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From the Country Standard Time Archives

If you want theatre, check out Reba

The Summit, Houston, Oct. 4, 1996

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - Just as there are many different styles of country music, there are many different types of country concert.

Alan Jackson and George Strait just stand at the microphone and sing number-one hit after number-one hit, and their fans go crazy.

Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn have wild stage personas that take some of the focus off their music and place it on their crazy antics.

And then there's Reba McEntire, turning every show into a full-blown theatrical event.

Opener Billy Dean, a big star in 1992 after his first six singles all went to the top five, has fallen on hard times of late with country radio.

Hearing those early hits made one wonder why Dean doesn't revert back to his successful country-folk style of a few years back.

He opened with two more recent songs, his remake of Dave Mason's "We Just Disagree" and "Men'll Be Boys," during which he danced and shook his hips for the women in the audience. Then he played the early hits "Only the Wind" and "Only Here for a Little While," which was disappointingly slowed down.

In fact, all in all, the tempo of his concert was too slow. "It's What I Do" and "I Wouldn't Be a Man If I Didn't Feel Like This," both love songs off his latest album, were just extremely boring.

On the other hand, "Somewhere in My Broken Heart" was the highlight, partly because it's such a classic song of lost love and partly because it allowed Dean to display his personality. He played the acoustic guitar opening to the song just beautifully, paused for a few seconds, and then broke up laughing, apparently having forgotten the opening line to his own signature song!

Dean is an extremely talented singer who needs to better define his musical style and improve his song selection.

While Dean was restricted to a small section of the stage at one end of the arena, McEntire had full use of the entire stage, which consisted of a large raised platform at one end of the stadium, another stage at the center, Dean's stage at the other end, a pit for the band behind the center stage, and behind that a smaller raised platform.

At the opening of the show, a mock car drove out to the center of the stage, and all of the band members exited one by one, each playing a solo on his instrument. Then the car drove off the stage, and a plane entered with McEntire inside, waving to her adoring fans.

Then she went right into her first uptempo dance production, "Why Haven't I Heard From You."

In fact, every song was a production of some kind, each with a different type of attraction.

During some slow songs, disco balls cast gorgeous sparkling white lights across the audience, and in other uptempo songs, colorful patterns danced on the stage, and fireworks even went off. On uptempo, dance songs like "Take It Back" and "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," McEntire was joined on stage by an entourage of 8 or 10 dancers.

Perhaps the best production, however, was one of the simplest. During "She Thinks His Name Was John," McEntire stood at the center of the stage on top of a white sheet. As the song built to its horrible climax, in which the listener realizes that the protagonist is going to die of AIDS because of a one-night stand, the section of the stage on which McEntire was standing rose up, and the sheet turned out to be an AIDS quilt. That moving song received a standing ovation from some of the crowd.

It seems like McEntire's stage shows have to be bigger and better every year, and one way that she seems to measure the size of her show her outfit count.

In this show she wore about 10, ranging from an absurd Star Trek dress to really beautiful black and purple dresses. Although some costume changes were accomplished very quickly when the new costume was right underneath the old one, others required breaks of several minutes, during which McEntire's sister and parents talked to the crowd via the video screens.

Also, the bigger a show gets, the less spontaneous it gets. To coordinate all of the costume changes, dancers, and special effects, everything has to run like clockwork, so much of the show appears to be canned. Obviously, dance routines have to be choreographed, but does McEntire really need to sound like she's reading from a teleprompter every time she addresses the crowd?

Oh yeah, almost forgot about the music!

It's so easy to get caught up in the stage show that's going on around McEntire and forget that she is a very talented vocalist who has covered a wide variety of musical styles throughout her career.

She performed two excellent medleys of early hits, the first focusing on slower songs like "Somebody Should Leave" and "Whoever's in New England" and the second focusing on uptempo songs like "Can't Even Get the Blues," "Little Rock," and "Walk On."

She also performed more modern-sounding songs like "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" and her very cool new single, "The Fear of Being Alone," with equal adeptness.

Even more impressive was her band's ability to jump from style to style, from western swing on "Oklahoma Swing" to R & B on "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" to the traditional sound of her mid-Eighties music to her more rocking new sound.

Of course, McEntire also performed her duets with Linda Davis, who is still touring with her as a backup singer as her attempt to launch a successful solo career flounders. Davis sounded hoarse, and as a result she was seriously outsung by McEntire on "Does He Love You" and "On My Own."

The only song that didn't suit McEntire well was the concert's closer, "You Keep Me Hangin' On," her weak attempt at a dance song. The song was actually released in about five different mixes and played at dance clubs, but it must have had many in the Houston crowd cringing.

The concert came to an incredible close with the encore, "Fancy." The effects in this song were just incredible, as McEntire seemingly was carried almost instantaneously from one end of the stage to the other on a wave of bright white fireworks.

It was a stunning end to an amazing concert. For honest, genuine country music, go to an Alan Jackson concert. For a theatrical event, Reba has no equal.