It's a pretty fancy week indeed in OC when two bona fide giants of American music appear in concert. All the better that their schedules don't conflict, so you don't have to miss one for the other—although these outrageous ticket prices are enough to put you off food for a month.
BUCK OWENS is among the most pop-friendly of all veteran country artists, and he's always been able to maintain his appeal without pandering to the masses like such gifted but low-road schlockmeisters as Jim Reeves or Conway Twitty. Owens' gorgeous Bakersfield harmonies, gloriously melodic songs and hot, twanging Telecaster licks (in the hands of the late guitar hero Don Rich) have had as big an influence on such early rock & rollers as the Beatles, the Byrds and the Rolling Stones as they've had on the current generation of neo-traditional country performers, including Dwight Yoakam, the Derailers and BR5-49. (Yoakam, in fact, scored one of his biggest hits dueting with Owens on a remake of his "Streets of Bakersfield" in 1988; Buck chips in to sing a guest spot with the Derailers on their latest album, too.) His band, the Buckaroos, was also among the most celebrated country groups to ever close up a honky-tonk.
Owens' signature style has been consistent since he first burst onto the scene in the late '50s, whether performing tear-in-your-beer ballads or up-tempo country rockers. Early classics such as "Under Your Spell Again," "Together Again," "Mental Cruelty," "Act Naturally" (which the Beatles covered) and "My Heart Skips a Beat" don't sound any more date-stamped than such subsequent hits as "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," "Cryin' Time," "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line" and "I Wouldn't Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town)." The fact that Owens wrote or co-wrote the bulk of these songs—which have gone on to achieve the status of country standards—bespeaks a formidable talent. Owens has been one of country's most important composers, as well as a successful stylist and pure personality.
That amiable personality got a lot of mainstream exposure when Owens hosted the wildly successful Hee Haw television show from 1969 to 1986. This became both a blessing and an albatross, however, as people began to think of Owens more as a Nudie-suit adorned high priest of cornpone shtick than the towering figure in country-music history he really was. Owens' record sales suffered as countrypolitan swillsters like Kenny Rogers and Alabama began to take over the airwaves in the '70s and '80s, although he continued sporadically to release fine material.
It's ironic that Owens hasn't been particularly active in the '90s as a performer or recording artist, even as a chorus of young worshipers finally began to sing his praises as a guru of goat-roper music. But Owens is 70 now, with business interests that include ownership of two radio stations and the Buck Owens museum, the Crystal Palace in his native Bakersfield. The chance to see him live at the Crazy Horse on Monday night (the final show at this location before the Crazy Horse moves to more upscale space later this year at the Irvine Spectrum) should not be missed; this is one of the guys who wrote the book.
B.B. KING, meanwhile, looms even larger in the blues than Owens stands in country. In fact, it's all but inarguable that King has been the most successful artist in the genre's history and perhaps the most artistically influential as well.
At age 74, King's gospel-fueled vocals have lost a few notes (that spine-tingling falsetto wail that hallmarked early recordings seems a thing of the past now), but his guitar playing has actually improved with time, developing a jazzy fluidity and lyricism influenced by one of his own heroes, Django Reinhardt. He remains an amazingly vital, passionate presence, never appearing bored or burned out, even after playing his signature "The Thrill Is Gone" more or less every night for the past three decades. On the contrary, I've seen King move himself to tears onstage on several occasions over the years, so earnest he remains about his music.
Unlike Owens, King remains extremely active in the '90s, still touring 300-plus nights per year and releasing a new album on a roughly annual basis (his fascinating, insightful autobiography was released a couple of years ago as well). It's to King's credit that two of those contemporary albums—1993's Blues Summit (a collection of duets with several other top-shelf blues performers) and his new Let the Good Times Roll (a tribute to jump blues colossus Louis Jordan that remains true to Jordan's vision while sounding like no one else but B.B. King—no small trick) are among the finest in a catalog that stretches all the way back to the late '40s.
King was among the first bluesmen to play an electric guitar, and his use of fat, slightly distorted tones and a trilling vibrato so heavenly it sounded like a human voice crying has held sway over every subsequent generation of bluesmen. The careers of the unrelated Freddie King, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Dickey Betts, Andrew "B.B. Junior" Odom, Earl Hooker, Buddy Guy and countless others are unthinkable without King's lead. Guy in particular is something akin to King turned past 11, both vocally and musically; his early sides were flat-out King imitations.
Aside from his music, King has acted as a sort of de facto spokesman for the blues. Articulate, gentlemanly and charming, his personality stands in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of the primitive, hard-living blues musician. King oozes class and intelligence, which is why he's been a frequent guest on the talk-show circuit for decades.
It's both inspirational and sad to consider King at age 74: inspirational because he still makes terrific music, but sad because you know the show won't be going on much longer. And when King goes, he takes a fat chapter of American music history with him. Catch B.B. King, living legend, Friday at the Galaxy Theatre and Saturday at the Coach House.
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While we're on the subject of blues, HMG Records has released a new compilation called DEEP SOUTH BLUES, admirable in both its blazing content and its endeavor to correct a bit of galling historical revisionism. Artists like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Hammie Nixon—who purvey an extremely primitive, disorderly brand of Southern blues—have come in recent years to be categorized as "punk," "chaos" or even "alt." blues by a select brand of retards, as if their music were somehow in kindred spirit with or even influenced by the soundtrack of trendy, white suburbia. Burnside has even been saddled with hip-hop rhythm and punk power chording on recent releases, much like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were forced to release psychedelic albums in the late '60s (Wolf classified the work as "dog shit").
In fact, as the liner notes to this collection point out, Burnside and co.'s brand of untamed sound is virtually unchanged since the early part of the century in the hermetic Deep South. It is as much a part of African-American tradition in its region as surfboards and bikinis in SoCal. To claim otherwise is vainglorious, delusional and downright stupid.
But enough about that; the music speaks for itself. To listen to Burnside, Kimbrough, Nixon, Waynell Jones, Uncle Ben and his Nephews, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and others is to hear a music untainted by commercial aspiration of any sort; this is folk music in the truest sense of the word. Gloriously pure and unfettered by any agenda beyond the raw expression of emotion, this anthology offers the blues at its best and most honest. Buy it!
Buck Owens at the Crazy Horse Steakhouse & Saloon, 1580 Brookhollow Dr., Santa Ana, (714) 549-1512. Mon., 6:30 & 9:15 p.m. $60-$80; B.B. King at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Fri., 5 & 9 p.m. $50; King also plays the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sat., 7 & 10 p.m. $50.