Garth Brooks/Clint Black
Austin City Limits, November 3/November 8 This Chris Gaines business is all very amusing, but who knew the true Seventies rockchild would turn out to be Clint Black? Anyone who witnessed the country singer climb behind the drums for a fuchsia-tinged cover of Steely Dan's "Josie" -- complete with Eric Johnson on guitar -- that's who. Neither Black nor Garth Brooks has ever tried very hard to conceal their predilection for pop, and at their recent Austin City Limits tapings, neither showed signs of slowing down anytime soon. Of course, the centerpiece of Brooks' set (both shows are scheduled to air in February) was his new "Chris Gaines" persona, and surprise, surprise, it turned out to be as rote and by-the-numbers as everyone expected. It's like Brooks had a stylistic checklist he was ticking off: Prince? Check. Fleetwood Mac? Check. In the interests of charity, we won't even discuss the little "rap" thing he inserted into a reworking of that hoary Sixties anthem "Everybody Get Together." Ironically, the Gaines bit, surely the media-savvy Brooks' impetus for taping the long-running PBS program, was completely superfluous, because his "Garth Brooks" songs sounded perfectly fine. There was plenty of pop-rock kick to "Standing Outside the Fire," "Shameless," and "We Shall Be Free." "Rodeo" was tough and gnarled; a solo acoustic "Unanswered Prayers" appropriately heartfelt; and "Much Too Young" resounded with the exhilarating tedium of that ol' white line. For the country cynics, "Friends in Low Places" and "Two of a Kind" were as honky-tonk as the Broken Spoke (kudos to the fiddler). Similarly, Black can crank up the twang anytime he wants -- as on the still-brilliant "Killin' Time" -- but currently seems more interested in exploring other musical spheres, such as the pre-rock and Seventies coming-of-age eras. After a couple solo openers, Black and his Lyle Lovett-sized band did almost a solid hour of material from his new, quasi-acoustic D'lectrification album. Highlights included covers of Leon Russell's "Dixie Lullaby" and the Marshall Tucker Band's "Bob Away My Blues" that both boogied with Dixieland sass (and real horns); a "Tribute to Chet" (Atkins) guitar pull featuring Johnson and longtime Black aide-de-camp Hayden Nicholas; a tip of his black felt Stetson to both Waylon Jennings and Hank Sr. on "Are You Sure Waylon Done It This Way?" and "Hand in the Fire," which answered the question, "What would a reggae song sound like with fiddles?" once and for all. Following a duet with wife Lisa Hartman Black -- admittedly sappy, but infinitely more palatable than those awful Tim McGraw/Faith Hill gushfests -- Black and band went electric for a fast-paced run through his better-known hits, mostly toe-tappers like "A Good Run of Bad Luck," "We Tell Ourselves," and "Put Yourself in My Shoes," plus a swingin' guest spot from Ray Benson on "I'll Take Texas" and "Straight From the Factory." After the "Josie" mayhem, he closed on a high note with last year's upbeat No. 1 hit "Nothin' But the Taillights." Prima facie, it appears as though both Black and Brooks are giving their old hat-act images a wholesale overhaul, but it might be more accurate to view these "new directions" as both artists fleshing out their musical palettes like the pop artists they are. Now, if either had come out sporting dreads or shouting out Snoop Dogg, that would have been something to write home about.