`Rock Star' pays off for INXS

February 16, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The guys of INXS fretted over the idea.

Since the November 1997 suicide of charismatic lead singer and focal point Michael Hutchence, the '80s dance-rock band had been without a permanent vocalist. The group still toured, though, temporarily hiring Terence Trent D'Arby and Noiseworks vocalist Jon Stephens to fill in. But the idea of a music-driven reality show on which the Australian rock band would find a replacement for the beloved frontman just didn't seem right. At first.

"It was a huge risk," says founding member and group guitarist Tim Farriss, who's calling from a tour stop in Boston. "We worried the show would be perceived as undignified to Michael. But it was all about him in the first place. It was a way to keep his memory alive."

Though the CBS summer series Rock Star: INXS was initially slow in the ratings, it eventually served its purpose. The band -- which includes Farriss' brothers Andrew on keyboards and guitar and Jon on drums, Garry Beers on bass, and Kirk Pengilly on guitar and saxophone -- found a lead singer. J.D. Fortune, a cocky Canadian musician who once worked as an Elvis Presley impersonator, was living out of his car when he landed on the show. Now, he's fronting INXS on its mostly sold-out national tour, which stops at Warner Theatre in Washington Saturday night. (Because of a sore throat, Fortune wasn't available for an interview.)

"The tour's going great," Farriss says. "Everyone keeps saying J.D. has big shoes to fill. He's what we wanted, somebody who's naturally himself. We wanted him to be a band member as opposed to him and then us. It's really worked out great."

Fortune sings on Switch, the group's aptly titled new album. Though certainly not in the class of such INXS master strokes as 1985's Listen Like Thieves or 1987's Kick, Switch is still a well-executed effort. But if Hutchence was your main reason for listening to INXS in the first place (and his appeal was undeniable), then the new CD may leave you a bit cold. There was something unpretentiously soulful about Hutchence's vocals, whereas Fortune sounds a bit too mannered at times.

Although the new single "Pretty Vegas," which was co-written by the new lead singer, soared into the Top 10, in concert it's all about the band's back catalog. Longtime fans want to know if the good-looking, cocksure Fortune can pull off the old hits: "What You Need," "Original Sin," "New Sensation" and "Need You Tonight." No need to worry: He has just enough of Hutchence's soulful flair to pull them off.

"One of the reasons we picked J.D. was his ability to write," says Farriss, 47. "He just had that vibe, you know. I can't put it any other way."

It probably also helped that on the show Fortune boldly told INXS that he was the only contestant of the 15 who already knew all their songs. On the show, the singer was shamelessly driven (or annoyingly arrogant, depending on your perspective) as he reminded everyone that he was there for no other reason than to become the lead singer of INXS. But although he is so self-assured and had worked in small rock bands before, Farriss says there was still a lot for Fortune to learn after he joined the group.

"We had a new singer that had never made a record before, a video before, or had been on a tour bus before," he says. "So he was the new kid on the block. So it was a beautiful thing, because we get to see things through his eyes. ... So it's awesome because we're passing on something. His learning curve is so steep, like Mount Everest."

Farriss says it's refreshing that INXS is back, playing venues packed with enthusiastic fans old and new. It's not the same without Hutchence, and it will never be. But the group has long made peace with that.

"The show did some good in that respect," he says. "It's like the heyday with thousands of people lined up at the shows. But it's really about the music. We love to play. It's like popping a bottle of champagne every time we hit the stage."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See INXS at the Warner Theatre, 13th Street between E and F streets Northwest in Washington, Saturday night at 8. Tickets are $55-$65 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.

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