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Holly Cole
(The Source, Jan. 3, 1996)

In devoting an entire album to Tom Waits songs, Canadian jazz singer Holly Cole finds the edge in Waits' writerly observations, and she finds a new aspect of her understated alto voice for each of Waits' distinct urban characters. There's the patient, exposed lover of "I Want You," a cozy ballad filled with warm strings. There's the after-dark predator of "Temptation," which Cole sings small, like a dangerous proposition set to an evasive, slinky flute. There's the humbled city girl of "Take Me Home," quietly instructing her wronged companion to "Take me home, you silly boy." Recorded in live sessions with minimal overdubs, the playing by the Holly Cole Trio (vocals, piano, bass) has an inviting freedom and openness, to which Cole adds drums (sometimes) and other instruments. A harmonica duets with Cole's aching vocal on "Falling Down," and the Canadian Brass sets a pensive, Mahleresque mood for the album's closer, Waits' gorgeous fairy tale "The Briar and the Rose." Cole is virtually a different singer on each song, and she smartly lets the colors of Waits' songs provide the album's unifying spirit.


Counting Crows
"This Desert Life"
(Metroland, Dec. 16, 1999)

In one of the most impressive balancing acts in modern rock, Counting Crows front man Adam Duritz still sounds authentic singing mournful songs about Californian ennui even though he's a successful musician whose lifestyle includes occasional dalliances with starlets. The reasons why Duritz dodges charges that he's a hypocrite include the emotive quality of his voice -- which is moping personified -- and the downbeat poetry of his lyrics. He also has enough of a storyteller's touch that his songs are as much about the real world as the space inside Duritz's head. When he sings "They're gonna make a movie from all the things that they find crawling around my brain," he's not boasting about his complexity, but noting it with a trace of wistfulness.

Throughout the Crows' earthy, varied third studio disc, "This Desert Life" -- which includes "I Wish I Was a Girl," from which the above lyrics were extracted -- Duritz proves his mettle by balancing observations about himself with tart commentary about the isolation and sterility of modern existence. It's no accident that the album's jauntiest tunes feel like afterthoughts: The single "hanginaround" descends into tuneless chaos, and "Camp Days" appears after the album proper as a hidden track. It's as if Duritz realizes the unchecked joy of those songs is out of step with the intelligent depression that dominates the disc.

Because Duritz's words are set aloft by the rousing musicianship of his bandmates, the songs never feel too internal. "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" is an irresistible groove that chugs along for seven and a half minutes; "All My Friends" has an epic vibe accentuated by a sweeping guitar figure; and "High Life" features strings that could have appeared on "Sgt. Pepper." Despite their oppressive subject matter, the tunes are candy-coated in supple, organic pop-rock arrangements, and they're sequenced so they flow like the movements of a symphony.

"This Desert Life" was recorded, as were the Crows' previous discs, in a Hollywood Hills mansion, and the songs are filled with cinematic imagery. Like the best Henley-Frey songs of the '70s but with a greater sense of play, Duritz's tunes are dispatches from dreamland, ironic and melodic journal entries about the unexpected lows of the high life. Whether he's contemplating his inability to connect in "All My Friends" or exploring isolation in the gorgeously stark "Colorblind," Duritz leads listeners on an old-fashioned journey into his soul, then rewards them with haunting words and glorious music.


Electric Light Orchestra
(Metroland, July 19, 2001)

The never-ending trend of rock & roll reunion albums reaches a surreal new plateau with "Zoom," the first disc in more than 15 years from Electric Light Orchestra. Because ELO essentially were a one-man band by the end of their hitmaking run, this disc is basically Jeff Lynne's reunion with himself. Given that Lynne's string-laden, studio-sweetened sound was among the most distinctive on '70s radio -- even if his many detractors found his music cold and mechanized, to say nothing of shamelessly derivative of the Beatles -- it would seem that the notorious knob-twiddler would go crazy with modern technology. Instead, he just uses contemporary gadgets to add another layer of perfection to the sound of yesteryear. "Moment in Paradise," the only instant classic on the album, is a plaintive ballad with one of Lynne's most expressive vocals ever and a whole arsenal of dreamy sonic flavorings; it sounds like a great lost track from "Out of the Blue" or another '70s ELO disc.

"Alright" is a fun, hooky single that very nearly rocks, and "All She Wanted," "Stranger on a Quiet Street," and "Lonesome Lullaby" all are respectable examples of Lynne's unique mix of accessible midtempo pop and grandiose orchestration. In fact, most of the tracks go down easily because they're handsomely crafted "Sgt. Pepper" imitations, but even in his prime, Lynne never had the discipline required to write an entire album of grade-A material. "Zoom" sounds lush and pretty and melodic all the way through, but only rarely has flashes of brilliance. Even worse, it has a couple of pretenses to soulfulness: When Lynne counts off beats at the beginning of "Easy Money," on which he plays every instrument except drums, who the hell is he counting off to? "Zoom" reminds listeners of what a magician Lynne can be in the studio, but it also reminds them of why he's often been accused of sucking the life out of the records he produced for Tom Petty, George Harrison, and even his beloved Beatles.


(Metroland, Nov. 11, 1999)

Throughout the '80s, Eurythmics fans watched front woman Annie Lennox evolve from an enigmatic gender-bender with an ethereal voice to a boisterous shouter with enough bluesy power to duet effectively with Aretha Franklin and Al Green. Meanwhile, partner Dave Stewart faded into the background, even though his lush production and versatile playing on a number of instruments defined Eurythmics' sound. Because of the seeming inequity of the partnership -- and because Lennox made such a bold statement with her 1992 solo debut, the pop gem "Diva" -- a Eurythmics reunion seemed utterly pointless except as a way for Stewart to reenter the limelight.

The duo's new studio disc, "Peace," justifies the reunion by picking up where the band left off with their last effort, 1989's "We Too Are One." "Peace" is unapologetically accessible pop-rock with none of the endearing, space-age pretensions of early discs "Sweet Dreams" and "Touch"; instead, it's got the powerhouse guitars, lilting melodies, and outsized vocals of later albums "Be Yourself Tonight" and "Revenge." And, fitting its nature as an album by older, wiser musicians than those who rode to fame on the new wave, "Peace" is Eurythmics' mellowest effort yet.

The dominant tone is world-weary optimism, a seemingly contradictory state that Lennox occupies gracefully. In soaring numbers such as the single, "17 Again" -- which closes with lyrics from the band's signature hit, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" -- the duo wonder aloud how to make peace between idealism and today's cold, cynical, corporate environment. "17 Again," "I Saved the World Today," "Peace Is Just a Word," "Forever," and other cuts illuminate the thematic thrust of the album, revealing that "Peace" is both a weary observation and a fervent call to action.

Eurythmics don't let their agenda weigh them down, however. "17 Again" is transcendent midtempo pop; "Power to the Meek" grinds with chugging rock energy; "Peace Is Just a Word" is a haunting ballad that Lennox sings with a lump in her throat; and the moodiest song, "I've Tried Everything," has an intricate, mechanized quality recalling the band's early days. Although a couple of unfocused songs drag, the album is so tuneful, tasteful, and heartfelt that it's stronger than its weakest links.


Radney Foster
"See What You Want to See"
(Metroland, May 20, 1999)

Like Lone Justice's Maria McKee and the Blasters' Phil Alvin, Radney Foster is a veteran of Los Angeles' ultrahip mid-'80s roots-rock scene, and like McKee and Alvin, Foster has spent the '90s reinventing himself. He first made his mark as part of the ahead-of-their-time duo Foster & Lloyd, then scored minor hits including "Just Call Me Lonesome" during his tenure as a mainstream country artist. Now Foster has combined his various musical styles into a muscular, genre-defying sound with the momentum of rock, the conversational quality of country, and bold flavors that reflect the experimentation of the Austin scene.

On his latest disc, "See What You Want to See," Foster tackles songs with authority, passion, and fire. Whether he's slipping into a falsetto during the tumultuous chorus of "Angry Heart" or harmonizing with Austin folkie Abra Moore on the propulsive, warm, and irresistible "I'm In," Foster is comfortable and comforting. On love songs, particularly the shimmering "Raining on Sunday" (which features harmony vocals by Hootie and the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker), Foster affects an invitingly vulnerable singer-songwriter stance; on edgier cuts such as "You Were So Right," he proves that he's equally comfortable as a rock front man, maneuvering his supple tenor over a hard groove with sensual confidence.

Throughout the record, Foster shows off the skill for sharp lyrics that has made him a successful writer-for-hire (Collin Raye's current hit, "Anyone Else," is a Foster tune), dropping such pearls as "How'd a love so strong learn to fill a house with doubts?" He also identifies himself as a restless spirit by shifting from the quiet contemplation of "The Kiss" to the acidic regret of "You Were So Right." But what truly distinguishes this disc from Foster's previous solo efforts are the edgy, guitar-driven arrangements that give "See What You Want to See" an individuality he couldn't fully express during his Nashville period. By reaching back to his L.A. roots and reaching forward to the innovative sounds of Austin, Foster finds a zone in which his strong singing, intelligent lyrics, and smart musicianship aren't restricted by the parameters of a particular genre.


Ben Murray and Siobhan Quinn
"Two Rivers"
(Metroland, Feb. 11, 1999)

With grace, confidence, and sophistication, folk-pop duo Ben Murray and Siobhan Quinn have set a high benchmark for the year in local albums. Featuring the winning combination of Quinn's dazzling singing and Murray's double-threat guitar playing and vocals, the Saratoga Springs-based duo's first CD, "Two Rivers," is assured and lush. The duo's atmospheric duet version of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" flows seamlessly into Mikki Bakken's "Here on Earth," and the expressive folk-pop of Cheryl Wheeler's "Act of Nature" (the opening track) sits comfortably alongside the growling blues of Bill Carter's "The Richest One," which Quinn rips into with a ferocity that reflects her worship of blues queen Etta James. The eclectic batch of songs is cushioned by understated arrangements and loving production by Murray, Quinn, and Scott Petitio (who plays versatile bass and piano parts throughout the album).

Although Murray's vocals, particularly on Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain," are warm and full, it's Quinn's show-stopping contributions that make the biggest impression. Whether she's singing the traditional "Oh My Donald" a capella with captivatingly pure tone or diving into the bluesy lament of Naomi Neville's "It's Raining," Quinn shows off an ability to thrive in numerous styles. The only letdowns on the disc are a pair of culinary-themed numbers, "Frog Stew" and "My Last Meal," the latter of which at least boasts a punchy harmonica solo by Doug Johnson. The record ends on a high note, though, with a live recording of the raucous gospel number "Samson and Delilah," which features fierce slide work by Murray and Quinn belting out lines like she's testifying on a Sunday morning.


No Doubt
"Rock Steady"
(Metroland, Feb. 7, 2002)

No Doubt move onto the dance floor for their new disc, "Rock Steady." Whereas the band's last two albums have been powered by front woman Gwen Stefani's mall-bunny introspection and heartache, the new one is an unabashed party platter that even tries for some street cred by including flavors from hiphop and other urban genres. It's a step backward lyrically, and a lateral move musically. As if to underscore how deeply this album lacks a larger sense of purpose, a slew of superstar producers worked on the various tracks -- and while the band's ska/pop aesthetic is so fully formed that it gives the disc continuity, the different personalities of the producers create jarring shifts. The Rick Ocasek-helmed "Platinum Blonde Life," for instance, is loaded with Cars-style guitar figures, and the Prince-produced "Waiting Room" feels like one of His Purple Majesty's conjurings, complete with cooing harmony vocals by Prince. Still, Stefani and her cronies craft a couple of their signature radio-friendly confections even with all the extra cooks in the kitchen: "Don't Let Me Down" is a slinky, keyboard-driven mood piece; "Hey Baby" has a killer hook and an annoying rap segment; "In My Head" is a simple but perturbed snapshot of jealous anxiety. No Doubt don't advance their smooth songcraft one whit on "Rock Steady," but they happily flaunt their easy way with infectious grooves and accessible lyrical concerns.


Eddi Reader
"Angels and Electricity"
(Metroland, April 22, 1999)

Over the course of three solo albums, Scottish singer Eddi Reader and her various cohorts have made rapturously simple pop marked by delicate instrumentation, dry wit, and aching emotionalism. Reader recently resurfaced with what might be her strongest effort yet, the enchanting 13-song collection "Angels and Electricity," so it's an opportune time for old friends and new listeners alike to relish the magic and majesty of Reader's exquisite music.

The most winning aspect of Reader's style is her ability to make melancholy sound soothing. Each of her records has had at least one wrenching tune set to music with a twinge of brightness, and the "Angels and Electricity" number that fits the bill is "Follow My Tears," an imagery-laden groove about mourning and renewal. As a shuffling melody traipses along, Reader's high, shimmering voice floats through the instruments and harmonies with the grace of a windblown leaf breezing through a forest. Reader is similarly reflective on "Clear," the album's gorgeous closing number. Using spare language and a feather-light arrangement, Reader muses about staying in touch with what matters in a hectic world, in the process crafting a comforting anthem ("All that's sense is lost in static . . . Hush, there's time and plenty of it").

"Angels and Electricity" also has a handful of uptempo numbers that rock with the power of Reader's voice at full throttle -- "Prayer Wheel" spins with chimey energy, and during "California," Reader channels Chris Isaak with the otherworldly trills she puts onto the ends of verses. Yet what holds the record together ultimately isn't a sound but a sensibility. Reader's main collaborator on the disc, coproducer Boo Hewerdine -- whose recently released album of acoustified singer-songwriter soul, "Thanksgiving," is a low-key companion piece to "Angels and Electricity" -- shares with her a gift for setting love to music. Together, the pair expand on the beauty of Reader's previous albums and create music that's at once joyous, graceful, and catchy.


3rd Matinee
(The Source, June 22, 1994)

This new duo already has a handful of number-one singles. Half the duo is Patrick Leonard (keyboards), who scored his hits as Madonna's frequent cowriter and coproducer, and the other half is Richard Page (guitar and vocals), lead singer of the defunct Mr. Mister. Given its impressive pop pedigree, 3rd Matinee's debut album, "Meanwhile," is a surprisingly thoughtful and restrained effort. The duo's sound is keyboard-heavy pop, augmented by slick studio musicians but made sincere by Page's smooth, masculine tenor. The touching single "Freedom Road" plays an effective game shifting between glum verses and soaring choruses to paint a picture of workaday life versus inner adventure. "Holiday for Sweet Louise" is sanitized white-boy funk; "She Dreams" creeps along a melancholy groove; and "Ordinary Day" is an uptempo lift from the Lennon-McCartney style sheet. Quite a few great things happen as Page and Leonard tinker -- their lyric "I am falling from the family tree" is a brilliant contrivance -- but Leonard often steers the record off-course with an indulgent solo or too many flourishes where quietude would have been more effective. Accordingly, the strongest cuts, including "Family Tree" and "Echo Hill," are the simplest. "Meanwhile" turns into a terrific pop album when Leonard steps out of the spotlight and works his magic behind the mixing board while Page confidently occupies center stage, but the disc takes a few listens to sink in.


Wild Colonials
"Fruit of Life"
(May 25, 1994)

An eclectic new band from L.A.'s club scene, Wild Colonials inhabit a strange and exciting musical niche: First they're a three-piece lounge band with whiskey-voiced singer Angela McCluskey emoting out front, then they go big by integrating an extended cast of 10 additional musicians, and finally they become their own unique entity by adding a punk bass line or a bitter string part. Built around the contributions of McCluskey, guitarist Shark, and multi-instrumentalists Paul Cantelon and Scott Rowe, Wild Colonials have a deep bag of tricks with which to enact McCluskey's literate, sweeping songs. The Scottish signer leads the way with a broken-open, cry-until-someone-hears wail on her cover of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain"; hangs tough on "Spark" ("The spark has gone but the love lives on"); and rages on "Alice," which takes off with a cat-screech violin before exploding with bluster. McCluskey's equally convincing when she's not forlorn. "Rainbow" has an easy cowpoke jaunt; "Philadelphia Story" captures carry-me-away swooning with a high whistle, then interjects realism with lines like "this love has got a slant." And the whole band's capable of letting loose, as they do during the urgent "Mission." With its surprising diversity and depth, "Fruit of Life" has as much musical scope as any band can grasp, but it always comes back to dark -- though hope springs eternal in McCluskey's songs, it's eternally beaten back.


Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby,
David Lindley, Bonnie Raitt

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aug. 27, 1999
(Metroland, Sept. 2, 1999)

It was early in the evening, but the vibe was already loose and fun. As Shawn Colvin strummed a guitar while Jackson Browne sang the darkly shimmering "The Barricades of Heaven," Bruce Hornsby noodled on piano and Bonnie Raitt added her signature electric-slide licks. After the tune, Raitt told the crowd she was playing a vintage guitar that Browne bought in upstate New York. "Nothin' like some familiar wood," she quipped.

"She can't help herself," Browne added.

The salty exchange between two old friends said everything about why Friday night's SPAC show was so cool. All four headliners can still draw crowds on their own, so their collaborative tour isn't some greedy attempt to capitalize on boomer nostalgia. Instead, it's a road trip involving friends who enjoy each other's company and admire each other's music. Because their motivation is camaraderie, not cash, there's no pressure on them to put on "event" shows. During Friday's concert, only the second of the tour, the singers casually traded verses, decorated each other's songs with sweet instrumental flourishes, and shared the kind of loose, living-room interplay to which fans are rarely privy.

This easygoing quality didn't mean the show was haphazard, though -- everyone played their big hits, often in exciting new ways. When Raitt sang the gorgeous ballad "Dimming of the Day," it became a duet with Colvin; after Colvin played a riveting version of "Shotgun Down the Avalanche," Hornsby echoed the song's melody in a long, brilliant piano solo that segued into a powerful rip through "The Way It Is." Hornsby and Colvin, both known for off-the-cuff live shows, offered the most surprises, and an encore version of Hornsby's "Valley Road" -- in which the song was reinvented as a frenetic bluegrass number -- was illustrative of how the musicians both complemented and challenged each other.

Among the songs that were played straight, Browne's "The Pretender" and "Running on Empty" had their usual punch, and Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" was a show-stopper. In addition to providing several amusingly raunchy asides, Raitt added immeasurably to the evening's pacing; whenever Hornsby or Browne drifted into some ethereal head space during a long song, Raitt snapped the crowd back to attention with a kickass blues-rocker ("Love Sneakin' Up on You," "Thing Called Love," etc.).

The way that Colvin loitered onstage throughout the evening was the gig's most touching aspect. She seemed positively transported with happiness to be playing with these folks, so whether she was dancing on a riser with a member of the backing band or just sitting on an amp and watching Hornsby create some mind-blowing mojo on the piano, Colvin was as much a fan as she was a participant.

Raitt was similarly impressed whenever David Lindley, unofficially the tour's fifth headliner, tore through a solo on slide or steel. Lindley, who played in Browne's '70s band and then took off for an eclectic solo career, was the only player onstage who looked worse for wear; nonetheless, his playing was utterly gorgeous, particularly when he revisited the past by reprising the moody violin parts he added to Browne's classic records. Lindley opened the show with a short set of jammy rock, and during one of the encores, he and the other headliners traded verses on the rock chestnut "Mercury Blues."

On top of everything else, the show was generous in length, spanning from 7:30 PM to about 11. By the time the stars sat on stools for a luxuriant acoustic take on Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence" -- which Hornsby cowrote -- the show had long since ascended into singer-songwriter heaven.


Celine Dion
Pepsi Arena, Albany, N.Y., Dec. 1, 1998
(Metroland, Dec. 10, 1998)

Celine Dion packed more spectacle into the opening number of her concert last Tuesday at the Pepsi Arena than most people put into their finales. After a prerecorded overture, Dion appeared on a riser that ascended from the center of the stage, and she slid into her mellow ballad "Let's Talk About Love," which was exploded into an epic anthem by the rattling of kettle drums and the voices of more than a dozen local children, who joined Dion onstage to sing as a choir. Because she was elevated above the masses and waving her arms in grand gestures while celestial clouds were superimposed behind the video images of her that were projected throughout the arena, the clear implication was that Dion had been promoted from diva to deity.

Nearly every song in Dion's surprisingly short show was given the same grandiose treatment as "Let's Talk About Love." Backed by a studio-perfect five-piece band and three vocalists, the singer kicked and shimmied through uptempo numbers as if she were Ann-Margret, and treated ballads with the dramatic reverence of Barbra Streisand. Her powerful voice was the only true element of the show, but the emotional colorations in Dion's singing were constantly undercut by melodramatic staging. Dion also went easy on her voice during much of the show; she spoke several canned monologues and often let her backup singers fill out high notes she didn't want to hit. Yet when she did go for big notes -- particularly during the conclusion of "The Power of Love" -- she made criticism sound like sour grapes, because when Dion hits the right groove, her voice as much beauty as it does sheer size.

About 30 minutes into the show, the glitz got to be too much, though. Longhaired violinist Mark Wood -- whose attire of leather pants, a tight vest, and a frilly shirt made him look like an extra in a grade-Z vampire flick -- milked every possible ounce of drama from the shimmering "To Love You More" as he and Dion prowled around each other like a bull and a matador. Things got even more forced when Dion sang a cheesy duet with a prerecorded video of Streisand on "Tell Him."

Dion compensated for some her indulgences with a short, sweet acoustic interlude. She sang Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" with an uncharacteristic restraint that let people hear the softer colors in her voice, then did a harmless version of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" and a lush run through the Beatles' "Because," which turned into something special with the heavenly cascade of Dion, her three backup singers, and several musicians all singing together.

But then it was back to the glitz for a gigantic rendition of "Love Can Move Mountains" and a staggeringly garish medley of Bee Gees disco songs. After struggling through the vocals of "Stayin' Alive," Dion set down her microphone and boogied through all three minutes of "You Should Be Dancing," a moment best described as a terrific opportunity for members of the nearly sold-out audience to get refreshments. Dion capped the Bee Gees section of the show with the puffy ballad "Immortality," which she sang in tandem with prerecorded video of the Brothers Gibb.

Although it seemed Dion had used every showbiz trick in the book during her main set, she'd saved a few for the encore. After several clips from "Titanic" were projected onto the video screens -- the number of screams that erupted after Leonardo DiCaprio's face appeared said a lot about the composition of the audience -- Dion's two female backup singers walked onto the stage wearing capes (!) while one of them played the intro to "My Heart Will Go On" on a recorder. Dion rose through the middle of the stage in a gorgeous red gown, and during the song's thunderous finale, she ran to a replica of the "Titanic" bow affixed to the front of her heart-shaped stage and sang the last verse and chorus while a wind machine created the billowing-hair effect familiar from the song's video.

The whole affair concluded with Dion heading backstage through the audience and clasping fans' hands like a triumphant boxer after a title fight. The padded performance lasted less than 90 minutes, but thanks to the overwhelming grandeur of Dion's performance, her short show felt like an epic -- an epic that just happened to include some terrific singing.


Don Henley
Pepsi Arena, Albany, N.Y., Aug. 23, 2000
(Metroland, Aug. 31, 2000)

As the advertised showtime came and went -- and as it became clear that only a few thousand people had bought tickets to Don Henley's Pepsi Arena gig -- the natives who filled about one third of the arena grew restless. One longtime fan sitting in the lower deck killed time by discussing Henley's latest disc, "Inside Job," with his date: "My first reaction when I heard it was 'What's all this happy crap?' I like the cynical stuff." Small crowd, late start, fans jonesing for oldies -- all those elements combined in a foreboding mood that filled the air till the man whom Mojo Nixon once described as a "poet of despair" took the stage 40 minutes late.

Surprisingly, the acid-tongued Henley didn't pick up on the mood -- or get discouraged by the meager turnout. Instead, he and his band worked their asses off, brewing letter-perfect versions of Henley solo hits, Eagles classics, and cuts from "Inside Job" for nearly two and a half hours. Even more surprisingly, the front man ditched the dour-social-critic persona of years past and blossomed as a funny, gracious host. "Thanks for coming out, particularly in light of the fact that 'Survivor' is on," he said after his second tune. "Just a another step in the fall of the culture. Speaking of that, I've got a new album out. . ."

With his fluid, sandpaper voice in gorgeous form, Henley devoted the first stretch of the show to '80s radio favorites ("Dirty Laundry," "Sunset Grill," "The Boys of Summer") and new tracks, which ranged from venomous ("Workin' It") to comic ("They're Not Here, They're Not Coming"). Three backup singers and seven musicians, abetted by a handful of prerecorded samples, re-created every nuance of Henley's meticulous recordings while the man himself occasionally strapped on a guitar. The spot-on playing sometimes felt lifeless, but as the evening wore on, it became clear that the focus was on Henley's peerless wordplay rather than on his sweeping melodies.

Number after number featured quotable writing -- in "Workin' It," Henley sang "Welcome to the U.S.A./ We're partyin' fools in the autumn of our heyday"; a "New York Minute" line referred to "the groaning city in the gathering dark." The way that these words stood out didn't detract from the infectious grooves of tunes such as "Nobody Else in the World but You," but it explained Henley's restrained style: His music uses hooks to make people pay attention to ideas.

Still, it was downright cathartic when, just before the end of the main set, Henley and crew fired up the first Eagles cut of the night, "Life in the Fast Lane." The song's Joe Walsh-penned guitar riff made the crowd explode with energy, and when "Fast Lane" was followed by the once-in-a-lifetime perfection of Henley's best song, "The Heart of the Matter," it was a killer one-two punch.

Suggesting that he was affected by the late-blooming but boisterous response of the intimate crowd, Henley played nearly an hour of encores, spanning the crowd-pleasing ("The Long Run" and a tongue-in-cheek ska reworking of "Hotel California") to the fierce ("I Will Not Go Quietly," introduced as the show's "theme song"). The encore numbers were an embarrassment of riches, but the towering standout was the Eagles ballad "Wasted Time," because the minimal arrangement gave fans their best opportunity to hear the texture and flexibility of Henley's voice.

After a quick band introduction, Henley prefaced the evening's final number with touching courtesy: "I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the past 30 years. It's been a great ride, and it's not quite over." Because he finished that spiel with his current single, the inspired and inspiring "My Thanksgiving," he made it clear that as long as people show up to hear what he has to say, he's in this game for the long run.


The Mavericks
Berkshire Performing Arts Center, Lenox, Mass., July 30, 1998
(Metroland, August 6, 1998)

The Mavericks' blistering show at the National Music Center last week was powered by the comfortable confidence of a band in their prime. Although the Miami-based group are still stuck in the quagmire of cult fame, singer-songwriter Raul Malo and his merry men have set a performance level so high that one of their off nights could be the best night a lesser band ever had. Through a blend of impeccable musicianship and goofy charm, the group got about 1,000 staid fans so charged that half the audience left their seats and crowded the stage for the last 30 minutes of the show.

Currently stumping for their latest album of Nashville-meets-Vegas party music, "Trampoline," the quartet, abetted by two sidemen and a four-piece horn section, indulged themselves with a kitschy set in which straight-faced covers of "It's Not Unusual" and "Moon River" coexisted with the band's hits "O What a Crying Shame" and "All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down." The show was so loose that when Malo stopped "From Hell to Paradise" halfway through the song to clear his throat, then ripped back into the tune, the band and the audience fell back into the groove instantaneously.

Although Malo is the band's flashiest member because of the comparisons his exquisite voice draws to Roy Orbison's timeless vocals, every musician onstage made indelible contributions, whether it was the freight-train rhythms of bassist Robert Reynolds and drummer Paul Deakin or the stinging leads of guitarist Nick Kane. Kane's bluesy trills on "Tell Me Why" swam around Malo's heartbroken wail while the horn section crept in with silky counterpoints; pianist Jimmy Dale McFadden laid down ferocious, Jerry Lee Lewis-style solos on tunes like "Bottle Let Me Down."

After the band energized the audience for about 40 minutes, Malo brought the room to a hush with a pair of solo acoustic numbers. "Fool Number One" was sweet and simple, and "Moon River" gave the tender nuances in Malo's voice a melodic cushion. He kept the mood going when the band returned for "Blue Moon," and the musicians laid down gentle backings for Malo's soulful crooning. The song teetered near camp when Malo cooed a spoken-word bridge in Spanish like some Latin lover, then burst his own bubble by closing the bridge with "Yo quiero Taco Bell!" Offhand gags like that one kept the atmosphere light throughout the show, and the Mavericks' take-no-prisoners energy made 90 minutes fly by in an intoxicating rush.


Moby, Hybrid
Alumni Recreation Center, Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y., Oct. 27, 2000
(Metroland, Nov. 2, 2000)

Until last Friday night, I was an electronica virgin. While I had a passing familiarity with the genre, I headed to Siena College for Moby's show curious to hear if music comprising bleeps, loops, and computer noises could hold my attention for an entire concert's length -- which seemed particularly unlikely, considering that I don't dance.

When a trio called Hybrid, featuring two DJs and a drummer, took the stage, it sounded like the evening was going to be a long haul. Hybrid lumbered through one thumping, formless, gazillion-beats-per-minute tsunami after another, with each tune differing from the preceding only because of a virtually imperceptible key or tempo change. The more than 2,000 kids and adults crammed into the gymnasium of Siena's Alumni Recreation Center seemed to dig the noise Hybrid was making, however, so I began to fear that my problem wouldn't be boredom, but a failure to comprehend what electronica is all about.

So imagine my surprise when, almost two hours after I got to Siena, Moby and his band took the stage and kicked my ass for nearly 120 minutes. The most dramatic difference between the headliner's set and the opener's dull effort was that Moby integrates rock-star energy and charisma into his music, grounding his synthesized sounds and prerecorded patterns with such accessible flavors as electric-guitar hooks and soulful vocals.

Lean, bald, and as energetic as a squirrel darting around a backyard to find acorns, Moby worked the stage in peerless fashion, switching frequently from acoustic guitar to electric guitar to bongos to keyboards, and sometimes just bouncing in place as if he was about to explode with joy. As he and his five-piece band re-created songs from "Play" and Moby's other discs -- abetted by plenty of prerecorded parts, but not so many that the music didn't feel like it was being conjured on the spot -- the gang moved comfortably from pulsating dance-floor grooves to all-out rock songs to intimate, Everything But the Girl-style mood pieces.

Performing with a frenetic, large-scale light show, Moby and his bandmates maintained mind-blowing energy that, for the most part, was returned in kind by the crowd. The vibe changed slightly from song to song; the contemplative midtempo tune "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad," for instance, sparked a different kind of movement than Moby's turgid take on the "James Bond Theme" or his balls-out run through the signature "Play" track, "Bodyrock." The "Play" cuts stood out from the rest of the set because of the dramatic interplay between Moby's intricate soundscapes and the brassy vocals of backup singer Diane Charlemagne.

The only moment when the crowd seemed really out of step with Moby was when he sang a punkified cover of Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." The tune had some of the most focused power of the evening, but it fell on plenty of deaf ears because folks had come to Siena to rave, not to rage.

Seen from the back of the room, the stage area formed the center of a surreal tableau, particularly when the strobes were thrown on; as lights flickered and whirled in step with the music, the silhouetted shapes of crowd-surfing concertgoers formed an uneven horizon across which Moby's brightly lit form bounced.

Holding the whole spectacle together was Moby, who was part captivating rock star, part anonymous DJ, and part raver. He often followed songs by saying "Thank you" several times, as if repetition was the only way to express his boundless gratitude, and the sincere generosity of his persona echoed the heartfelt spirit that moved him to meld soulful blues and "soulless" electronica. Moby was in a good place on Friday night, and everyone in attendance got a contact high off his effervescent mood.


Britney Spears, O-Town
Pepsi Arena, Albany, N.Y., Dec. 3, 2001
(Metroland, Dec. 6, 2001)

It's fitting that Britney Spears' recent HBO concert was broadcast from Las Vegas, because the singer's mix of overwrought pop music and homogenized sexiness resembles nothing so much as the wink-wink naughtiness of a Sin City showgirl extravaganza. The former teen queen -- she turned 20 on Sunday -- doesn't present concerts so much as she presents pageants, with costumes, pyrotechnics, and, of course, her physique given greater prominence than her music.

On Monday, the singer's latest tour/circus hit the Pepsi Arena in tandem with the release of her third album, "Britney," the soft sales of which are evidence that the teen-pop phenomenon is waning. Further evidence was provided by the fact that the area was only two-thirds full. Yet the folks who did show up -- mostly young girls and their adult chaperones -- responded rabidly to every one of the star's utterances and undulations.

The performance, which lasted less than 90 minutes, was somehow both sanitized and sleazy. Copping moves and sounds from Madonna and Janet Jackson, Spears led a five-piece band and about seven dancers through one set piece after another, with each song providing the backdrop for an assault of special effects and grinding dance moves. The singer regularly escaped into the bowels of the stage for costume changes, and on several occasions she simply added or removed clothing onstage. The lasciviousness of her disrobing was so blunt that at one point she asked the crowd "Is it hot in here?" before stripping down to a push-up bra and a handkerchief that some might generously describe as a miniskirt. Whereas Madonna and Jackson use sex to communicate messages of empowerment, Spears mostly uses sex to communicate a message of sex.

Or something like sex, anyway. The show had a recurring theme of Spears trying to escape from metaphorical cages -- she was tied to a giant spinning rack, caught in a net, tucked inside a music box, and so on -- and her lyrics hammered the idea that she's not a little girl anymore, dammit, so stop treating her like one. Yet in the show's most truthful moment, Spears sang her current hit "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," which reflected that she's both a youngster playing dress-up and a sex symbol who gropes herself onstage.

The night was filled with mixed messages of this sort, as Spears' personae ran the gamut from the angelic music-box dancer of "Lucky" to the sweaty lap dancer of "I'm a Slave 4 U." The show's final moment -- in which Spears hung in midair while dressed in a wet T-shirt and while her dancers simulated an orgy on a platform suspended over the audience -- seemed to leave little question about which of these personae is winning the battle for dominance of the singer's public identity.

Openers O-Town, the boy band built from scratch for the TV series "Making the Band," laid down about an hour of ordinary white-boy R&B, punctuating songs with energetic dancing, faux soulfulness, and shout-outs to the countless girls who screamed themselves hoarse through the set. Like the headliner, they mixed sugar and spice, so their closer "All or Nothing" was both a harmony-drenched power ballad and a heartfelt request for a girlfriend to put out.


Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Pepsi Arena, Albany, N.Y., Nov. 21, 1999
(Metroland, Nov. 24, 1999)


It was barely an hour into Bruce Springsteen's epic Pepsi Arena show on Sunday, but when he cued the E Street Band to shift from "Youngstown" to "Murder Incorporated" with his signature countdown, the energy level in the room was higher than it ever gets at most concerts. For nearly three hours, the Boss and his legendary backing band -- nearing the end of their first tour in more than a decade -- blasted through no-frills rock & roll so earnest and energized that concertgoers were reminded why cocky young musicians think they can change the world.

Springsteen commanded the stage with his famous take-no-prisoners fervor, belting out vocals until the veins in his neck seemed ready to burst, parading from one end of the stage to the other until he was drenched in sweat, and goading the audience again and again until he seemed ready to pass out. His exertions would have been impressive from a man half his age, yet they rarely seemed contrived or forced. Clearly eager to prove that he's as dynamic an entertainer as he was 24 years ago, when "Born to Run" made critics describe him as a rock & roll messiah, Springsteen reclaimed his youthful energy while his seasoned compatriots laid down the booming sound they honed to perfection many years ago.

Although sax man Clarence Clemons was inarguably the audience favorite -- the sellout crowd of approximately 16,000 people cheered every Clemons solo as if he were a football star scoring a touchdown -- it was the synergy of the nine musicians onstage that was most impressive. From the locomotive rhythm section of drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent to the twin guitars of Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt, the E Street Band pumped boundless electricity into Springsteen's songs, creating the foundation on which he worked his crowd-pleasing magic. Several of the players took brief moments in the spotlight, but none eclipsed the magic created by the band's Herculean front man.

Springsteen's standout moments were numerous: He accentuated an especially soulful version of "The River" with eerie harmonica parts and haunting falsetto trills, and ignited "Because the Night" with the best ragged electric-guitar work this side of a Neil Young show. He also threw a captivating curve ball by performing "Born in the U.S.A." not as an electrified rant but as a creepy solo number powered by slippery acoustic slide-guitar figures.

Throughout the evening, Springsteen worked so hard that his intensity was contagious. During several numbers, he prowled the stage with his guitar slung behind his back like an archer's quiver; more often, he parked himself at the center-stage mike stand and conjured vocals and guitar parts with such conviction that his face was as gnarled as a fist. These fierce moments were complemented by sweet interaction with Van Zandt, a surprisingly low-key figure who mostly played rhythm parts, and Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, who occasionally drifted to center stage to harmonize with her husband.

Even without several of his most rousing numbers -- "Rosalita," "Hungry Heart," and "Glory Days" were not performed -- the set list was built to satisfy. Focusing primarily on fan-favorite album cuts ("Ties That Bind," "Two Hearts," "Mansion on the Hill") and worthy but lesser-known songs ("Youngstown," "Light of Day," "Bobby Jean"), Springsteen touched on incendiary arena rock, angst-ridden folk, and pure pop. The power and consistency was remarkable, and only the mannered title track from "The Ghost of Tom Joad" fell flat.

The meshing of Springsteen's vocals and guitar parts with the contributions of his backing musicians was alchemical. Lofgren and organist Danny Federici proved the most versatile members of the E Street Band, because Lofgren added flavorful steel-guitar parts to countrified numbers and Federici matched him by switching to accordion on a handful of songs. Weinberg was the anchor of the band, however, and it was a pleasure to see the utterly professional manner in which he brewed a robust sound with a stripped-down kit and no theatrics. His impressive work ethic was indicative of the no-nonsense quality the players brought to the show.

And yet their leader made time for nonsense, especially during the long instrumental part that bridged the beginning and ending of "10th Avenue Freeze-Out." As his backing musicians worked the song's groove, Springsteen leapt onto Roy Bittan's piano and did a comedic striptease, pulling off his soaked vest and shirt to reveal a gray T-shirt. While doing so, he goaded the audience into applauding his every move, which wasn't really necessary; the fans crammed into every visible seat cheered with something approaching religious reverie from the time the Boss walked onstage to the moment he left.

By the time Springsteen playfully started his first encore by asking the audience if it was "ready to rumble," he had already laid down a punishing set filled with everything from goofy escapism to moving emotion. So when he ran through encore numbers including "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," and "If I Should Fall Behind" -- the latter sung by Springsteen, Clemons, Van Zandt, Lofgren, and Scialfa -- it was almost too much of a good thing. But when an exhausted Springsteen and his accomplices took their final bow, the genius of his more-is-more ethos became clear: By giving fans everything he had, he gave them everything they wanted.

U2, PJ Harvey
Pepsi Arena, Albany, N.Y., June 2, 2001
(Metroland, June 7, 2001)

Not many rock stars have the balls to give concert audiences homework, but Bono did just that during U2's triumphant Pepsi Arena show on Saturday. At the close of the main set, U2 stripped "Pride (In the Name of Love)" down to a whispery vamp, and then the singer entreated fans to solicit Congressional assistance for AIDS victims in Africa. And when the band returned to the stage for their first encore, a video clip of Charlton Heston crowing about how guns don't kill people was followed by the ferocious "Bullet the Blue Sky," the anti-violence rage of which undercut Heston's punditry. Bono came to Albany to advance a handful of personal crusades, and the fans who packed the arena embraced nearly every word that issued from his bully pulpit. Twenty years after his band first stormed onto America's shores, Bono still believes that rock music can change the world. His optimism defined the transcendent mood of the evening.

Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have a lot to prove these days. After confronting the diminishing returns of their techno-and-irony-drenched discs of the 1990s, U2 roared back to form on last year's "All That You Can't Leave Behind," which features the fiery anthems of yesteryear without the self-importance that makes some U2 music stifling. On their current world tour, the band are seeking the middle ground between the ultra-serious showmanship that made them famous and the relaxed attitude that has humanized them.

At the Pepsi, the group found just the right groove and stayed in it for all of their two-hour onslaught. Songs were played with Herculean energy and heroic fervor, but the show had several playful moments and personal asides. Bono sparked overwhelming applause by twice referring to the group's storied 1981 shows at defunct Capital Region venue J.B. Scott's, and seemed genuine when he thanked the audience for shaking him out of a bad mood, which apparently was prompted by the illness that also put some frogginess into his voice.

The music ranged from entertaining to enthralling. Even slight numbers, such as a garage-band version of "Desire" that included snippets of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and Them's "Gloria," rang with the Edge's piercing guitar atmospherics and the rhythm section's martial beats. Several numbers from the new disc, notably the soaring "Beautiful Day" and the emotional "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," were even more impassioned than they are on record, perhaps because the extra rasp in Bono's voice made his delivery more spontaneous and raw.

The enthralling stuff included at least half a dozen songs with the near-religious fervor for which U2 are legendary. "I Will Follow," the oldest number on the set list, recaptured the feverish intensity of the band's early recordings; "Sunday Bloody Sunday," complete with massive sing-alongs aided by house lights, was joyful, tragic, and epic all at once; and the set-closing run through "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" was pure transcendence. When U2 surge forward with their full strength, as they did during all of these numbers, the Edge's magical guitarscapes, Bono's aching vocals, and the rhythm section's relentless charges converge into pure, uncaged emotion. The outrage and spirituality woven into these numbers made the feeling penetrate even deeper.

A couple of smaller moments stood out amid the grandeur. About halfway through the main set, Bono and the Edge trekked across the heart-shaped runway that surrounded the stage, then positioned themselves in the middle of the arena for an acoustic version of "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" that glowed with vulnerability. And after the evening's penultimate number, the mesmerizing "One," Bono sang a few solo-acoustic lines of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody." The need he invested in the line "God speed your love to me" seemed real, and added to the sensation that the show was something other than just a tour date. Whether it was actual or contrived, the impression that Bono connected with the Albany crowd on a meaningful level permeated the room, and underlined the message of love that flows through his band's best music.

PJ Harvey's opening set was as bitter as U2's show was sweet. The five-piece band, named after edgy front woman Polly Jean Harvey, played 45 harrowing minutes of distortion-driven wails and punky assaults. A great deal of the band's aggressive, no-bullshit set was culled from their latest disc, "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea," but a pair of tracks from their sophomore disc, "Dry," were especially captivating. "Man-Sized," played on bass, drums, and electric guitar, was alternately yelping and crushing, and "Legs" (which Harvey played solo on electric guitar) was naked, erotic, scary, and explosive. While a few devoted fans cheered the darkling chanteuse's every move, the sold-out arena was only about three-quarters full at the height of PJ Harvey's set. The iconoclastic front woman deserves immense credit for sticking to her guns in front of an audience that seemed politely interested at best.


Brian Wilson
Calvin Theatre, Northampton, Mass., June 15, 1999
(Metroland, June 24, 1999)

Everyone in the audience at Brian Wilson's overwhelming show on June 15 probably walked away with a moment that they found particularly affecting, but for me it was seeing Wilson sing "God Only Knows." The show -- among the few solo dates that the mastermind behind the Beach Boys has ever played -- was attended by incredibly ardent fans, many of whom cheered upon hearing the first notes of obscure songs, and all of whom participated in frequent, loving ovations. And because those in attendance seemed so keenly aware of Wilson's sad life story, the level of emotional connection between fans and music was unusually high.

So when the shy Wilson, seated at an electronic keyboard (which he didn't appear to be playing), began singing the heartbreaking lyrics of "God Only Knows," the moment had several poignant undertones. There was the way Wilson's once malleable voice was strangled by years of drug abuse; the emptiness left by the death last year of Wilson's brother Carl, whose trademark was the angelic vocal on the original recording of "God Only Knows"; and finally there was the majesty of watching a man whose genius for songwriting and arranging is virtually unmatched. Brian Wilson is one of the truly great men of rock, but drugs, emotional problems, and a paralyzing desire to outdo his own incredible accomplishments made Wilson lose nearly two decades of his life. Wilson's show at the Calvin Theatre was proof that he's back on his feet, but it was also proof that Wilson is a shadow of his former self.

Fronting an incredibly versatile 11-piece band and appearing in support of his most recent solo album, last year's "Imagination," Wilson looked healthy but -- to put it frankly -- sedated. Although his stage presence has always been described as subdued, the limp way that Wilson shuffled between the backstage area and his keyboard --combined with how rarely he smiled or acknowledged the intense adulation he was receiving -- was alarming. That said, Wilson seemed deeply connected to his music from the moment he first walked onstage and gave a brief wave to the audience before starting the first number. He contributed to the evening's intricate vocal harmonies, but he left high notes to other singers. It was only on the wrenching ballads "God Only Knows" and "Caroline No" that Wilson sounded as lively as he did three decades ago.

The set list for the performance included a couple of inferior oldies, and fans seemed merely tolerant of cuts from "Imagination," including the elegiac "Lay Down Burden." But Wilson gave everyone what they wanted by digging deep into the Beach Boys' marvelous catalogue -- "Don't Worry Baby" was punctuated with a booming bass drum that grounded the shimmering melody, the gorgeous "In My Room" was done a cappella except for delicate guitar backup, and rave-ups such as "Do It Again," "Surfin' U.S.A." and "I Get Around" were irresistible.

When Wilson led his band through some of his most challenging compositions, the air became charged with the knowledge that we were witnessing something rare. Led by keening theremin parts, the intricate arrangement of "Good Vibrations" was re-created perfectly and extended to include a psychedelic vamp; the band's go-for-broke versions of the instrumentals "Let's Go Away for Awhile" and "Pet Sounds" were absolutely transporting. Just watching a silhouetted Wilson nod his head along with the beats of these tunes was chilling, as if we were traveling to the otherworldly head space in which Wilson composed these weirdly beautiful pieces.

The generous show, which began with a short video documentary about Wilson's life, spanned about two and a half hours, and seeing Wilson display the stamina necessary for such a performance was heartening. It was also a thrill to share in Wilson's joy when he paid tribute to his idol, producer Phil Spector, by performing a cover of the Ronettes' classic single "Be My Baby," complete with thunderclap drums and castanets. So when Wilson finally got around to closing the show with "Love and Mercy" -- a beautiful cut from his 1988 album "Brian Wilson" -- the audience was stoked, sated, and moved. Wilson waved, gave a sight grimace that seemed to acknowledge the happiness evident on virtually every face in the room, and slumped off to the wings. For more than two hours, he invited us into his magic, tragic world, and it was a visit none of us are likely to soon forget.


Trisha Yearwood, Randy Scruggs
Proctor's Theatre, Schenectady, N.Y., Aug. 16, 2000
(Metroland, Aug. 24, 2000)

A few lines shy of concluding "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)," Trisha Yearwood choked on a note and coughed, then quickly recovered to send the midtempo number home. Because the song was only the second of her Proctor's Theatre set on Aug. 16, she took a moment to explain herself. "In these old theaters, sometimes the dust is as old as the curtains," she said. "So I may be drinking a lot of tea tonight." The smooth way that Yearwood made light of the situation was indicative of her flawless stage presence. A powerhouse singer whose country music throbs with irresistible pop hooks, Yearwood was a vision of onstage warmth and ease. While she never broke out of her vocal comfort zone, she didn't really need to -- the Georgia-born charmer relied on her witty demeanor as much as her famous pipes to win over the sizable crowd.

Backed by a well-honed five-piece band, Yearwood worked an amiable groove for 90 minutes, bouncing from the insistent need of "Where Are You Now?" to the brassy attitude of "Everybody Knows" to the gentle ache of "Some Days Are Better Than Others." Yearwood, who doesn't write her own material, played a collection of songs that recalled the radio-friendly vibe of Linda Ronstadt's '70s oeuvre, and showcased an instrument as delicate and powerful as her musical hero's. Thick and sweet, but low enough to evade chirpiness, Yearwood's voice boomed on ditties and exploded on ballads.

During the set's strongest one-two punch, the singer comfortably shifted from the slow-blues growling of "Wrong Side of Memphis" to the anthemic balladeering of "Real Life Woman." The former number has evolved from its original arrangement into something slinky, brooding, and nocturnal, so it was a treat to hear Yearwood break from her usual pop idiom and stroll through a different genre; the latter was done straight, but has such a pleasing, harmony-driven feel that it epitomized how well Yearwood fits her chosen style.

Following her gorgeous first encore, "On a Bus to St. Cloud," Yearwood indulged herself in two pop excursions -- a straight, R&B-flavored reading of "Midnight Train to Georgia" and a lush version of "Over the Rainbow." The singer, whose sense of humor was a major element of the evening's entertainment, clearly reveled in the novelty of walking in Gladys Knight's shoes for several minutes, and her affection for the simple wishfulness of "Rainbow" was contagious. The only false note during Yearwood's gigantic run through the Judy Garland standard was that keyboardist Steve Cox played intrusively gooey synthesizer lines instead of gentle piano notes.

Opener Randy Scruggs, the guitar-slinging son of bluegrass titan Earl Scruggs, dazzled with a mix of fleet-fingered instrumentals and warm vocals. During his solo acoustic performance, he recalled Gordon Lightfoot with his sincere, reserved take on the engaging "I Wanna Be Loved Back" and the folk chestnut "City of New Orleans." His set caught fire whenever he stopped singing, though: During the bluegrass number "Lonesome Reuben," he spectacularly simulated the sounds of a banjo (by using two finger picks) and a dobro (by slipping on a slide, mid-song, without missing a note). Scruggs' lightning-fast, laser-focused playing was as expressive and melodic as Yearwood's singing.


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