It’s not too tough to stand out in the conformist culture of country music, but the Mavericks tread a radically conservative line that offers a new twist to the word “rebellious.” The group’s singer and songwriter, Raul Malo, is no Nashville firebrand in the mode of Steve Earle, and the band has too many traditionalist chops to be poster boys of the No Depression crowd. But in a town where singers typically cut albums with studio musicians and go out on the road with players hired to replicate their records, the Mavericks are a bona fide band. That’s why the group has attracted a coterie of older fans who’ve been raised on rock — they sound less like a country band than an accomplished rock combo with a terrific singer. (How old fashioned!)
Commercial country acts rarely play in Manhattan, but the Mavericks have performed in New York concert halls and, most memorably, in headlining dates at one of the city’s most active rock clubs, Tramps. On April Fool’s Day, they returned to Tramps with a four-piece horn section to play tunes from their new album, “Trampoline.” The collection, their fourth, includes forays into Southern soul (“Tell Me Why”), pop balladry (“To Be With You”), Graceland gospel (“Save a Prayer”) and British Invasion pop rock (“I Don’t Even Know Your Name”), with other songs instrumentally seasoned with everything from mariachi horn charts to a cheesy electric sitar. Indeed, the only thing the album lacks is a song that the Nashville establishment could call country.
At Tramps, the Mavericks played nearly the entire new album before delving into a catalog that includes such well-turned hits as “What a Crying Shame” and “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down.” The only tune to interrupt the flow of new material was a dead-on version of a ’60s smash by Tom Jones, “It’s Not Unusual.” Unlike Jones, however, Malo was not pelted by panties, though it wasn’t unusual to find him singing a song that hipsters might ridicule. Even I would join in the chorus of critics who might advise him to ditch the vaudevillian schtick of “Dolores,” easily the weakest tune on “Trampoline.” Malo has been known to err on the side of kitsch; on the Mavericks’ last album, he and another gifted singer, Trisha Yearwood, wasted their talents on “Something Stupid,” a song that has always lived up to its name. (Incidentally, Robert Reynolds of the Mavericks is married to Yearwood, making him the luckiest bass player this side of Sting.)
The Mavericks also defy Nashville convention by being the only country band with the cajones to perform a salsa tune in its live set, not to mention a Spanish-language ballad. It helps, of course, to have a Cuban-American singer with pipes like Roy Orbison, but willful eclecticism is itself a foreign language on Music Row. But that quality is precisely what energizes a sweetly rocking tune like the new “I Should Know,” where the whine of a steel guitar butts up against the fanfare of a Spanish trumpet. The Mavericks don’t play the mopey country rock that bohos adore; they play sturdy songs that find new ways to mix elements of country and rock. Some see the band as too rocky for Nashville, while others judge them too grown-up for rock ‘n’ roll — which is one more reason why they’re not your everyday Mavericks.
John Milward is a New York freelance writer. More John Milward.
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