K.T. Oslin brought so much gusto, sureness and skill to her musical role playing Friday night that you would have thought she was on a Broadway stage rather than putting on a country music concert at the Pacific Amphitheatre.
Actually, Oslin was on Broadway years ago, long before she emerged in 1987, at age 45, as one of the most unlikely and most distinctive new stars in Nashville. The Broadway training still serves the Texas native well--both in her ability to write songs that play out well as dramatic or comic scenes, and in her knack for bringing those scenes to life on stage.
In a way that is beyond the grasp of big pop names like Cher or Madonna, who are caught up in projecting themselves as stars, Oslin did a real actor's work--conjuring characters and investing them with flesh and emotion.
What she described at one point during the 70-minute show as "my very strange brand of country music" probably owes more to the urban adult-pop sensibility of a Carole King than it does to honky-tonk tradition. But what plants Oslin firmly in the country corral (besides a twangy, husky voice quality that at times echoed the quieter, "Me and Bobby McGee" side of Janis Joplin) is her affinity for telling stories about Everywoman and Everyman.
Country's demand for earthy, recognizable situations that reflect common experience keeps Oslin's role playing on track: she's not going to play the unreachable star, like most theatrically inclined pop divas; she's going to play parts that intersect with life as her listeners know it.
With an expressive look or a canny bit of phrasing, Oslin was able to portray a wide range of feelings and character types.
She was particularly adept, on songs like "Hey Bobby" and "Younger Men," at playing a brassy, openly lustful woman plotting a friendly takeover of some handsome sex object. But on "Hold Me," Oslin ranged far from that sexual swagger as she portrayed a husband and wife frightened by their loss of passion for each other ("Don't kiss me like we're married, kiss me like we're lovers").
One of the set's highlights was "Willie and Mary," one of four strong numbers Oslin sang from her upcoming third album, "Love in a Small Town." Willie and Mary fail to find lovers because they want star-quality partners and won't settle for an ordinary man or woman. Because she kept her sights set on ordinary things, Oslin's star-quality performing personality shone all the more.
Ricky Van Shelton, who shared headliner billing with Oslin, showed slightly more personality than a cigar store Indian during his hour on stage.
Shelton is a brilliant vocalist--he may have the most assured, resonant male voice in country music--but a nearly useless singer. Singers, especially good country singers, dip notes in the grit and sweat of life, pulling them out drenched with feeling. Shelton was versatile, impeccable, and utterly frigid--Felix Unger in a white cowboy hat, delivering music that was clean, clean, glisteningly clean, whether based on honky-tonk music or rockabilly.
Shelton barely spoke, barely moved, barely let an expression cross his stolid face. He did lean back a little for the big dramatic ending of the set's best number, "Statue of a Fool," and, in a daring move for him, he waggled his left ankle vigorously during one of the rockers. After laying out his set in a monotonous, unaltering uptempo-ballad-uptempo-ballad sequence, Shelton strung together a sequence of rock covers near the end. Great voice that he is, Shelton delivered near-perfect re-creations of the original vocals from "Great Balls of Fire" and "Oh Pretty Woman." But the first was devoid of Jerry Lee Lewis' randiness, and the second had none of Roy Orbison's nervous desire. Like most of the set, the two oldies were just a matter of technical display.
Baillie and the Boys, a husband-and-wife team, plus backing musicians, opened with 30 minutes of pleasant country-tinged soft rock.
Singer Kathie Baillie showed an appealing, reedy voice well-suited for the plaintive emotional tenor that dominated the duo's songs. But can Baillie also muster a sassier, tougher dimension? If she hangs out on bills with K.T. Oslin long enough, maybe that will rub off.