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Classic Touch

A connoisseur of classic rock might argue that, in his prime, Steve Miller was about as innovative an artist as, oh, the Guess Who or Peter Frampton. A quick rundown of his contributions to the classic rock catalog -- "The Joker," "Jet Airliner," "Swingtown" and "Take the Money and Run" chief among them -- reveals no evidence to the contrary. So why, two full decades after his last hit, is Miller still playing to capacity crowds in large amphitheaters and collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney?

Good question, though the answer should be obvious: Miller's music, for all its flaws, was built to last. Miller knows that a perfect melody beats perfect lyrics any day. Almost anyone can pound out the opening beats and cymbal crash from "The Joker" and croon on through "some people call me the space cowboy" to "lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time" with no harm done. In fact, owning a copy of Miller's Greatest Hits 1974-78 might be what officially classifies one as a member of "the general public."

Still, despite his success as an author of radio-friendly '70s pop, the bulk of Miller's musical output is much quirkier than the familiar songs would suggest. Miller began his career as a hard-edged Texas blues guitar virtuoso in the late '60s, continuing on as a mystical arena rocker in the '70s and finally mellowing out as a student of jazz rock in the late '80s. While more than a few of his hits were probably written in his sleep, his serious work indicates that Miller was looking to get more out of music than a niche in oldies radio. Unfortunately, the cool reception to his bolder music from fans and critics has put the majority of his catalog under a rock, unheard on the radio and unpopular with '70s music revivalists.

If there's one performer who should understand the perils that can accompany a weakness for simple pop songs, it's Paul McCartney, with whom Miller first collaborated in 1969 (on the rarely heard Miller tune "My Dark Hour"). Two years ago, the ex-Beatle recruited Miller for some sessions that eventually made it onto McCartney's current Flaming Pie. Unlike previous McCartney collaborators such as Elvis Costello, Miller seems to have relaxed and challenged McCartney, which is his ideal state of mind for recording music. Then again, maybe Miller just stumbled upon McCartney when he was in a good mood. Regardless, his contributions helped add a little style and substance to the work of his fellow graying pop star. Now it would be nice to see him do the same on a comeback disc of his own.

But whether or not Miller is promoting a new CD has had little impact on audience enthusiasm for his shows over the years. This time around, fans can expect a large helping of hits, peppered, perhaps, with the McCartney material and a few obscure tunes for the die-hards. Odds are Steve Miller won't be jetting into Houston eager to offer his millionth rendering of "The Joker," but surely he knows by now that that's the reason he's flying first-class.

-- Gerard Choucron

The Steve Miller Band performs at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 5, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $15 to $45. For info, call 629-3700.

Maxwell -- Of all of the retro-groove outcasts Rolling Stone recently dubbed the "New Soul Clan" (D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Tony Rich), Maxwell seems like the oddest of the odd men out. Sure, his 1996 debut -- that opus of fornication and funk known as Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite -- went platinum, and he's recorded his own MTV Unplugged, an industry status symbol if ever there was one. Still, his boho hipster aura -- a mutant union of Lenny Kravitz, Barry White and Al Jarreau, with a dash of Cosmo Kramer thrown in -- is perhaps a little too weird for those who prefer their R&B crooners in a tidier package. Even so, he's an original, and one who believes urban music can be both traditional and innovative. At 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 6, at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby. Tickets are $27.50 and $36. Zhane opens. 629-3700. (Craig D. Lindsey)

Big Ass Truck -- Some seemingly in-the-know Texans might hasten to peg Big Ass Truck as Tennessee's answer to Austin's Ugly Americans -- modified for street tastes with samples and a real, live scratching DJ. And in a sense, that's on target. Like the Uglies, this Memphis quintet pairs an increasingly common blend of funk and classic rock with just enough reckless frat-boy charm to ensure that the music is the party, not simply its soundtrack. But where Big Ass Truck diverges from the Ugly route is in its affinity for the sounds of its hometown, particularly the soul roster of Memphis's legendary Stax label. Of course, that means a little brass figures into the band's mix -- just enough, in fact, to color Big Ass Truck a hair more sophisticated than its Texas competitor, though no less groovy. At 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 9, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $4 (18 and up). 869-COOL. (Hobart Rowland

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