Larry Crane and Rusty Bladen

at Barley and Hops

By Rob Nichols

Larry Crane was been quoted recently as saying that he isn't concerned with signing a record contract or being a big star. He says he simply wants to take some time and write a few good songs.

In his performance April 10 at the downtown Barley & Hops in Madison, Ind., the former John Mellencamp guitar player whipped a sold-out house into folk-rock shape with ninety minutes of heart, sweat and some darn good songs.

Pared to just a quartet for a string of what are billed as acoustic shows, Crane and his band tore into some of those new songs immediately. Opening with a new rocker called "Tick of the Clock," the band gave the audience notice that they were in for more than just an evening of stool-sitting and quiet strumming.

Accented by Bill Baker on accordion; Jeff Gerson on congas, snare, bongos, tambourine and every other percussion instrument known to man; and Carl Storie blowing his harp and shaking the shakers, Crane let everybody know early that this was not a night at Market Square Arena or Freedom Hall. He told the crowd to get ready, because he liked to use these acoustic shows to try out new material.

Not that anyone needed to worry. Larry's songwriting is common-man ready; he writes with a backyard familiarity that doesn't revert to big statements or cliches. It's about you. And me. And what's inside our heads and hearts.

Oh, yeah, did I say the band rocks?

A superb rendition of "Eye For An Eye," the title cut from his solo debut EP, showed that the band was ready to rock. Crane prefaced a gritty version of "Whiskey Burnin'" by saying he wrote it for the Mellencamp movie "Falling from Grace." In all, Crane wrote four of the songs from the soundtrack album.

Alternating between evocative picking and a downright nasty rock 'n' roll strumming, the set wound through material more familiar to Crane fans, including "Independence Day," a peering look into the life of a woman taking her kids and getting out. It was among the highlights, as was one not on the EP called "What Billy Wants."

Although most of the crowd seemed to know what to expect from the man who helped shape the Mellencamp sound, Crane and band played as it they were fresh out of somebody's garage and having to prove themselves. Some truly killer cover songs ended the set, including a pair of songs from John Prine. One, "Daddy's Little Pumpkin," turned a rather quiet tune into a four-minute course in how to blend engaging lyrics with crashing rock 'n' roll. The band also did a Howlin' Wolf song, prefaced by Larry's comment that "We do this one about once a year, and we'd like to make it tonight."

And that seemed to be the point when, if they didn't know it already, the audience should have realized that the Larry Crane Band was having a good time. When Crane performs with his complete band, the music can overpower some intense lyrics. And on a number of occasions, his electric shows come across as a little too predictable. Yet, for this acoustic but far-from-subdued evening, words and music and spirit came together to grab the attention of a roomful of rock 'n' roll fans.

Brought back for an encore, a quiet "Where the Water Runs Clean" from his EP led into a passionate cover of "Peace, Love, and Understanding" and a nice version of Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' About a Revolution."

Madison native Rusty Bladen opened the show with an hour's mixture of originals and smartly chosen covers. Two of his songs have garnered a good bit of radio airplay in Bloomington, Seymour and Madison. He opened his show with both of them. His most recent single, "Too Much To Lose," kicked the night off, and the rocking "Don't Blame It on Me" had the audience already stomping and clapping. Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky," a soulful version of Seger's "Mainstreet," and the old standard "Midnight Special" were three of the covers that really stood out.

Bladen's own composition "Share My Dream" was possibly the loveliest song by either artist all night. Bladen ended his set with a killer audience participation version of "American Pie." The songwriter, a member of the Louisville Area Songwriters' Cooperative, blew the h-ll out of his harmonica with the finale of "Are You Happy Now?" a scorching folk-rock original.

Rusty was joined on stage by session sax and flute man Rick DeBow. DeBow's fiery solos and soulful backgrounds lent an extra layer of energy to an already fantastic opening set.

It's tough to get a more pleasing evening than to hear two promising artists in a small room full of enthusiastic fans. It looks and sounds like both Crane and Bladen are committed musicians when it comes to going solo with rock 'n' roll class. And don't be surprised if soon both have record deals to go with a whole batch of great songs.