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Los Angeles Times

Unplanned Melody Spontaneity Makes Rare Appearance as Unrecorded Tunes Face Club Audience

Orange County Edition - Calendar section

LONG BEACH--The nice thing about the opening night of Song Shop was that the merchandise wasn't prefabricated and predigested. Mike Martt, a veteran of many ups and downs and stylistic turns on the Southern California rock and folk scenes, launched the monthly series monday at the Blue Cafe with guests Bill Bottrell, David Baerwald and Johnny Jones.After many years as a sidekick, Martt showed what he could do as a front man last year on the warmly sympathetic, consistently well-written debut album by the Low & Sweet Orchestra. Bottrell and Baerwald are best known as key collaborators on Sheryl Crow's hugely successful "Tuesday Night Music Club" album. (They co-wrote most of the songs with Crow and backed her instrumentally; Bottrell was the producer.) The third Song Shop guest, Jones, is a young newcomer Martt met at a Long Beach recording studio.
   The premise of Song Shop is deliberately open-ended: Put some songwriters in front of an audience and see what happens. Martt is hoping for collaboration and fresh invention, possibly even some on-the-spot songwriting.That didn't happen, but the unexpected and the spontaneous, those unruly guests who are pointedly uninvited at most pop performances, settled in early and hung around.
   The Shop keepers challenged the audience with a program of almost exclusively unrecorded material, each singer taking four turns. The one sally into hitsville was memorable. Baerwald alluded to the bitter feelings that erupted after Crow's album became a hit. She became a star, and her collaborators felt pushed aside as she toured with other musicians. Baerwald cracked up laughing as he tried to play Crow's "Strong Enough," then declared that he had "no hard feelings," after all. He tried again with "Leaving Las Vegas" but sounded awkward and strained. Then Bottrell showed why producers matter. He jumped into the vocal lead and roughly but effectively hammered out the song's riff on guitar. Baerwald fell nicely into harmony, Martt and Jones strummed along, and, presto: a nice bit of unplanned, uncalculating, spontaneous music-making.
   Baerwald, who has had three solo or duo albums in 11 years, was not strained on his other numbers. His tenor rang clear and expressive on songs that hit on his core subject, humanity's knack for undermining itself. In lesser hands, "Wild Wild West" would be just another view of mean streets getting meaner. Baerwald dug deep into the bewilderment and sense of complicity that envelops everyone when chronic social ills go untreated. Martt also sang of life in the underbelly, but from a gentler perspective. If Baerwald confronted gutter life as a probing Mike Wallace, Martt was a folksy Charles Kuralt, singing in his crusty, warm voice about one-on-one encounters with broken, booze-soaked people who touched him.
   Producers don't always produce. Bottrell tried but failed to produce a performance from a woman he pulled off a bar stool and onto the stage after she interrupted one of Baerwald's songs. Producers don't always perform well, either, but Bottrell did, with a politicized urgency that found him swinging between a Dylanesque bardic scale (his dominant mode) and a wispy Neil Young folkishness. His songs, tackling such subjects as polluted waterways and desolate street-scapes, had enough imagery and hooks to intermittently lift them off the soapbox. Jones' songs tended toward repetition and sprawl that an able producer such as Bottrell might be able to hone. There was material worth honing in a couple of anthemic folk songs, which benefited from Jones' forthright, theatrical singing style.
   Martt didn't try to structure conversation into the 90-minute show. A bit more talk about the songs would be good, but Song Shop concept doesn't need much tinkering. Get some people who care about writing and singing songs and see what happens. Song fans can go Shopping again on Feb. 16, when Martt's guests will include his former mate in Thelonious Monster, Bob Forest, and Beth Carmellini of the band Red Five.

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