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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : McEntire's Vocals Rise Above Show-Biz Schmaltz


IRVINE — Reba McEntire is country music's most frustrating underachiever.

She's one of its most popular female acts--with a growing cache of Grammys and country awards, gold and platinum records, an occasional film or television role and a new autobiography. But the uncommon vocal ability she demonstrated on Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre couldn't overcome her eagerness to please.

Her days as a "new traditionalist" are nearly a decade behind McEntire now, as she's turned increasingly to syrupy tear-jerkers and other mainstream formulas, apparently mistaking a crossover toward pop with musical growth.

The Oklahoma-born singer (who was also scheduled to play the Universal Amphitheatre on Saturday and Sunday) began Friday's nearly two-hour concert with a very non-country performance of the Aretha Franklin R&B hit "Respect," performing on a massive, multilevel stage with projection screens and other special effects. What followed was less a traditional concert than something resembling an old television variety show, with bits of comedy and drama and at least a dozen costume changes, from choir robes to sequined gowns.

But free from the dehumanizing pop overproduction of her most recent albums, including the new "Read My Mind," McEntire was a charming and energetic presence. The natural power of her vocals did much to lift things above the show-biz hokum surrounding her, though the stage was so overflowing with fog during the schmaltzy "For My Broken Heart" that fans in the front rows were fanning it away with their cowboy hats.

Opening the show was chart-topping newcomer John Michael Montgomery, who also blends pop elements into his sound but still has his roots firmly planted in the country tradition.

The Kentucky singer-guitarist swaggered across the stage singing romantic ballads from his new "Kickin' It Up" album that echoed both mainstream country and the early Eagles. Montgomery was also enough of the attentive crowd-pleaser to autograph a Stetson or two from the crowd in mid-lyric.

His seven-man band was too restrained to truly "kick it up a bit," as Montgomery had promised, through most of the mid-tempo rave-ups. Their mess of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" worked in spite of itself, mainly because Montgomery's lead guitar was so raw and unintelligible (threatening at times to explode into "Free Bird") that the song actually evoked something of the adolescence to which he was attempting to pay tribute.

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