WARREN ZEVON has been known for two decades as the sardonic jester of rock-and-roll - the tongue-in-cheek singer who gave us such hits as ``Werewolves of London'' and ``Excitable Boy'' in the '70s. He's back, but he's no longer kidding. His new album, ``Transverse City'' (Virgin Records), deals with pressing concerns of today: a world awash in toxic chemicals, Eastern bloc countries in turmoil, a highway tangled in gridlock, values sold cheap in shopping malls.
``Warren Zevon singing about the environment?'' asked one fan from Cambridge, Mass., at Zevon's recent Boston concert. ``Hey, somebody's got to do it, right?''
Compared with his eight earlier records, the latest is downright serious.
But maybe this is what his fans - the ``thirtysomething'' crowd - want, as they find themselves forced to face these bigger issues.
Fortunately, Zevon is still a lot of fun on stage.
At the concert here, fans begged for more when the show was over. Unlike the glamorous photos on his album covers, Zevon was an unassuming presence. Thinning blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail, wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, short figure dressed in black jeans, Zevon cast off the glitz so many rock stars rely upon. He is the real thing, and his voice sounded as good live as it does in his studio recordings - not something all pop musicians can boast.
Even his stage set was serious, devoid of the gimmicks and props cluttering most rock shows. Zevon's Apple MacIntosh computer was hooked into his keyboard, turning notes into new instrument sounds otherwise missing from the lineup.
But he didn't seem to find the computer anomalous with his back-to-basics ethos.
When someone from the crowd shouted, ``How does it feel to have a MacIntosh on stage?'' the musician replied, ``There are things I feel worse about, you know what I mean?''
ZEVON and his band played for two and a half hours, bouncing smoothly back and forth between new and old, anxious and mellow songs, with never a loss of momentum. (At one point Zevon forgot some lyrics from one of his new songs, but it made the show even more entertaining.)
He played a medley of his new songs on keyboard with help from the MacIntosh. Though the sound was great, the audience was more receptive to his older songs.
Unfortunately, radio stations in the area have not picked up Zevon's new single ``Run Straight Down,'' a dire song throughout, in which he chants the names of 280 carcinogenic chemicals in the background.
It was disappointing that Zevon did not play his prettiest new ballad, ``Nobody's in Love this Year,'' a song so beautiful it's worth buying the whole album for.
The old favorites stole the show: ``Werewolves of London,'' (Zevon substituted the hometown, Boston), ``Lawyers, Guns, and Money,'' ``Mohammed's Radio,'' and ``Poor Poor Pitiful Me,'' which Linda Ronstadt catapulted to the top of the charts in the late '70s.
His band - Frank Tomes on guitar (what an incredible mane of dark, wavy hair), Jennifer Condos on bass, and Ian Wallace on drums (formerly of Bob Dylan's band and the Traveling Wilburys) - played together well and looked as though they were enjoying themselves.
This was, after all, only the second show on the tour. (All the band members were wearing black boots, on this tour sponsored by Reebok athletic shoes.)
Carey Lambert from Boston said he had been looking forward to the show for weeks after winning tickets from a radio station giveaway. The security guards, however, were not as easy-going as they were in the golden '70s, said his date. ``I wanted to get up and dance, like we used to,'' she said, stretching out her arms in a shimmy.
But tonight, along with the more serious songs, was a more serious tone: ``The guards told me to sit down.''