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October 12, 1994

Fandango Nights

1994Merle Haggard, 1994 (Curb Records 1994) -- On his 65th (good golly!) album, country legend Merle Haggard shows that he hasn't yet run out of steam. Backed by a strong band, and featuring likeable, intelligent songs, 1994 should revive Haggard's career.

And what a career he's had. A long-time Bakersfield native (he moved north to Lake Shasta in the 80s), Haggard wrote such classics as "Okie from Muskogee" and "Today I Started Loving You Again," and has been named "Top Male Vocalist of the Year" by the Academy of Country Music. Matched against his long history of recording success is an equally long history of personal difficulties. As a young man, Haggard spent three years in San Quentin (he was later pardoned by then-governor Ronald Reagan); Haggard is also on his fifth marriage.

Aside from a couple of cuts written by long-time collaborator Max D. Barnes, the songs on 1994 were written or co-written by Haggard. Rather than wallowing in the familiar country trough of liquor, pick-ups, and chasin' ladies, Haggard delivers tales about relationships and the traveling life with feeling and conviction. From his convincing cover of Willie Nelson's "Valentine" to the playful "What's New In New York City" to his ode to the road, "Troubadour," 1994 finds Haggard in fine form.

They say an artist should write about that which he knows, and perhaps that's what sets 1994 apart. Instead of espousing any flavor-of-the-day political or moral views, Haggard sings from his experiences. Thus, on "Troubadour," he acknowledges, "Rhinestone guitar cases/Honky tonks and army bases/Tryin' to keep my name up there in the lights...Troubadour, I'm just a troubadour/Doin' everybody's favorite song."

1994 deserves comparison to Willie Nelson's comeback album, Across the Border (1993) -- both stick to their roots, and both deliver with compassion and conviction. 1994 is a fine serving from Haggard, and should be welcomed by all country fans.

Gag me!Harry Connick, Jr., She (Columbia 1994) -- New Orleans native Harry Connick has previously staked out a singular position as a champion of barrelhouse jazz and preserver of American classics (as featured in his soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally). With five gold and five platinum albums behind him, Connick now aims to broaden his audience.

She marks a new departure for the artist; its 14 cuts were all written by Connick, and have a decidedly pop feel to them. Like his other albums, She was recorded in New Orleans, and features a strong supporting cast, including Leroy Jones on trumpet, George Porter, Jr. on bass, and Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeleiste on drums. The multi-talented Connick plays all the keyboard parts and contributes all of the lead vocals.

Frankly, I came to She with some pre-conceived prejudices against the cherubic-faced Connick. However, She has a disarmingly likeable feel to it. Though the thematic material isn't always deep, the delivery is smooth, and the production work impeccable. For some reason, this album brings back memories of Billy Joel's 52nd Street, as Connick shows that the urban Tin Pan Alley sound never died, it just got repackaged. While Connick isn't as street smart as Joel, neither is he as world-weary as Joel now sounds; Connick's up-beat attitude enables him to carry off this lighter-weight material with style.

From the pleasant funk influences of "She" through the playful "Here Comes the Big Parade" to the more rollicking "To Love the Language," She consistently delivers the goods. Though the album tends toward the safe side of the spectrum, it's a solid 60 minute effort, and should please both new and old fans of Connick.

Fandango NightsWillie & Lobo, Fandango Nights (Mesa 1994) -- The unlikely musical duo of Willie Royal (electric violin) and Wolfgang 'Lobo' Fink (acoustic guitar) have released their second instrumental album, Fandango Nights. By enlisting additional musicians and revealing their lighter side, Fandango Nights is a breakthrough for this talented pair.

Willie & Lobo appeared earlier this year in Fresno, and the show was a knockout. The duo plays an unusual style of music -- with their jazz, flamenco, Middle Eastern, and pop influences, it's hard to peg them into any category. However, they have an obvious chemistry, and always liven the stage with their exotic stylings.

On Fandango Nights, Willie & Lobo employed a full studio band, including Efrain Toro on drums and percussions; keyboards and horns courtesy of fellow Mesa artist, Rick Braun; Bob Feldman on bass; and Suzie Katayama on cello. With this broadened sound, the 14 cuts on Fandango Nights transcend the incredible playing of Willie & Lobo.

The focus in "Bahia da Banderas" (a song about their home base, Puerta Vallerta) is the song's sweet melody and Willie's unearthly violin playing. By contrast, "A Dozen Camels" (a song with Arabian influences) displays Lobo's incredible six string technique; as Willie & Lobo say, "It costs a dozen camels to get the woman you love in the Arabian desert."

There's no easy way to describe this music. Fandango Nights is more fun-loving than its predecessor (Gypsy Boogaloo), and showcases the eclectic talents of Willie & Lobo. Try it, you'll like it.

-- Randy Krbechek

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