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POP MUSIC REVIEW : McEntire: Style, Little Emotion

It’s not often that the names Reba McEntire and Chrissie Hynde are used in the same sentence, but the truth is both have played similar roles as strong, independent women in their respective country and rock fields. Much in the same way Hynde opened the door for other self-reliant women in rock, McEntire’s huge success throughout this decade has helped pave the way for the likes of the Judds and K. T. Oslin.

Lately, though, Oslin has challenged McEntire’s reign as mainstream country’s first lady. Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre, McEntire rose to the challenge with a show that accented her talents as a consummate entertainer and remarkable vocal talent. But the presentation left something of a vacuum in terms of truly personal emotion and style--precisely the things for which Oslin (who unlike McEntire writes her own songs) has earned acclaim.

Oslin’s whole persona comes off like a series of unguarded moments. McEntire’s show Saturday didn’t allow for any.

Every move, every nod to the adoring crowd, every interaction with her accomplished seven-piece band seemed as planned out as the splashy lighting that framed the stage. The parade of hits and previews from her upcoming album, “Sweet Sixteen” (her 16th LP), was--for all the attraction of such fine radio regulars as “Whoever’s in New England” and “The Last One to Know"--as show-biz sparkly a display of fashion as the three outfits she wore during the 80-minute show.

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Not until McEntire closed the regular set with her now-standard, stately a cappella belting of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” did any cracks in the facade appear. Several times, as fans shouted often funny testimonies of affection to the singer during the pauses between phrases in the song, McEntire appeared close to breaking loose and laughing with the crowd. Though she recovered and finished the song virtually unphased, that hint of vulnerability added a much-needed element to the show.

Of course, it’s the very sense of being in control that characterizes McEntire’s career; the sense that she is master of her own fate--as well as her craft--is essential to her success. And her maturation as a performer, expanding her repertoire to include such non-country fare as the jazz-pop standard “Sunday Kind of Love,” is something to be lauded.

But if she keeps adding layers of glitz and glamour to her act, it’s going to get harder and harder to tell where the show ends and the real Reba begins--and that’s not a problem with Oslin and certainly not with Hynde.

With his fringed white jacket and wide-brimmed white hat, opening act Ricky Van Shelton looked like he just stepped out of a Tom Mix movie, and the best of his set would have gone down fine at a Saturday matinee. But as a whole, his material seemed selected because it sounds good, not because it says anything.

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