Kevin Costner kinda rocks Cabooze

A riddle: What's more interesting than actor Kevin Costner & Modern West playing country-rock on a Tuesday night at Cabooze? The crowd who shows up at Cabooze on Tuesday to hear Kevin Costner. The house was packed, mostly with middle-aged women in stretchy shirts who came to hoot and holler for their favorite aging hunk. City Pages is relieved to report that only one staff member was the victim of a cougar attack.

The cougar in question was a fortysomething blond who appeared to be a few hours, six tequila shots, and a $25 ticket removed from her job as a realtor in Blaine. While her dumpling-shaped husband wavered drunkenly at the bar, wet-lipped and staring dead-eyed into space, a mop of gray hair the color of disappointment clinging to his glistening forehead like it was the last chopper out of Vietnam, she buried her Lee Press-On claws into the lapels of the City Pages representative's jacket and forcibly shook the reporter into an involuntary dance, rubbing his face while she gyrated against him. Rather than fall to the floor and play dead (that's for bears!), the City Pages staffer retreated like a stealthy deer.
The remainder of the crowd -- median age 43 -- was rapt as the Robin Hood/Dances With Wolves/The Postman star played his inoffensive Tom Petty/Eagles fusion. Modern West took the stage to the level of applause one expects for a correct answer in the first round of the National Spelling Bee. But when Costner, the man of the hour, ascended into view, the whole place went nuts. Forty-five minutes later, by about 10:15, the Cabooze bartenders joked with one another and paced and tried to find somebody looking a drink. It was 15 minutes after the end of Law and Order, and the crowd was getting sleepy -- they had houses to sell and computers to program in the morning -- but they still defiantly nodded along to the music.

Costner, meanwhile, clearly enjoyed himself. He bobbed with the nervous energy of an excited hobbyist, a little uncomfortable but glad as hell to be there. For Costner, the show at Cabooze must have held the same thrill of Dick Cheney's infamous fenced hunts, where the animals are docile, captive, and easily picked off, where you can do your shooting from the comfort of a Jeep. All the musical heavy lifting was performed by his tight six-piece band. Yes, Modern West's live ensemble consists of a drummer, bassist, fiddle player, and three guitarists -- plus Costner, who strums the rhythm intermittently on an acoustic guitar that was audible perhaps once or twice throughout the evening. As for the crowd, they were giddy to be in his presence and eagerly receptive of his benign, perfectly suitable Tuesday night country-rock. And so Costner gets to play rock 'n' roller -- guitar prop and all -- without having to venture out into the uncertainties of the wild, where real danger lurks.

But it's hard to fault Costner, who was grinning and overflowing with good will. If Kevin Costner & Modern West is a vanity project, it is, contradictorily, a humble one. While his backing band casually jammed away like old pros asked to do a newbie's job, he croaked and crooned like a Southern Springsteen, again and again lowering his guitar to wave at the crowd or point toward Cabooze's high ceilings. But these weren't egotistical flourishes; he clearly meant every blown kiss and there's-the-ceiling finger jab sincerely, and the crowd responded in kind.

Costner's biggest mistake may have been letting local honky-tonk hero Molly Maher open for him. Maher -- pronounced like John Mayer, not Bill Maher -- is a Sheryl Crow soundalike whose music conjures up Crow if her style had thickened into something bluesier rather than evaporating into a cloud of radio pop -- Crow by way of Susan Tedeschi, perhaps. Maher's opening set was ideal bar-band music, harder and faster and more compelling that Costner's jaunty but forgettable tunes. Costner, for his part, spent nearly as much time bantering with the crowd as playing. He seemed most comfortable when telling stories about how he came up with each song, which ones were inspired by Hurricane Katrina and which ones were inspired by his own life. The crowd at Cabooze was happy to hear all about it.

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