IRVINE — Playing music in places as big as the 15,000-seat Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre can do a couple of things to artists working their way up the show-biz ladder.
If they've been playing small clubs--as Trisha Yearwood was before signing on to open shows for Vince Gill--the vast spaces can swallow them alive. That seemed a distinct possibility in Yearwood's case: The last time she played Orange County, a little less than two years ago at the 275-seat Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, the young singer still seemed to be finding her way around the spotlight.
The other danger--especially for someone with an elephant-gun caliber voice like Yearwood's--is the tendency to overcompensate for the vast surroundings. And there were times during her 45-minute set at Irvine Meadows on Sunday when Yearwood came dangerously close to the Whitney Houston approach: belt, belt and belt again.
Near the end of "You Say You Will," she indulged needlessly in vocal showboating, sustaining a note gratuitously for several seconds. Only her sense of humor salvaged the moment: "That's a cheap way to get applause," she acknowledged. "And it's not that impressive. Vince can sing higher than that."
Fortunately, in a set that was pretty much the same as the one she'd done back at the Crazy Horse, only shorter, she left some room for musical subtlety. And when she was truly on--applying gentle/high-octane dynamics to a ballad like "Down on My Knees," or healthy doses of bluesy inflections to flesh songs out--she proved capable of giving Wynonna Judd some serious competition as contemporary country's top female singer.
As a performer, she appears to have quelled the deer-in-the headlights fright she was battling a few years ago. Her banter with the crowd was relaxed; some of it was even spontaneous (unless she apologetically squishes a grasshopper near her mike stand \o7 every\f7 night).
She still hasn't completely figured out what to \o7 do\f7 on stage, though. Throughout her set, she'd wander to stage left, stop, sing for a while, wander back to center stage, stop, sing for a while, wander to stage right and--you guessed it--stop and sing for a while.
Surprisingly, she included just two songs from her latest CD, "The Song Remembers When," a ballad-heavy collection she released last year. Most of the evening's selections were from that album's predecessor, "Hearts in Armor." Three were from her 1991 debut, and she included her current single, "XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl)."
The addition of Yearwood to the Irvine bill (she didn't appear with Gill last week at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, where he was reviewed for Saturday's Calendar) left opening act Larry Stewart, Restless Heart's former lead singer, with just 20 minutes to do five songs.
But as it turned out, that was plenty of time to spend with the man. The songs on his list (including the Restless Heart hit "I'll Still Be Loving You") are some of the most contrived, cliche-ridden imaginable.
He and his five-man played them enthusiastically enough. Still, one got the feeling that these guys would be pouring their blood, sweat and tears into Ukranian choral music if that were the profit center.