SANTA ANA — A lion is a splendid, commanding creature in any setting,but it is so much more so when seen running free than when caged at a circus and made to jump through all those hoops.
It isn't just the 35 No. 1 hits that made Tammy Wynette the Queen of Country Music, but there is indeed something of a lioness spirit about her, which has enabled her to land on her feet after enduring more than her share of hardships. And the 48-year-old Mississippian has been able to roar back with a power and emotion to make a goodly share of her hits resonate with the aches and joys of being alive.
There were songs in Wynette's early show performance Monday evening at the Crazy Horse Steak House, where her singing had that commanding presence, but just as often she seemed to be pacing in a pretty constricting arena and leaping through some overly familiar musical hoops.
Much of her hourlong performance (50 minutes if you subtract the time turned over to her band and singers while she changed costumes) had a rote, slick feeling to it, particularly a medley of her early hits "Apartment 9," "I Don't Wanna Play House," "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad, "I Still Believe in Fairy Tales," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Singing My Song."
Such medleys, particularly when they've been a part of a performer's show as long as this one has, are usually just ways for an artist to dispatch with songs she's thoroughly sick of but feels obligated to do for her audience.
The chief problem with this--especially in a form of music grounded in emotional honesty--is the singer's disinterest invariably shows. If a song isn't worth doing in its entirety--and having the whole enchilada can be especially important in country, where the songs are so often story songs--then it isn't worth doing at all. (Wynette certainly had time to complete them: Most of her fans, one suspects, would rather she sing than leave the stage for several minutes to change spangly, sequined costumes.)
But that medley and certain other songs (Is there a federal statute or something requiring all Crazy Horse acts to play "Rocky Top"?) were delivered with such an autopilot detachment that Wynette might as well have hired Rob and Flav to go out and lip-sync them for her.
Wynette's nine band members and backing singers seemed like nice, competent folks, but their heavy-handed arrangements, particularly the drumming, sometimes ran roughshod over her vocals (possibly partly the fault of the sound mix). And, after you've seen it a couple of times, the band's scripted high jinks seem like the audio-animatronic repetition of Disneyland's Bear Country Jamboree.
None of these shortcomings would be particularly important if Wynette weren't such a tremendous talent. There were some songs in the performance that clearly mattered to her, and there was a night-and-day difference between those and the other fare.
The ache that launched her hits was all there on the gospel number "Softly and Tenderly," dedicated to her terminally ill mother. Wynette's longtime favorite song, "Til I Can Make It on My Own" continued to receive special treatment, her voice illuminating its tale of how the connection of hearts of a relationship don't necessarily end when it does.
Her encore of the 19-year-old ballad "Until I Get It Right" (dedicated to her daughter in the audience, who was celebrating her 27th birthday) had a Patsy Cline-like belted yearning to it. And Wynette's signature "Stand by Your Man"--which she must have sung more than 5,000 times by now--remarkably was still delivered with the strength and idealism that initially elevated it.
Most encouraging, the two songs performed from Wynette's current "Heart Over Mind" album both were excellent. Those were "Let's Call It a Day" and "What Goes With Blue." With a sting of reality to it, the latter song could well be one she'll still be singing with passion for years to come. From the point of view of a woman faced with going out alone after a relationship ends, Wynette plaintively sang: "How do I make myself look younger? / How do I satisfy this hunger? / But most of all I wonder / What goes with blue?"