Saturday, November 20, 2010

Love, Success, Happiness Sadly Subvert Miranda Lambert's Rebel Soul: Concert Review

Concert Review

Miranda Lambert
with Eric Church and Josh Kelley
CMT on Tour
November 19, 2010
NIU Convocation Center, DeKalb, IL

A few years ago, after reading a feature story referencing Miranda Lambert as "sort of a one-woman Dixie Chicks"--an act I came to like and admire after their going rogue and remaining defiant resulted in  excommunication from the country music establishment--I discovered Lambert's excellent 2007 album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Whether best described as hard-rocking angry-girl country or countrified angry-girl rock (think Alanis Morissette or Liz Phair with fire & brimstone and a penchant for shotguns), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an extremely engaging album bristling with rancor, wit and great riffs, and I'd count it as one of my favorites by a newish artist in any genre over the last several years.

Although I've never been drawn in by too much "new country," Lambert fit in perfectly with my appreciation for anything fresh, edgy and created with obvious passion & integrity. And while I might politically be at odds with the gun-totin' persona percolating through songs like "Gunpowder & Lead" (this is a good live clip from 2007) and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," I appreciated the cleverness of her craftswomanship, which along with spunky verve, is also clearly apparent on her first album, Kerosene.

I really would've liked to have seen Lambert live around that time, performing tunes from her first two albums, but the only time I noticed her coming through Chicago was for a birthday show at Joe's Bar in November 2008. Full of rock & roll cover songs and appearances by family members and her boyfriend (now fiance), singer Blake Shelton, the concert further impressed me but left my hoping to see her play a full set of her own songs.

In late 2009, Miranda Lambert released her third album, Revolution to much critical acclaim. But while I too had great expectations, it didn't capture me like either of her first two albums did. Although there is certainly some quality writing and hard-rocking riffs, even the ballads aren't as quirky and distinctive as on "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Revolution is a good album, but in my humble opinion--and that of a great one.

So, of course, it has become the most decorated album in country music this year, recently winning "Album of the Year" honors at the CMA Awards, where Lambert also earned "Female Vocalist of the Year."

And while for whatever reason, Lambert has avoided a full-fledged headlining gig of late in Chicago, I noticed that last night she was slated to perform at my alma mater, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

So happy for an excuse to head out to NIU, I stopped by the school's Career Services Center, Art Museum and Student Center, saw the stark memorial to the 2008 student massacre and grabbed a great gyros at Tom & Jerry's--a favored old haunt in downtown DeKalb--before heading to the show at the relatively recent Convocation Center. Although the show was nearly full, I was able to get a decent seat in person, therefore avoiding about $14 in Ticketmaster fees on a $25 ticket.

The "Convo," as it seems to be called, is certainly a step up from the high school gymnasiumish Chick Evans Fieldhouse, where NIU played its basketball games when I was a student, where I saw R.E.M. as a college freshman and where my graduation ceremony was held. But, and I know I haven't made much in the way of alumni contributions, it would have been nice if NIU had opted for something better than the cheapest possible, least comfortable folding-plastic seats imaginable. Luckily I was on an aisle so I didn't have to squeeze my fat ass between two others.

The crowd looked to be a good bit heavier in locals (plenty of cowboy hats) and, as later revealed, Chicagoans--some from Joe's Bar, to which Lambert gave a shout-out as her favorite place in the world to play--than students. (Campus itself seemed extremely sleepy, which I recall was often the case on Fridays.) But I thought I was in for a good night when the first song I heard on the arena's pre-show PA was Bruce Springsteen's, "Badlands" followed by music by Alejandro Escovedo, John Mellencamp, R.E.M., Outkast's "Hey Ya,' "In the Midnight Hour" and some twangy country songs.

Although I have no way of knowing if the mix tape was culled by Lambert, I hoped it presaged a show that was a fun mix of country, rock and disparate influences. And after first opener Josh Kelley delivered an innocuous 20-minute set, the arena raged with Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" prior to second opener Eric Church coming onstage to a heavy metal guitar solo.

Despite paying homage to metal, Church--who I saw once before opening for Bob Seger--delivered a 50-minute set that, while seemingly crowd pleasing, to me with ripe with the cliches that are while I largely don't like modern country music. Song after song was an overt ode to things Church loves--America, beer, Jack Daniels, Jesus, the flag, NASCAR, his boots, even the great Merle Haggard--without seemingly offering any insight or introspection. Yecch.

Photo by Fred Blocher, Kansas City Star
All the more reason why I was hoping that Lambert would save the night and justify my country-fried expedition. And taking the stage after Steve Earle's "The Revolution Starts Now" blasted through the arena, Lambert started off great with a trio of songs from her trio of albums, including an ass-kicking version of "Kerosene."

But disappointingly, she soon settled into a fully-scripted arena show, focusing predominantly on muted love songs from Revolution. Along the way, she talked about her big night at the CMAs, showed off her engagement ring as she cooed about Shelton, proclaimed that she was a "longtime member of the NRA" and delivered a slick, soul-less rendition of Rick Derringer's "Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo."

"Gunpowder & Lead" sounded great at the end of her main set, but even that didn't seem to bristle like I hoped (or like the roadside bar rendition I linked to above). She omitted "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," anything other than the title track from Kerosene and much else to remind me why I was so looking forward to seeing her. And though she was perfectly cheery and adequately gracious--and played just enough good songs to qualify the show as such--she seems to have smoothed out her rough edges to the precipice of dullness.

As Lambert repeatedly reminded the crowd, she just turned 27 last week. While she is an extremely talented woman, writing most of her own songs, based on what I saw last night I hope her best days aren't already behind her. If you like mainstream, plaintive country music within the realms and norms of the Nashville establishment, the Texas-bred Lambert is still well above average in that vein. But even if she only ever seemed like a rogue outsider, raging with pistol-and-innuendo-packing vitriol, it appears that as she has achieved professional success and personal happiness, her art is suffering for it.

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