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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Reba McEntire Throws Too Much Light on Matters


COSTA MESA — If the stars in hillbilly heaven were looking down on thewestern United States Friday night, they might have found the brightest glow shining not from the usual spot, Las Vegas, but from the Pacific Amphitheatre. During her 1-hour, 25-minute set, Reba McEntire used enough lights, futuristic video technology and plain old glitter to dwarf even the glitz capital of the nation. As one stunning effect followed another, the crowd was kept amazed and entertained.

Something seemed slightly amiss, though, when McEntire received the largest ovations of the evening for a costume change (into the slinky black- and red-sequined gown she wore during "Fancy") and for a video effect (an image of Vince Gill was projected onto the stage during her performance of their hit duet "The Heart Won't Lie") rather than for her singing.

The razzle-dazzle may have wowed the audience, but it tended to obscure the starkly emotional singing that has made McEntire the most popular female entertainer in country music. She opened the show with her heart-wrenching ballad "For My Broken Heart," but she was decked in a feather headdress that made her look like a character from "La Cage aux Folles." "He Wants to Get Married," another of the most touching numbers on her list, was rendered almost incomprehensible when she sang it on an elaborate church stage set more appropriate to a gospel extravaganza than a simple song of unrequited love.

It is a shame that she placed pizazz over substance, because her singing was better than ever. Although the wall of sound created by her eight-piece band and her trio of backup singers sometimes took the emotional edge off her voice, she was able to make even melodramatic lyrics seem personal and convincing.

In contrast to the excess of her stage set, she showed judicious restraint in her vocals. In some of her past performances she has used her entire arsenal of trills and quavers on every number, but this time she concentrated on communicating the meaning of the lyrics rather than on dazzling the audience with showy vocal acrobatics. With such poignant ballads as "Rumor Has It" and "The Greatest Man I Never Knew," McEntire was able to reach out beyond all the show biz to touch the hearts of her listeners, one human being to another.

Even though they were not as emotionally compelling, the performances that utilized videos were visually impressive. The familiar hit videos of "Fancy," "Take It Back," and "Is There Life Out There," which have been shown endlessly on TNN, were intercut so expertly with McEntire's live performances that it was hard to tell where the video ended and the real concert began. Has the television generation become so jaded that we now prefer the image to the real thing?

In any case, because her 17-song set was geared for action and entertainment rather than emotion, McEntire emphasized such upbeat numbers as "Walk On," "Take It Back" and "Waiting for the Deal to Go Down" at the expense of some of her trademark ballads. She sang nothing from her traditional country period of the mid-'80s. The oldest song she did was 1986's "Whoever's in New England."

McEntire's set may have been the epitome of high-tech glamour, but by selecting determinedly blue-collar honky-tonkers Brooks & Dunn as her opening act, she showed that she still has friends in low places. "Who would have thought a babe would drag us up the ladder of success," Kix Brooks mused, a characteristically lowbrow way of thanking McEntire for boosting their career.

The Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of country, the hyperactive Brooks and his laconic partner Ronnie Dunn slammed out 45 minutes of hard-hitting honky-tonk dance music. The 11-song set started with a series of hits from their double platinum debut album "Brand New Man," lagged a little in the middle when they introduced unfamiliar material from their new album "Hard Workin' Man" but finished with a flourish as Brooks & Dunn got the crowd to its feet with their immensely popular "Boot Scootin' Boogie."

The first act on the program, Matthews, Wright and King, failed to raise much interest from a crowd busy filing into the theater and finding seats. The trio opened with "The Power of Love" from its debut album and spent the remainder of its 25-minute set introducing material from its upcoming album "Dreamseeker." Raymond Matthews' lead vocals were impressive and the harmonies from Woody Wright and Tony King were sympathetic.

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