October 30, 2008
In the better late than never category, on October 14, in between two of the craziest weeks ever, I made the trek to the middle of nowhere—Primm, Nevada—to watch two of my favorite mainstream country artists—Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton—perform together at the Star of the Desert Arena. Excellent separately, I was curious whether the sum of the whole would be greater than its individual parts. The answer is currently no, but the potential exists.
Country music history is rife with stellar male/female duos, among them Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. Lambert and Shelton are not in this category, but clearly inspired by these pairings and having dated for the past year, they decided to take their home act on the road and introduce audiences to an entirely different concert format. With no opening act, Lambert took the stage first and performed a short set of six songs with her full band. Shelton followed with his own short set, before the two took the stage to perform an entirely too short acoustic set together. They ended the evening with two more short individual sets, and then a crazy amalgam of songs to end the show together.
The format was engaging, but not used as effectively as possible. The duo aspect of the evening was short-changed. Shelton and Lambert’s voices work extremely well together—a combination of spice and honey. However, during their short acoustic set together, instead of performing duets, they primarily used the time to perform their own numbers. You couldn’t begrudge Lambert performing a gorgeous version of her latest single of “More Like Her,” but the only true duet was a Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn song that played to the strengths of neither singer. Perhaps the bigger problem lies in the fact that, as Shelton pointed out, the two rarely agree on music. Before they tour together again, I suggest they work that out, as the potential exists for some truly memorable duets.
On stage separately, Lambert and Shelton take two completely different approaches. If one is to believe their stage banter and interviews, the phrase “opposites attract” applies and their stage shows clearly demonstrate those differences. Lambert is all sass and attitude, while Shelton is all charm and raunchy humor. Lambert high-stepped and strutted around the stage in tall boots and tight jeans, and brandished her blonde hair as a weapon. Shelton primarily stood near the mic and brandished only his guitar.
Surprisingly, it was Shelton’s approach that won over the audience. Lambert is infinitely more comfortable on stage than she was a year ago, but she has a lot to learn from Shelton. He’s learned the trick of singing for the audience, and not at them. He’s also an expert in the art of stage banter, and drawing the audience into a song. He’s not afraid to pause in the middle of a song for the audience to get the joke, to laugh at himself, or to change the lyrics to the audience’s delight. As a consequence, he had the crowd from the first note, and achieved the greatest moment of the night singing his first single, “Austin.”
Overall, two things stuck out with regard to Lambert: First, her voice has evolved from competent, interesting and cute to soulful and surprisingly strong. Who knew she had those pipes? Those who question her Best Female Vocalist nomination, need to hear her live. Her voice was impressive.
Second, if the girl didn’t have a Texas twang, she would be a straight-up rock ‘n roll star. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Gunpowder & Lead,” “Kerosene” and “Guilty in Here” were performed as fairly hard-core rock (and to drive home the point, she closed the evening with “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”). There were no fiddles in her set, and only the occasional lap steel. “Dry Town” was as close as she got to traditional country. The audience clearly enjoyed her last single, “Gunpowder & Lead,” but they weren’t quite sure what to do with the rest. Unlike most country stars, her songs don’t lend themselves to a sing-a-long. As a result, part of the way through the evening, Lambert had to take it upon herself to admonish the crowd for their lack of participation. Of course, in country music these days, this quality doesn’t disqualify Lambert, but it will be interesting to see what direction she takes on her next album.
As far into rock as Lambert took the evening, however, Shelton usually brought it back to country. For example, Shelton followed “Kerosene” with “Redneck Girl.” He also brought out the fiddle, most prominent on “Cotton Pickin’ Time,” and fired up the audience with “Ol’ Red.” He takes obvious pride in his roots (although someone needs to inform him at some point that “country” music isn’t the exclusive property of rednecks).
With “Home,” Shelton did venture into pop territory, but instead of taking the pop route—to his credit—he brought the pop country. Regardless of your view of the song, it was impossible not to be entranced by his gorgeous vocal (and Lambert’s accompanying vocals) and his acoustic approach to the song. Shelton may still be the least recognizable big star in Nashville, despite having four #1 number one singles and eight top 15 singles, but by the end of the night, he made my “Can’t Miss Concert List” (and “Awards Show Host Wish List”).
Lambert and Shelton noted towards the end of the evening that a lot of people had doubted the success of their tour. That’s surprising, but I hope they were encouraged enough by the crowds to do it again. It was a successful concert this time around, but with time and a little more preparation, it could be a great one in the future.