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2005-06-15

BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue

This week, I'm happy as a hog in slop with three crownin' country concerts to tickle muh little hambone:

Guy Clark has been one of America's finest country-rooted singer/songwriters for decades, though it's likely you've never heard of him. That's because for all his gifts, Clark is everything contemporary country radio avoids like the plague; at 64, he's prehistoric by their standards; his mug resembles a russet potato that's seen better days; his voice is a sinus-infection baritone, and he dresses plainly as the Buford sitting next to you on the barstool. But perhaps Clark's biggest commercial sin is that he writes material of rare beauty, sagacious intelligence and evocative imagery; the biggest no-no of all to country program directors.

You've most likely heard some of Clark's songs being performed by better-known others, though: Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs, to name a few. Many of his tunes have become standards of the genre -- "L.A. Freeway," "Desperados Waiting For A Train" and "Heartbroke" among them.

Clark's own albums are typically stamped with traditional, minimalist accompaniment rather than the polished gloss of post-'50s country, and kissed by literate lyricism so profound that his prose would stand on its own merit without any musical backing at all.

Clark is fascinated by the tales of outlaws and gunfighters he heard growing up as a lad in West Texas, but he's not above writing anything from a love ballad to an ode to homegrown tomatoes. The universal is the quality of his Zen-like style, originating from a combination of natural talent, a watchful eye and being a lifelong reader of poetry. There's a haiku-like quality to his writing; Clark observes and captures a moment without really offering commentary or passing judgment on his characters and their situations. "Reading poetry is how I grew up before we had a TV; my songs are just snapshots," he once told me. "I leave both ends open."

Peruse Clark's photo album when he plays Humphrey's Concerts By The Bay Monday night with Robert Earl Keen.

Then we have the legendary Merle Haggard appearing at House Of Blues on Wednesday night. With the passing of Johnny Cash, it's probably fair to declare Hag the most iconic country singer alive today - yep, I'd give him that above even Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Ray Price and Loretta Lynn.

Like Clark, ol' Merle is a songster of truly erudite proportions; the difference is that if you suggested to his face he was influenced by something so highbrow as poetry, you'd probably be met by a stiff kick to the crotch.

Last time I interviewed our hero, three things were on his mind: 1.) Hag was really bummed out that he'd become to old to abuse drugs anymore. 2.) Hag was outraged to the point of screaming by the moral bankruptcy of the anti-cigarette-smoking movement. 3.) Hag had long list of behind-the-scenes music biz figures he wanted to "shoot in the head."

Yet Haggard, for all his...errr....personal peculiarities, remains a performer whose emotional honesty is so heartfelt as to be chilling; his stance on social issues -- you never know whether he's gonna swing to the left or right -- unprecedented in country music; his lyrics are at once guileless and artful, and his vocals are so elegant while brimming with disconsolation that they redefine the very parameters of the blues - he is, perhaps, B.B. King for white guys sporting shotgun racks in their pickup trucks.

Ostensibly, banjo hotshot Alison Brown is also a country artist - bluegrass, to be exact - but this is a lady who refuses to be pigeonholed. Brown's latest album, "Stolen Moments," traverses everything from

Appalachia to progressive jazz -- and what, exactly, is one to make of a "country" picker who covers Simon & Garfunkel and Jimi Hendrix? When hearing Brown in concert Tuesday night at Acoustic Music San Diego, the trick is to abandon all expectations; just sit back and regale yourselves of a master musician who has more in common with such indefinable instrumentalists as Bela Fleck, Davis Grisman, Vassar Clements and Jerry Douglas than she does Merle and Guy.

>>>>>>>>>>>> By Buddy Blue

It's wholly understandable if, at the mere mention of Hall & Oates, you suffer terrifying '80s flashbacks. Mental images of diligently-groomed mullets, upturned collars, law-enforcement mustaches, unmanly footwear and dancing models in magenta legwarmers take shape; the harsh clamor of drum machines and sampled handclaps bound about the bean.

It's as sad as it is scary, really, because much of this unpleasantness isn't the fault of Hall & Oates, a mere product of the times - literally. No, the culprit here, once again, is MTV -- for although Hall & Oates were around since the early-'70s, making perfectly wonderful music back in the day, in the mind's eye they're forever stuck in the '80s, flailing about on the TV screen, lip-synching such inescapable hits as "You Make My Dreams," "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," "Private Eyes" and "Maneater."

"It was a moment in time, and the birth of video puts you in a certain place for posterity," says John Oates (Oates is the swarthy little fellow, not the towheaded pretty boy -- that's Darryl Hall). "It's like having a family photo album that plays on TV over and over. You may be embarrassed about the way you looked and the wacky clothes you wore when you were young, but normally, at least it's hidden in a box the attic."

Not that Oates is embarrassed by the music from their commercial prime; rather, he takes pride in all he and Hall accomplished.

"It was the sound of New York, new wave, new recording technologies, exciting new things, and we were in the middle of it all so naturally, our music had an '80s sound to it," he says. "We were in synch with the time, for better or worse. But let's put it this way: not many people can say they had the kind of impact that set the tone for an era, or at least a decade, like we did. I'm proud of that. I have no problem with that at all."

If personally I can't go for that, no can do, well, Hall & Oates released several inspired soul-based albums during the '70s; a decade that in hindsight looks better than we might have imagined when juxtaposed against the horrors to come.

"We had a really good run in the '70s, too," Oates notes. "Before we turned into an '80s pop band by default, we had kind of an underground FM credibility, and we made a lot of unusual, eclectic music."

Veterans of the Philadelphia soul scene from the mid-'60s, Hall & Oates brought the influence and sensibility of their roots to the table from the get-go, while fashioning their own unique sound along the way. The formula was simple but the results surprisingly exotic: remove the layered arrangements, lush instrumentation and elaborate production from traditional Philly soul; replace it with largely acoustic instrumentation and a more folk-oriented songwriting sensibility while retaining the essential R&B vocalizing, and voila - you emerge with such magnificent early Hall & Oates hits as "She's Gone," "Sara Smile" and "Rich Girl."

Oates stresses that Philly soul was no mere influence or affectation for the duo; they met in 1967 while students at Temple University and became cogs in the city's musical infrastructure before anyone had heard of the performers and producers who later became associated with Philadelphia's signature sound.

"In the days when regional music was very clearly defined and had a clear personality - Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, whatever -- Philadelphia had a tradition that was very distinct and unique," he says. "We were there at the birth of it and we were part of it. We were just one branch on the tree. Our first records were made with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and Bobby Martin...all those guys who went on to become the sound of Philadelphia."

Following Hall & Oates' superstardom of the tasteless, tawdry '80s, subsequent commercial letdown was a given. They only released two albums during the '90s, but the new millennium has brought about an artistic renaissance for the duo. 2003's "Do It For Love" was a soul-steeped album in the finest Philadelphia tradition, while last year's "Our Kind Of Love" saw Hall & Oates return to the sort of minimalist, acoustic-based R&B that first brought them fame.

Comprised mostly of covers - among the best, Al Green's "I'm Still In Love With You," the Dramatics' "What You See Is What You Get," Marvin Gaye's "After The Dance" and the Spinners' "I'll Be Around" - this is the sound of Hall & Oates coming home, and it's a welcome return indeed.

"We've kind of come full circle," Oates acknowledges. "Soul music is what we started with, we evolved from it, got away from it, and now we're back at it again."

Hall & Oates, June 22 at the Del Mar Fair, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd. in Del Mar, 7:30 p.m., $23 - $29 with Fair admission, $12 - $18 for concert only; senior discounts and dinner packages available, (858) 755- 1161.

Sidebar 1: JOHN OATES' FAVORITE HALL & OATES SONGS

"She's Gone" That defines Darryl and I, with the dual vocal and octave singing. It's Philadelphia soul taken to another place, it's produced by Arif Mardin; it's just one of those records where everything is right.

"Sara Smile" It was an album track that broke out of an R&B station in Ohio. We never intended to release it as a single, but they kept playing it. It got such tremendous response, it became an R&B hit and then a pop hit. That put us on the map.

"Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear The Voices)" We wrote that about a mass murderer in New York who claimed he kept hearing this song going over and over in his head, so we invented the song. You know, 'What would this guy be hearing?' It wasn't a hit but it was an amazing song.

"Adult Education" I really like the lyric on that. Again, it wasn't a hit, but we really nailed the lyric on that one, it's really clever. It's about the fact that life is like high school.

"Maneater" I think that defines the sound of the '80s. It was written about people we knew in New York City, one woman in particular who shall remain unnamed. It really sums up the whole concept of the '80s -- the avarice, what's in it for me, bigger is better, more fun, more drugs, more sex. I think it really captures that spirit.

Sidebar 2: JOHN OATES' FAVORITE PHILLY SOUL CLASSICS

"La-La (Means I Love You)" by the Delfonics It's got the falsetto lead that's slightly flat, which is very indicative of the Philly sound (laughs). It's a Tommy Bell song, who was a friend and mentor to us, it's a great song.

"Together" by the Intruders Again, it's got that flat lead, which is very cool (laughs). It's a plaintive Gamble/Huff song. Philadelphia music is a very interesting combination of street corner music, gospel and piano/bass. It's not guitar- based music like Chicago, Memphis and other places.

"Backstabbers" by the O'Jays That IS Philadelphia. It's that attitude; that inner-city attitude of the late-'60s and early-'70s. You know that part where they go, "What they do?" That's Philadelphia. You'd have to live there to understand.

"For The Love Of Money" by the O'Jays The bassline on that? C'mon, it's a classic. Doesn't get any better than that, what can I say?

"Hey, Western Union Man," by Jerry Butler That's an unbelievable, fantastic Gamble/Huff song, Jerry Butler is a great singer, and it had great production.