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McGraw gets outgunned by LeDoux

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, The Astrodome, Houston, Feb. 16, 1997

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - Day Three of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo featured perhaps the most appropriate country performer possible as its opening act and a young country hunk as the headliner.

And it was the opener, Chris LeDoux, who outperformed Tim McGraw.

LeDoux's last appearance at the rodeo was as a bareback bronc rider, and although he's stopped riding, he proved tonight that he hasn't lost touch with his rodeo roots.

He opened his show with the hard-rocking bull-riding song, "Hooked on an 8 Second Ride" and followed this with a song about the rodeo lifestyle, "Other Side of the Hill." He also included other cowboy songs that blurred the lines between country and rock, like "Cadillac Ranch" and "Even Cowboys Like a Little Rock and Roll."

Unfortunately, the sound in the Astrodome isn't the best in the world, so many of the big-sounding songs were muddy and the guitars hard to distinguish.

The same problem did not harm LeDoux's slower, more acoustic songs, however, and in fact, his rough, weathered voice has always seemed to perform better on this type of song anyway. Whether he sings about love, as on the beautiful piano ballad "Look at You Girl," or about cowboy pride ("This Cowboy's Hat," the show's best song) no one could doubt his authority.

"For Your Love" was his last song, and he closed it by riding a mechanical bull at the side of the stage. This may sound slightly cheesy, but it drew big cheers from the audience, many of whom knew and respected him from his rodeo days.

LeDoux is certainly not the most vocally gifted artist in country music - in fact, he's far from it. However, he writes and sings songs that speak volumes to a specific audience, and his importance as a chronicler of the rodeo life can't be denied. Besides, he always seems to be having fun, laughing his way through parts of some songs, growling through others, so his audience also has a good time.

As good a performer as LeDoux is, however, most of the audience hadn't come to see him. They'd come for young country hunk Tim McGraw, as they demonstrated with the huge eruption of cheers that accompanied his appearance on stage to sing the opening song, "Renegade."

Unfortunately, McGraw suffered from the same sound problems as LeDoux . Much of the instrumental backup was muddy and indistinguishable. Many of the solos were predictable and boring, like the electric guitar on "She Never Lets It Go to Her Heart."

Four songs into the set ("All I Want Is a Life"), the biggest problem with McGraw's show became apparent. He just didn't seem to exude energy. His eyes were closed much of the time as if he was concentrating on every note, trying to get that contrived tear or, worse, the growl in his voice to appear in all the right places. He seemed to put technical accuracy over real emotion in his singing, and while this strategy may work okay on recorded music, it fails miserably in concert.

The average listener could have easily lost hope after generic new-country songs like "Down on the Farm" and "Maybe We Should Just Sleep on It Tonight," and in fact, many of the original crowd of 48,991 did leave early.

Those fans missed the best part of the entire night. It began with "Memory Lane," a hit off McGraw's little noticed but quite good self-titled debut album and continued with three acoustic numbers. On these songs, McGraw's guitar players got to show that they really can play wonderful acoustic guitar when they set their minds to it, instead of the usual banal country-rock electric guitar solos they're normally forced to play.

The first two will appear on McGraw's upcoming fourth album. One, a beautiful love song that sounds like a surefire hit both with radio and weddings, is called "It's Your Love."

The other, "In My Heart I'll Always See You Everywhere," describes a couple that breaks up because the woman wants to stay in her hometown. Wherever the man goes, however, he always sees her face. Besides the fact that this is an extremely pretty lost-love song, you can't help but admire lyrics that rhyme "blizzard" with "desert."

The third acoustic song was McGraw's first number-one hit, "Don't Take the Girl." As overplayed as that song has become, it takes on a whole new meaning when some 30,000 fans are singing along so loudly that McGraw can just let the audience sing the words of the title.

After that came "I Like It, I Love It," a typical country-dance song redeemed by an awesome bass solo. Just when McGraw appeared to be leaving the stage, he came back for one more song, the single that did the most to make him a star, "Indian Outlaw."

Neither LeDoux nor McGraw is an immensely talented singer, but both are cases of artists doing the most with what they have.

LeDoux's seen-it-all voice and past experience make him the perfect person to sing about the rodeo life.

McGraw always manages to find wonderful, heart-tugging songs, and by tonight's indications, he has done so again for his next album. If only he'd sing it like he means it, instead of trying to hit every note perfectly, he'd be a much more interesting performer.

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