If I had to pick one can't-miss concert this week, it'd be comedian/talk-show host BILL MAHER on Friday night at the Sun Theatre. To those familiar with Maher only from ABC's Politically Incorrect, you know him as a smug little gnome whose head is too big for his body, both physically and in terms of his predacious ego. Yet before mainstream stardom apparently swelled his self-esteem to unmanageable proportions and before his wit was reined in by network censors, Maher was, in fact, something close to brilliant.
In its initial run on cable's Comedy Central, Politically Incorrect was as edgy and funny as it's presently boring and insufferable. But what really made me a fan was seeing Maher live at the Coach House shortly before he switched over to ABC. On that night, Maher put on one of the most hysterically offensive displays of standup I've ever witnessed; he had something to antagonize virtually anyone of any predilection. Singling out "homos" in the audience, brutally insulting every religion under the sun, glorifying drug and alcohol use, mercilessly bashing myriad celebrities and political icons, Maher was remorseless in his skewering of all that is held dear to someone, somewhere—the personification of . . . uhhh . . . political incorrectness. When a veteran AA-er in the audience became loudly bent out of shape at his exaltation of booze, Maher at first calmed the guy down by congratulating him on many years of sobriety. Then he lashed into him: "Great. So let's celebrate the achievement. Let me buy you a drink! Just one! C'mon, don't be a fuckin' pussy!" He compared Ted Kennedy to Fredo Corleone, the weakling, dimwitted son in The Godfather, and contrasted JFK's heroic actions during the PT-109 sinking with Chappaquiddick for good measure. On Clinton's admitted dalliance with pot: "He didn't inhale and didn't like it? Of course he didn't like it! He didn't inhale!"
Maher was at his best that night, and at his best, he's in a league with guys like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce in the pantheon of great political shock comics. Unleashed from network constraints, you won't recognize him as the poor man's Hugh Hefner he appears to be on ABC. Opening will be the whiny and wildly unfunny Richard Lewis.
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I've always been a sucker for power-trio blooze-rock, from Cream and Hendrix right up to present-day groups like Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals and Gov't Mule. ROBIN TROWER has always been one of my fave guitarists in the method because his licks are as fat (not phat) as his persona is unpretentious and because he's one of the nicest and most honest guys I've ever interviewed. When a flood of '70s arena-rock guitarists who'd worn out their welcome suddenly and collectively decided they were now going to become "bluesmen" a few years ago, Trower ran with the pack (which included such unfortunate runners as Rick Derringer and Les Dudek). Not surprisingly, Trower was the most effective of the lot, going so far as to change his style from flat-picking to fingerpicking. He tapped into some well of pain and projected it into his music. More recently, Trower admitted that he had run out of ideas within the blues and was not at all proud of or pleased with this failure. Still, he said, his experiment within the genre opened new doors in his approach to playing, and he would incorporate them into his Robin Trower-ness rather than continuing to try to be something he was not. So these days, Trower alternates such hits as "Day of the Eagles" and "Bridge of Sighs" with blues material, and he changes from flat- to fingerpicking within the course of the show. Sounds like a good idea to me. Trower, of course, remains a very minor figure in the grand scheme of things (despite his early contributions to the very major Procol Harum) but can nonetheless be counted on to deliver earnest concerts Sunday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre and Monday night at the Coach House.
Group harmony soul music reached its zenith sometime in the early '70s before immediately plunging down the crapper at the dawn of the disco age, never to resurface. Today, we are left with such "product" as 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys representing the genre. But Sunday night the Sun Theatre presents THE CHI-LITES, THE STYLISTICS and THE DRAMATICS to remind us just how chilling a group of human voices can be when polished and blended to perfection. Chicago's much-covered and sampled Chi-Lites were particularly blissful, weaving together tight, shimmering falsettos to create the angelic choruses of "Have You Seen Her" and "Oh Girl" and the most subterranean basso profundo this side of Melvin Franklin to punctuate the proto-funk of "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People." Philly soul kings the Stylistics had perhaps the best falsetto vocalist in the biz with Russell Thompkins Jr. (whose voice was so achingly pure and sweet as to actually be absurd on "You Make Me Feel Brand New") and a legendary hit-making producer in Thom Bell. The Dramatics, meanwhile, scored their biggest hit with "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get," a song so brimming with early '70s floppy-hat-and-hip-hugger-bell-bottoms style that it conjures up the era better than Sanford and Son's Rollo, Flip Wilson's Geraldine and Isaac Hayes' shirt of chains combined. That said, how many current members of these groups are authentic and whether their pipes are too creaky to recapture the glory is anyone's guess.
Many blues purists will be horrified by ALVIN YOUNGBLOOD HART's new album, as I was at first, until I listened a few times and decided it was . . . okay. Hailed as the future of acoustic blues by many critics, Hart goes electric on Start With the Soul. While the results are mixed, the album has its moments. The two opening cuts are go-nowhere rock tracks:"Fightin' Hard" sounds like warmed-over Mountain and "Manos Arriba" like stripped-down Los Lobos. Covers include unexciting versions of the soul chestnut "Treat Her Like a Lady," Chuck Berry's "Back to Memphis," Dave Dudley's "Cowboy Boots" and . . . UHHHHHHH . . . Black Oak Arkansas' "Cryin' Shame" (?!?!?). But when Hart finally catches fire, he scorches like a diaper fulla lye on originals like the instrumental jazz raga "Porch Monkeys' Theme," the moody, spaghetti-Western "Electric Eel" and the atonal blues of "A Prophet's Mission." By the time Hart gets to the album-best closing track, the traditional blues lament "Will I Ever Get Back Home?", the song has more meaning than he'd perhaps wish it to. Hart seems lost here, looking for a new definition of the blues but never quite finding it. Chalk up Start With the Soul as a noble but ultimately unsuccessful mission. While you'll find inspiration here if you dig hard, the overall impression is of an artist biding his time between excelling at what came before him and discovering what truly lies ahead.
BILL MAHER AND RICHARD LEWIS PERFORM AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. FRI., 8:30 P.M. $29.50; ROBIN TROWER PLAYS AT THE GALAXY CONCERT THEATRE, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 957-0600. SUN., 8 P.M. $22.50, AND AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8930. MON., 8 P.M. $22.50; '70S SOUL JAM, FEATURING THE CHI-LITES, THE STYLISTICS AND THE DRAMATICS, TAKES THE SUN THEATRE. SUN., 7:30 P.M. $45-$55.