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This weekend two disparate performers dedicated to classic American song forms play in town. One works hard to evoke a lost era when country music intersected with soul to produce some of the most enduring, naturalistic recordings ever made. The other reached back toward old-fashioned parlor songs for his piano-driven originals, but without making any effort to revisit the past.
On Saturday, November 4, the Hacienda Brothers play FitzGerald’s in support of their recent album, What’s Wrong With Right (Proper), which was produced by Memphis legend and obvious band hero Dan Penn. In fact, the group covers a couple of Penn classics -- the Box Tops gem “Cry Like a Baby” and Percy Sledge's “It Tears Me Up” -- but as hard as they try, this band can’t reach the heights of their inspirations. Lead singer and accordionists Chris Gaffney, a long-time Dave Alvin sideman, is a pretty strong vocalist; when he rips into a ballad like “It Tears Me Up” or the proto-Philly soul classic “Cowboys to Girls” (made famous by the Intruders, who Gaffney had covered on an earlier solo album), the raspiness of his wail reveals more stress than revelation. He fares better on more honky-tonk-oriented stuff, even offering a nice western swing-style croon on a song like “The Last Time.” Coleader Dave Gonzalez, formerly of the Paladins , lays down some nice lead guitar, but he’s often overshadowed by the tasty steel of David Berzansky.
Legendary crank Randy Newman makes a rare solo performance tomorrow night, November 3, at Symphony Center. I can’t say that I’m much of an authority on Newman, who’s gained more acclaim from sound-track work than his biting songcraft -- I did love my seven-inch single of “Short People” when I was a kid. Earlier today I listened to his elegant 1972 album, Sail Away, while I was driving. A car usually isn't a great place to pay close attention to music, but I kept catching Newman’s lyrical barbs, from the tongue-in-cheek proposal to blow up the rest of the world (“We’ll save Australia / Don’t wanna hurt no kangaroo”) because it’s not in line with American priorities, or the hilariously sarcastic celebration of our nation in the title track, which opens with the couplet, “In America you’ll get the food to eat / Won’t have to run through the jungle / And scuff up your feet.” Cursed with a lugubrious, inflexible voice, Newman ain’t much of a singer, and he tends to talk through his tunes instead of sing them -- but he’s such a fine craftsman it’s easy to overlook. I don’t know how I’d fare with a whole evening of just that voice and a piano, but one of his tunes probably has more good lines than the entire Hacienda Brothers repertoire.