Yoakam and Cowboys overcome enigma status
Rosemont Horizon, Rosement, Ill., June 27, 1996
Ever since he started turning out hit records in the mid-Eighties, Dwight Yoakam has been an enigma to the country music world.
While most artists hang out in Nashville, he spends most of his time in California. He wears a hat, yet his influences run more toward Elvis than Haggard and Jones.
His latest album, "Gone," features Joy Lynn White, who's about as country as they get, singing on one song, and the Rembrandts, the pop group best known for the "Friends" theme song, "I'll Be There for You," on two.
His concerts are also different. He doesn't have the "big" stage show that most country stars of his stature do, at least not visually.
Perhaps that's because his band, The Babylonian Cowboys, is such a big part of his show. At the Rosemont Theater, Yoakam's producer and sideman Pete Anderson turned in blazing lead guitar solos, and Scott Joss definitely held his own on fiddle.
Both are artists on the independent label Little Dog Records, and unlike many country artists who put their bands up on risers, thus effectively preventing any interaction, Yoakam seems to treat his band as his equals, as important a part of his show as he himself is.
Perhaps part of the enigma is that Yoakam has no well-defined style.
For some artists, that comment would be a criticism, but for Yoakam, it's a testament to his ability to handle different types of music so well.
On no other album in his career is that ability more evident than on "Gone." From the Spanish horns on "Sorry You Asked?" to the spare synthesizer and organ on "Nothing" to the hard-driving electric guitar on "Never Hold You," Yoakam's rich, slightly nasal voice is the string that holds it all together.
In concert, however, Yoakam is at his best when he and Anderson rock out. Thus, "Never Hold You" was a big success, as was his 1989 hit "Long White Cadillac."
Easily the best song, however, was "Wild Ride," a cut off his "This Time" disc that is his most rocking moment in 10 years of recording. Throughout these rockers, the spotlight was often on Anderson, as he displayed time and again his penchant for combining emotion and energy with precision to create spirited electric guitar solos.
Although the entire band played a big role in the show musically, the eyes of the audience couldn't help but fall on Yoakam, whose stage presence is enigmatic, too. He comes off as shy when he's speaking, with his hat pulled low over his eyes and a quiet voice that's difficult to understand.
Yet during the instrumental portions of his songs, all reserve seems to leave him as his skinny body gyrates and undulates like Elvis' once did.
The concert did have its less exciting moments, but they came mostly when Yoakam was off the stage, during an intermission that seemed way too long. During the break, a video was shown on the big screens behind the stage, featuring the Yoakam songs just heard as the music at a roller rink. It was probably supposed to be mildly humorous, but it really didn't seem to have much point.
Unfortunately, opening act David Ball wasn't nearly as successful. He is a lot like Yoakam to a certain extent - a tall, thin, shy artist with a lot of respect for country music's traditions - but that's about where the comparison ends.
Yoakam expresses himself physically, in his body movements and facial expressions, but Ball doesn't express himself at all. In fact, he seemed disinterested during the concert, almost perfectly stoic, not really enjoying himself but just doing his job.
Musically, too, Ball is one-dimensional. He does traditional country with a modern edge. If you think that sounds like 90 percent of today's hat acts, you're right, although to his credit, Ball's twangy voice naturally puts a bit more tradition into his music than, say, Jeff Carson's.
One highlight of his segment was "When the Thought of You Catches Up With Me," a spare ballad that broke the monotony of bouncy barroom numbers.
Ball also seemed to come alive when he told a joke about a band member and himself ice fishing in Alaska. That led into "Down at the Bottom of a Broken Heart."
However, the best song, the one that the audience had been waiting for ever since the start of the show when the band played a teaser, was, of course, "Thinkin' Problem." Ball infused the Grammy-winning hit with a new funny opening that disguised the song for a minute before he broke into the song's opening line, "Yes I admit ... I got a thinkin' problem."
Ball is an artist who is sitting on the brink. His second album, "Starlite Lounge," has just hit stores, but its opening single, "Circle of Friends," hasn't done anything on the charts.
If he keeps performing as stiffly and passionlessly as he did on this night, he could very well sink right into oblivion because although he is a talented artist, there are so many more interesting performers waiting to take his place.