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Tiny Town, McLaughlin electrify

By Michael McCall

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  Two years ago, at Tiny Town's second Nashville performance, the group's singer-guitarist, Pat McLaughlin, stepped onstage sporting orange-red trousers and a ruffled white tuxedo shirt with the sleeves rolled up. As soon as he appeared, a brief burst of comments and cheers erupted among McLaughlin's faithful following.

After all, here in his adopted hometown, McLaughlin is known for his earthy funkiness--musically and sartorially. For the last two decades, he's been walking onstage looking like he just spent a few hours sleeping on a friend's floor. Suddenly, here he was, coming on as if Sammy Davis Jr. had willed him part of his wardrobe.

It wasn't just his getup that had grown snazzier, though. Throughout the night, McLaughlin sounded as electrified as he looked. Of course, he's always been an unusually entertaining performer--a gritty white soul man with a hunched-over, nonchalant persona. But with Tiny Town, everything about McLaughlin comes across a little louder, a little brasher, and a little crisper. The same qualities are still there--ecstatic playing, funky grooves, and loose-jointed expertise--only now, it's dressed up and tastefully stylized. The music's virtues are overt rather than sneaky.

Tiny Town basically merges McLaughlin with singer-guitarist Tommy Malone and bassist Johnny Ray Allen, formerly the two primary songwriters for the New Orleans-based group the Sub-dudes. Malone and Allen recruited fellow Crescent City drummer Kenneth Blevins, who had played with them in an early incarnation of the Continental Drifters before he left to spend the last decade backing John Hiatt and Shawn Colvin, among others.

Like McLaughlin, the Sub-dudes were always a rhythm-based outfit. Basically an acoustic quartet, the band built its sound around soulful harmonies and stripped-down rhythms drawn from R&B and gospel. But, as McLaughlin explains, now the sound "is a little more muscular and a lot rockier.... I think we're all enjoying turning it up a bit."

With Blevins providing an unusually supple yet forceful foundation, McLaughlin and the two former Sub-dudes have a renewed sense of purpose and commitment about their music. As the singer explains, the reason for the transformation is simple: "I'm playing in a band, man."

For the first time since high school, McLaughlin, now 47, isn't a solo act fronting a group of recruited musicians. Instead, he's one of four equals. "I've always played with good musicians," he says, "but [it's] something different to be in a deal where everybody is putting out and wanting it to be the best it can be. Everyone is fully invested. They're all interested in the outcome."

Hence the new clothes and his new attitude onstage. "I'm finding I'm taking it all more seriously because it's not just about me anymore," he says.

As McLaughlin puts it, everything he does with Tiny Town feels like it has a purpose--snazzy clothing included. "I got those pants out in Hollywood," he says, flashing a crooked smile over a plate of eggs and grits at the Pie Wagon, a downtown diner that fits his greasy, down-home style. "I'd been trying to find some pants to wear where I would know that I was working. If I put on some solid red pants, I know that I'm on the job site. If I look down, it reminds me that I'm there for a purpose."

Of course, as work clothes go, bright-red pants aren't exactly somber. Anyone who has seen Tiny Town live, or heard its fine, self-titled debut on Franklin-based Pioneer Records, knows the band isn't taking itself too seriously.

Basically a grown-up jam band, Tiny Town constructs its songs around flexible grooves that draw on the undulating riffing of James Brown and the gritty, red-dirt songwriting of The Band. They may be a modern, white rhythm 'n' rock band with funk roots, but there's no trace of the overdone funk-rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers or their ilk.

Nor does Tiny Town ramble and meander around in the manner of such Dead-influenced groups as Phish or Rusted Root. Rather, the band keeps its songs more tuneful and more dynamic. When they do err, it's because they strain for topical relevance ("Love Lead Us Home") or shoot off into complex, blues-based tunes full of tricky musical changes that have more to do with technique than feeling ("Straight Up," "Save It for a Rainy Day").

At its best--as on "I'm Sorry Baby," "Hollywood," and "Learning How to Live"--Tiny Town subtly slips wise reflections and personal revelations into rollicking tunes that soar and slide with soulful rhythms and ecstatic harmonizing. With Nashvillian Johnny Neel adding his all-important organ accents, the band blends sharp but sly interplay to create uplifting music.

Lyrically, the songs tend to reflect the thoughts of men who, with the benefit of age and experience, have begun to find comfort in quiet, settled lives rather than the rambling, raucous ways of their youth. "I'd trade all my Key Largos for a brick house down the lane," McLaughlin sings in "Tiny Town." The idea of finding personal peace and happiness also occurs in other songs, such as the spiritual-based "New Day" and "Learning How to Live," and the beautiful ode to fatherhood, "Little Child."

"When you have four guys who are friends, and you're messing around with a song together, you end up trying to entertain each other a lot," McLaughlin says. "So you end up saying a lot of goofy things. But there are also some songs that one of us would work on alone and bring to the table. So we ended up with some fun, silly songs and some that maybe say something more serious."

McLaughlin's not sure, though, if it's a good thing that his foray into fashion seems to have rubbed off on his bandmates. At a recent photo shoot for a New Orleans music magazine, Malone and Allen arrived sporting flashy duds they had just bought at a thrift store. "They showed up in these Goodwill suits that were just wild," McLaughlin laughs. "They were the kinds of suits guys used to wear on houseboats in the '70s or something. They both seemed real happy about how they looked, but I'm hoping that it doesn't stick."

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