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Redneck Gretchen Wilson should stay country

Dunkin' Donuts Center, Providence, R.I., March 11, 2006

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Gretchen Wilson came out of nowhere two years ago, a superstar with her first single, "Redneck Woman," an anthem for the country's badass females and rednecks. Wilson continued having a lot of success with her excellent debut "Here for the Party," and while her follow-up disc, "All Jacked Up," has yielded a few hits, she has not quite yet approached the debut's success.

But Wilson has risen quickly to headliner status, now out on the "Redneck Revolution Tour" with Van Zant and Blaine Larsen.

It was the redneck/good time factor generally emphasized over the course of 80 minutes by Wilson in a show well short of being sold out, somewhat mystifying given Wilson's star status.

The tough gal persona filtered through many songs, including an odd choice to intro the show - Wilson singing "A Country Girl Can Survive" (a female version of the Hank Jr. song) on a video screen instead of dishing it out live replete with unnecessary childhood photos of her.

Wilson then got the festivities rolling for real with her good time, rock-edged "Here for the Party."

Wilson tended to smartly mix up the pace, following with the mid-tempo "Homewrecker," the honky tonker, "When It Rains" and the ballad "When I Think About Cheatin'."

But then Wilson adopts the us versus them persona with songs like her current single "Politically Uncorrect" (done on the recording with Merle Haggard and in concert with Larsen), where it assumes that only people of her persuasion could work hard and love the U.S. flag and Bible.

And while cute and catchy, "California Girls," an answer song to the Beach Boys' chestnut, takes a few easy, cheap shots at the subject in mind and Paris Hilton. That doesn't exactly show a whole lot of courage.

Particularly effective were a few songs with entire band towards the front of the stage, including a bluegrass song, "Working on a Building," which Wilson referred to as country.

Wilson made a smart move in citing her musical inspirations, including Loretta Lynn, following with a strong reading of "You Ain't Woman Enough." But instead of songs from the other artists she mentioned (Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette), Wilson fell victim to what seems to be the norm these days among today's country stars - their covers seem to be rock music of the last three decades.

With the Van Zant brothers returning to stage and taking the lead, Wilson offered Lynyrd Skynyrd's "What's Your Name?" before rocking out hard unfortunately by tackling Heart's "Barracuda" on which she would not have made the Wilson sisters feel one-upped, and a good outing on Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog."

While "Barracuda" left the audience listless, "Black Dog" at least evoked a positive response.

But frankly, why bother with such covers? It wasn't as if Wilson put her own tattoo on the songs at all. Paying homage to country icons like Lynn made sense. Doing the same for Heart and Zep did not.

Leaving these out could have resulted in more songs from Wilson's two albums, especially her debut.

No doubt about it that Wilson has a lot of talent and sings really well with many meaty songs. But going the rocking redneck route at times detracts from the overall effect.

Van Zant - Johnny and Donnie Van Zant - preceded Wilson with a set that confirmed the bros don't play country music. "Get Right With the Man" may have been marketed that way, but the Van Zant's can't escape their history - brother Ronnie's Lynyrd Skynyrd and their own musical careers with Johnny in Skynyrd and Donnie having been with .38 Special.

The songs tend to have the same tempo and sound - it's Southern rock done real well. And that means a lot of guitars cranking it up. Johnny is the better singer with much more timbre in his voice.

Larsen, who seems influenced by Alan Jackson vocally, demonstrated good vocal chops and was particularly effective on his semi-hit, the sad "How Do You Get That Lonely."

Yet within five minutes of his stint on stage, he was covering Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville," The Eagles' "Take It Easy" and the George Strait hit "All My Ex's Live in Texas" as a medley.

It makes you wonder if Larsen knows what he wants to be musically, but if the public debut of his new single, the Mexican-flavored "I Don't Know What She Said," is any indication, he could be headed in the right direction.

This was an evening showing three artists with talent even if sometimes misguided. Now if Wilson would stick to her brand of country, she would be better off.