guitar player and could talk a story as well as anyone. He recognized talent (his bands are legendary) and knew all the hits from '50s swamp pop to low-rider San Antonio strolls to hard Texas two-step honky-tonk. We always kidded him about his clothes, though—they were always wrong (part hippie, part cowboy, part '70s Camaro culture). Hell, he sat on Hank [Williams]'s knee as a child and recorded his first 78 at age 12. He fronted Chicano R&B bands, was one of the first with all that hippie country shit, and introduced Flaco Jimenez to the world. And who in the hell do you think came up with an idea as crazy as putting Flaco, Freddy Fender and hippie Augie Meyers in a country band, and then sold a million records with it? I believe every moment of his life he was living a dream that he never tired of. If there were four icons of modern Texas music, they should be Willie Nelson, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray and Doug Sahm. Now I know what that meteor shower was all about. Flags at my house are at half-mast."

Dale Watson at Abilene Rose, 10830 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-1700. Fri., 10 p.m. $7; Joey Racano at Gallagher's Pub & Grill, 200 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 536-2422. Wed., 9 p.m. $3; Tommy Castro at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Sat., 9:30 p.m. $8; ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2400. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $29.50-$39.50; the Smithereens at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Fri., 8 p.m. $17.50; Keb Mo' at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (800) 300-4345. Sun., 7 p.m. $30-$40.
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