September 15, 2016
Martina McBride does things that few artists are able to do: consistently sing songs that last beyond their rise on the charts, and deliver vocal performances with depth and range that never disappoint. I have seen her perform in front of large rodeo crowds and at in-the-round medium-size venues like the Arena Theatre. Thursday night at the Stafford Centre, it was a treat to be in a theater that was smaller, allowing a more intimate concert experience.
I won’t kid you – the Stafford Centre had a pretty tame crowd, and an older, conservative vibe. But McBride hits the high notes and acts as if she's performing for the most enthusiastic of audiences, no matter what. She really is a true professional, and I was relieved when more people stood up for hits like “Independence Day.” At times, I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t standing up and cheering – she has vocals worthy of envy from a singer of any genre – and she can still hit those high, long notes as well as she ever has. I felt the audience's reaction, particularly during the first half of the concert, was a bit tepid. McBride was excellent; most of the evening I thought she deserved a lot more enthusiasm. Anyway, I was up on my feet a lot and have no idea why other people weren’t, because she was hitting it out of the ballpark every song.
She started off with the title cut to her new album, “Reckless”; when there was only a smattering of applause when she mentioned her new record, she quipped, “Thank you – all seven of you.” She is pretty quick on the draw in a charming and self-deprecating way, which is kind of refreshing since she really is, as far as I am concerned, country music royalty. “Reckless” kind of reminds me of a toned-down version of “Wild Angels,” a big hit that she also sang, reminding us that she can sing pop-country love songs as well as uptempo favorites. Her pop-sugar “I Love You,” which was a hit and also on a film soundtrack, was a pleasant ride that showed how McBride can make things look easy even when they are not. For such a sugary song, “I Love You” is not that easy to sing; it’s difficult to handle lyrically (you don’t want to sound like a love-sick psycho) and the phrasing is tricky. Luckily, this is not McBride’s first rodeo, and her experience really pays off. She gets better every time I’ve seen her.
For her new songs, McBride said she had the luxury of being “super-choosy,” but her choices remain in sync with her winning combination of moving and emotional lyrics that either move or inspire the listener – often both. She isn’t über-twangy, even on her album that focused on classic-country hits, Timeless, but lets her exceptional voice dominate without lapsing into faux-country accents. Maybe that's why she has been such a popular artist over the decades: You feel like McBride is herself – completely authentic, not pulling your chain, not changing gears in a way that panders to passing musical fads.
It makes you grateful, which is a word she used a lot, thanking the audience several times for coming to the show. She is graceful onstage, gracious when she speaks, even when being funny. When a woman in the audience said her husband would leave her for Martina McBride, McBride shook her head, pointed to herself and said, “He doesn’t want this. I am more trouble than I look like I am.” In other words, she was perfect.
In a jaded world, it is nice to hear songs that are delivered in a heartfelt way, without being saccharine. As she reminded us before singing “I Have Been Blessed,” “we all have rough stuff” and are “trying to figure out life as it goes by.” She likes “songs that have hope,” and I agree – we need them.
On some of the songs, like “Love’s the Only House,” “My Valentine” and “Concrete Angel,” I honestly had tears in my eyes, and I am a pretty tough cookie. It wasn’t just the lyrics, although those are very moving and sentimental or empathic in a good way. It’s more that when McBride’s voice soars, it soars even higher than you think it will, and you can hardly believe someone can produce a sound that is so exquisitely beautiful. And no other female country artist has a voice quite like hers.
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She also sings a lot of songs that are just downright happy. When she belted “This One’s for the Girls,” you really did feel like she was singing it for you, no matter how long you happened to have been a girl. And “In My Daughter’s Eyes” still gets me every time; it may not be exactly happy, but it is meaningful. McBride isn’t afraid to acknowledge the emotional stakes in our lives, but I never feel manipulated or emotionally exploited, just moved by what she is observing or confessing or hoping.
For her encore, she rocked out a bit to “When Wild Women Get the Blues” and “Two More Bottles of Wine.” I kind of wanted a bit more of that — McBride is a very versatile singer. Like Linda Ronstadt, who could also sing any genre, I have seen McBride do everything from “Suspicious Minds” to “Blue Bayou” to a wonderful rendition of “King of the Road,” and I really missed her surprising us with something kind of off the beaten path – but really, that is a minor quibble because her voice was fantastic. She did treat us to a version of Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” – which I like better than the original – so don’t get me wrong, I just wanted her to stay a little longer.
In the middle of the show, McBride confessed, “We love what we do and we are so blessed and grateful,” and I believe her. It’s nice to hear. She also reminded us that live concerts, unlike YouTube and radio, are “one of the last things you show up for.” She is right, and Stafford, Texas, sure was lucky to have someone of her musical caliber, who could perform anywhere in the world if she wanted to, swing into town and show up. Whether a wistful love song, a bluesy narrative, a rock number or a signature hit that she makes her own (like the stellar “Anyway”), McBride delivers, and I loved every minute.
With simple black leather leggings, heels and a chemise, it was just McBride and her band – no Taylor Swift dancers or pyrotechnics required, and that to me is better, because as beautiful as the ageless McBride is, she never does anything to upstage the music itself. When you leave her performance, the music is what you remember, no gimmicks necessary. My favorite moment was when she sang “Today I Started Loving You Again,” but the truth is I have always loved McBride’s music; I can’t imagine saying good-bye, and I sure didn’t want to say goodnight. She sings messages of hope, but they are done so well that they’re never forgettable or clichéd. In country music, that is saying a lot.