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Young star and king prove their mettle

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, The Astrodome, Houston, Feb. 14, 1997

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - 56,511 rodeo and country music fans turned out at the Astrodome as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened with outstanding performances by country's hottest young star and one of country's reigning kings.

It's hard to believe that the strong, mature voice on such emotional country hurting songs as "Blue" and "Hurt Me" is that of a 14-year-old-girl. If so, then a lot of studio work must have gone into recording those songs to get them to sound so perfect. Right?


Lee Ann Rimes is the real deal. Yes, she's just a girl, but at the same time she has a voice that's far more powerful than most women in country music, and she certainly proved it tonight. Despite a cold that made her sound slightly hoarse when she spoke, her singing was just unbelievable right from the outset.

She began her show with an a cappella introduction to "Blue Moon of Kentucky" before the full band joined in and turned up the tempo a little bit. Although Rimes' yodeling seemed slightly hampered by her cold, "Blue" was still as impressive as when it first came out on the radio.

Rimes was the most stunning, however, on her current single and closer, "Unchained Melod." Her beautiful voice, especially on the high notes, was chill-inducing, and the song's vocal frills really showcased her talent.

As outstanding a vocalist as Rimes is, however, she hasn't become a great concert performer yet. Perhaps her abbreviated 30-minute set isn't enough to base a judgment on, but during this show she failed to get the audience excited.

Part of the problem could have been that she was sick and lacked energy, but a more important part was that she didn't have enough upbeat songs in her show. The critics may prefer the slow songs showing off her voice, but after watching 2 1/2 hours of rodeo, the fans want music that knocks them out of their seats, and in Rimes' set, only one song, "One Way Ticket," managed that.

Riders in the Sky performed for 10 minutes off to the side of the Astrodome floor. Their characteristic combination of cowboy music and comedy was fun, and it gave the audience something to watch while the crew set up for the main event.

Just about the time the audience was getting antsy, though, the lights dimmed again. Suddenly, the audience roared to life as it heard the snare-drum beat of "Chattahoochee," and country hero Alan Jackson took the stage to sing one of his biggest hits.

Another crowd favorite, "Gone Country," followed. The audience got a little break with Jackson's midtempo hit "Livin' on Love," but then came the cajun-flavored "Tall Tall Trees," featuring excellent fiddle and electric guitar solos.

One of the best parts of Jackson's show is what he calls his "half-wired set." He and the band get a little breather as they sit down to play mostly acoustic snippets of several different songs. Jackson also takes the time to explain the origins of certain songs, for example, the John Wayne movie that inspired "Wanted."

What's most interesting, however, is hearing how Jackson sings songs that he's written but that were recorded by other artists. He played "If I Could Make a Livin'," a hit for Clay Walker, and despite the gender problem, "I Can't Do That Anymore," written for Faith Hill.

The "half-wired" segment ended with Jackson's beautiful version of "Seven Bridges Road." The a cappella harmonies at the beginning and end of the song are just gorgeous. It would be great to see Jackson record this song for an album.

Right after the sweet close of "Bridges," a blaring electric guitar solo and pounding bass drum beat opened "Don't Rock the Jukebox," which was followed by the night's best performance.

A steel-guitar solo opened the song, but it wasn't the typical country steel guitar. It was the Hawaiian style for which the steel guitar was originally created, and it was surprising to hear but also very refreshing. Acoustic guitar joined in, and the song became recognizable as "Midnight in Montgomery." Seeing snippets of the song's video and hearing Jackson's emotional performance of the song's evocative, haunting lyrics made this song the highlight of the show.

After the seriousness of that song, Jackson turned right to "I Don't Even Know Your Name," perhaps his least serious song, a little ditty that had most of the crowd singing along. He followed it with the Hank Williams Jr. hit "Texas Women," particularly appropriate for this night, and after that Jackson closed the hour-long show with his recent hit "Little Bitty."

Jackson was in fine voice tonight, and his band, the Strayhorns, turned in one outstanding solo after another. They did an especially impressive job on "Mercury Blues," featuring not only great guitar, fiddle, drum and bass solos, but even included excellent dobro and harmonica parts.

If there's one criticism of his show, it's the typical criticism of superstars once they've been around for a while - the show was too short to include all of his hits!

Jackson only played two songs off his latest album, yet he still had to leave out "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," which he used to perform right at the beginning of every show.

That's a minor criticism, though, after yet another great show by country's best new traditionalist. Jackson wore a sly grin for much of the show that demonstrated he was having a good time. And from start to finish, the audience did, too.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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