Wonderous Wynonna

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The easiest way to describe a singer's character and direction is to cite a couple of other artists with similar characteristics, but that doesn't work with Wynonna.

You can't convey with just two reference points the richness and range of her sometimes breathtaking 90-minute set Friday night at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Yes, the progressive country-pop instincts of Patsy Cline and the blues-rock bite of Bonnie Raitt are good starting points in talking about Wynonna's vocal dynamics.

But she also brought into play a gospel-edged soulfulness reminiscent of Aretha Franklin and a playful, hip-shaking seductiveness of her early hero Elvis Presley.

And, she, too, still retains the rural Southern purity that she exhibited in the '80s as the primary musical voice of the Judds duo.

The ability to incorporate all these elements so authentically helps explain why Wynonna may just be the most complete and gifted female singer of her generation--and we're not just talking country music.

Backed by a hard-driving, five-piece band that was sometimes joined by three backup singers and a three-piece brass section, Wynonna, 31, drew upon the common elements of country, gospel, R&B; and rock in fresh and liberating ways.

For those who have followed the career of this Kentucky native, however, the most impressive thing about the opening show in Wynonna's first tour in nearly two years was her confidence and command as a performer.

Though she has been a country star for a dozen years, she didn't have to carry a show until the illness of mother Naomi forced the breakup of the Judds five years ago. Until then, Naomi who was hostess of the evening. Wynonna just had to sing.

The hostess role can be difficult, and Wynonna didn't seem comfortable in it when she began her solo career in 1992. On Friday, however, she was relaxed as she spoke to the audience between songs, amplifying on her musical messages of faith, love and survival.

These are natural themes for Wynonna because she has gone through such dramatic changes in her own life--from her mother's battle with hepatitis to the challenge of the solo career.

The only clumsy moment in Friday's show was when Wynonna, who is expecting her second child this summer, tried to weave her optimistic message into too cute a package by inviting a half dozen children on stage to talk to them about their dreams and then serenade them with a song. It's an interesting idea that may eventually work, but everyone involved seemed ill at ease this time.

The main challenge for Wynonna, who doesn't write her own songs, is material. While her selections reflect well her own life experience, she ought to be a bit more selfish (from a commercial standpoint) by holding out for more songs, such as "Don't Look Back" and "Heaven Help My Heart," that speak with the accessibility and grace of the most memorable country and pop.

Next to Wynonna, most acts would seem commonplace, but Blackhawk, the country group that opened Friday's show, would probably appear quite average on almost any bill. From the group's material, arrangements or vocals, Blackhawk is awash in a mix of faceless '70s rock and anonymous '90s country elements.

* Wynonna and Blackhawk perform on Tuesday at RIMAC Arena, UC San Diego, 7:30 p.m. $26.50. (619) 534-6467.

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