FIREFALL: Elan, Atlantic, SD 19183.
JERRY JEFF WALKER: Jerry Jeff, Elektra, 6E-163.
FIREFALL: Sunday at 3 at the Capital Centre, with Pablo Cruise, Atlanta Rhythm Section and Dr. Hook. Admission: $5 plus a toy suitable for a child's Christmas gift. Seats reserved.
JERRY JEFF WALKER: Friday at 8 at McDonough Arena, Georgetown, with Aztec Two-Step and Carl Perkins. Tickets: $7.50.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Firefall is complimenting a lot of people. The sextet, which is scheduled to headline Sunday afternoon's Toys For Tots concert at the Capital Centre (sponsored by WPGC), has just released its third album, "Elan." It's pleasant, slick and generally unimaginative.
Firefall is the kind of rock band that could easily represent a large segment of current popular music: the overtly derivative segment. Not that the scene is without heavyweights; just that the past few years seem to have been geared more toward smooth production than toward the material that goes into it. "Elan" is a perfect example of form without content, of a surface sheen camouflaging a hollow interior.
Firefall's previous albums credited their sources. Several songs were written by Steve Stills, and it was obvious where those tunes got their style. Also, since Firefall was constructed a bit like the Eagles, it was not surprising to find phrases that copied that band's sound.
"Elan," though, contains material written entirely by Firefall, mainly former Flying Burrito Brother Rick Roberts, with contributions from Larry Burnett, Jock Bartley and Mark Andes. You would expect that "Elan" would be Firefall's opportunity to break free from its self-imposed musical bonds and forge its own identity -- especially since the group can call on experience from days spent with Spirit (Andes) and the Byrds (Michael Clarke) besides the Burrito Brothers. Instead, though, "Elan" turns out to be a modified version of "Name That Tune."
Some of the songs are easy to peg. "Strange Way" uses the same rhythm track as Robert Palmer's "Give Me an Inch," most notably during the opening bars. "Sweet and Sour" is straight Crosby, Stills & Nash -- just about any Crosby, Stills & Nash. "Winds of Change" borrows heavily from ZZ Top's "La Grange." Others are tougher to pinpoint, but there isn't one song on the album that you feel you haven't heard somewhere before.
In all fairness, it should be pointed out that none of the songs is particularly bad. In fact, all of them are quite listenable. More importantly, "Strange Way" and "Winds of Change" sound great on the radio. The radio seems to be Firefall's best friend, and the group's songs are produced (in this case by Tom Dowd and Ron and Howard Albert) with Joe Listener in mind. Hits like "You Are the Woman," "So Long" and "Just Remember I Love You" have given Firefall a large following, and there's no reason to think that "Elan" won't be successful. It's just that the album is basically harmless. And good rock'n'roll should be more than that.
Friday night -- before Firefall appears with Pablo Cruise, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Dr. Hook -- there will be a more modest show at Georgetown University's McDonough Arena. There, Jerry Jeff Walker will top a bill that also includes Aztec Two-Step and Carl Perkins (Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," and the urge to announce that "old Blue Suede is back" is overwhelming).
Walker has gotten an awful lot of mileage out of "Mr. Bojangles," but his new album "Jerry Jeff" adds some different moods to the repertoire. The variance is welcome since Walker is caught in an awkward position -- he's not country enough to be Willie Nelson, not sexy enough to be Kris Kristofferson, and not pop enough to be James Taylor. Instead, he's a Texas picker from upstate New York trying to make his way. through an industry that relies heavily on recognizable images.
Walker doesn't have enough of a fan club to generate a focused presence, so he dangles on the periphery of country and folk, and occasionally manages a gem or two. Besides "Mr. Bojangles," he had a large hand in the cult classic "The Wind," recorded by his first band, Circus Maximus. "Jerry Jeff" features two semi-polished gems: Lee Clayton's shrieking "Love Wolf" and Gerald Merrick's "Follow."
"Love Wolf" sounds like a studio free-forall, but it's easily got the most inspired playing on the album. "Follow" has already been handled beautifully by Richie Havens (on "Mixed Bag"), but Walker injects the lyrics with just the right amount of weathered wisdom to make it his own.
Strangely, though Walker is usually categorized as a singer/songwriter, "Jerry Jeff" has only one Walker composition: "Her Good Lovin' Grace," obviously a tribute to his wife who is prominently pictured on the back of the album jacket with their baby son. It remains to be seen whether this lack of originals, coupled with the album's more expansive production, marks a conscious shift toward the mainstream. It would be unfortunate if Walker abandoned his earthy charm for a shot at the big time. Walker's is a style more at home around a campfire, or a can of beer, or both.