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Further adventures of the celestial hitmaker

8/21/01

By JOSEF WOODARD

NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

Early on in the set by Stevie Nicks on Friday at the Santa Barbara Bowl, there was trouble in Shangri-La, to quote her latest album. Her voice, already a gruff yet frail thing, was misbehaving more than usual, refusing to heed the high notes or the melodic contours of the old Fleetwood Mac hit "Dreams," and she knew it more than anyone.

Nicks explained that she had been recuperating from a bout with bronchitis -- this was her first concert back in action after having canceled a couple of shows on her tour. "This is my worst nightmare. I'll give it a go and we'll make a decision together."

After regaining strength on the next song, Nicks commented, "All right, so there is a God. You can't imagine the things I promised God if he'd let me have my voice box."

Alas, the tone was set for a classic Stevie Nicks encounter, an obstacle to overcome, a struggle of mysticism vs. pragmatism center stage. She has ridden that roller coaster ever since the dizzying heights of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" sold a gazillion records a quarter century ago.

"Trouble in Shangri-La" is her first solo project since 1994's "Street Angel," and shows her in fine form, and aided by a cast of guests that includes Sheryl Crow, Macy Gray and Sarah McLachlan. It's a strong album, for the same reason her best work flies: For all of her allusions to supernatural forces, she's got craft on her side, and understands how to pen a catchy pop tune, often built from a minor mode brood.

Live, too, she relies heavily on the musical kindness of friends and musicians, some of whose affiliations with Nicks go back to the 1970s. Central to that '70s-Los Angeles pop scene link is the mop-haired, incurably tasteful guitarist Waddy Wachtel, also the musical director for the band. For the most part, the nine-piece band's task is as a solid support system for Nicks. Sometimes, the better part of valor was to imitate familiar strains rather than rely on improvisational instincts, so guitarist Carlos Rios played Lindsay Buckingham's guitar parts note-for-note on the Mac hits. And why not? Buckingham's genius relies largely on playing the right notes at the right time.

Musicians in Nicks' band did step out now and again, as on the longest, and final tune of the set. Veteran percussionist Luis Conte played a concise, bright model of a conga solo, leading into a crunchy guitar interlude by Wachtel, then leading up to "Edge of Seventeen (Just Like the White Winged Dove)."

Nicks, by now, has enough of a treasure trove of hit songs to fuel a concert with just the power of an infectious pop staple, such as "Stop Dragging My Heart Around."

Her old '80s hit "Stand Back" got the crowd standing up and moving to its updated, post-disco groove.

Even her new material gains strength from its backward glancing: The song "Sorcerer" looks back on the seminal point in her career when she and partner (in love and music) Lindsay Buckingham loaded up the Skylark and headed from San Francisco to L.A. in the early '70s. Almost like a companion piece, "Planets of the Universe" is a new reworking of an old song about her breakup with Buckingham.

At encore time, Nicks followed a rocker with a tender ballad to close. For the occasion, she had emerged after a quick costume change which found her donning a feathered brimmed hat, like a pixie from a new age Weimar Republic. By concert's end, there was a sense of another adversity conquered. God was in his or her heaven, and Nicks pulled it off winningly. She apologized that the show couldn't have been "more fabulous," but there was no love lost on a full crowd of fans, happy to see her back in the groove, even in less than ideal shape.

This was one of those concerts where the real revelatory power was front-loaded. Austin-based singer-songwriter Bob Schneider put in a ripe, if under-appreciated opening set that contained all the wit and surprise that Nicks' performance and song catalog lacked. In a way, as a young and adventurous new contender in the singer-songwriter world, he was out of place here, but who's complaining?

Although Schneider works much the same musical soil as familiar groups like Counting Crows and The Wallflowers, a blend of folk, pop and soul lined with organ and electric piano along with the electric guitar grit. But he's onto something new, up close, offbeat and personal.

Schneider can deliver soulful emotional goods, as on "Metal and Steel," both from his wonderful new album, "Lonelyland."

He's also got a loony streak in his personality, and on a tune like "Big Blue Sea," he veers away from standard vocal techniques and lyric-slinging, into soft-core rap and gruff free associational hipness that leans in the general direction of Captain Beefheart. And yet, the refrain is emotionally warming, like off the wall gospel.

You won't find Schneider in the mainstream pop world, but he's one of the new crop of creative souls braving a pop scene with no interest in singer-songwriters of wit and wisdom. In these lean times for artistic souls, he's taken advantage of the Net (check out www.bobschneidermusic.com), and should benefit from the exposure of opening for Nicks, although that didn't seem to happen at the Bowl.

No matter: He's someone to watch for, and the lucky and attentive among us can say we saw him here first.