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Reba gets impersonal

Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show, Houston Astrodome, Feb. 24, 1999

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - Every year, many Houstonians eagerly await Rodeo season - those 17 days in late February and early March when the greatest stars of professional rodeo and country music descend upon the Astrodome for 20 performances. Each show features about two hours of bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, bronc riding, and other rodeo events, followed by a one-hour concert.

As much fun as the rodeo is - and it's a great family outing, priced at just $5-$15 a ticket - it's a poor venue to watch a country concert. The Astrodome floor has to be big enough to hold the rodeo events, so the concert is at the center of the floor, far from even the fans in the front row.

Because the audience circles the Dome floor, the stage rotates to allow everyone a distant glimpse of the performer. The end result is that fans watch most of the concert on the big screens at the top of the Dome.

In her second of two Rodeo performances this year, Reba McEntire seemed to fall victim to the impersonality of the Dome. She said early on that she would be singing songs from her 24-year career in country and telling the stories behind the songs. In the cavernous Astrodome, however, efforts to establish any kind of rapport with the audience often fall flat, and so it was with McEntire. Her stories sounded so rehearsed that the listener found himself looking for the teleprompter providing her lines.

But poor storytelling can be overcome by good music, and after nearly a quarter century in the music business, McEntire has sung quite a few good songs. "Fancy," for instance, is a consistent fan favorite, and McEntire always sings with zeal the story of a girl willing to do anything to escape the poverty of her youth. A more recent song, "I'd Rather Ride Around With You," is breezy and fun, and McEntire seems to get a kick out of performing it.

After 8 or 10 loud country-pop songs in a row, however, they all start to sound alike. As so often happens, then, the highlight of the concert came not when McEntire and her band added more to the mix but when they took something away.

Late in the show, they performed three songs acoustically, beginning with "The Greatest Man I Ever Knew." Backed just by an acoustic guitar and fiddle, the story of a woman's unfulfilled need for an emotional connection with her father was far more moving than it could have been with an overblown, synthesized backing. "How Blue" and "One Promise Too Late" were two more acoustic treasures.

Linda Davis received thunderous applause for her part in "Does He Love You," although McEntire clearly out-sang her. The song is less irksome live than on record, thanks to the playful onstage interaction between McEntire and Davis. They do their best to look serious and angry as each stares into the eyes of the woman who is trying to steal her man, but at the same time, they clearly enjoy this chance to do a little role-playing.

The concert ended with "Is There Life Out There," McEntire's rallying song for women everywhere. Then McEntire took a lap around the Astrodome floor, waving at the crowd of 48,294 from the back of a convertible as fireworks exploded overhead. The car disappeared, the fireworks ended, and just like that an enjoyable, if somewhat unsatisfying, evening of country music come to an end.

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