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Pop Music Review

Judd Mixes Tenderness, Toughness in Fine Show

March 08, 1999|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wynonna Judd has the kind of voice that commands attention. It's a supple instrument that's equally comfortable--and effective--working through tender ballads or up-tempo, energizing shuffles. It can cut straight to the heart of love and devotion ("To Be Loved by You") with a mere whisper or belt out self-empowering anthems ("The Other Side," 'What It Takes" and "Don't You Throw That Mojo on Me") with the force of a hurricane.

But Judd brings more to her performing arsenal than rich vocal cords. The Kentucky native also has style, the kind that brought oodles of warmth and personality to her splendid concert at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night, the first of a sold-out, two-night stand.

Despite recent setbacks--including a divorce and disappointing sales of her latest LP, 1997's "The Other Side"--Judd remains the embodiment of self-worth. The country singer smiles and winks, struts and prowls. Playful, sexy and spunky, she's at ease with who she is: one tough and tender gal.

In fact, it was refreshing to experience the buzz filling a room that generally lacks that kind of electricity. Typically, the middle-of-the-road pop and oldies acts that play Cerritos fail to bring much, if any, zest to the stage.

Ultimately, though, depth is what separates the red-haired Judd from, say, Shania Twain. Looking onstage as if she just left the gym, energetic pop-country darling Twain is mildly entertaining, bouncing around like a pinball. But Twain's disposable songs rarely scratch beyond the surface.

Sure, Judd--who was also scheduled to play Sunday in Thousand Oaks--does overplay the brokenhearted fool in love. But she chooses outside material that examines a variety of other themes and moods too, including liberation, marriage, motherhood, death and--most important--change.

One of Friday night's most poignant offerings was "Come Some Rainy Day," a tender ballad that reached No. 8 on the country charts in '97. Dedicated to actress Ashley Judd, Wynonna told the audience: "I miss her. She's still my little sister. . . . I don't care how rich and famous she gets."

After a groove-laden, R&B-tinged "Love Like That," Judd quipped, "I'm country, but as you can see, I like to get a little funky too."

And that's not all. Undercurrents of soul, rock and blues also surfaced in the diverse mix. Judd and her nine-piece band--including three gospel singers--got to flex their muscles during fiery versions of the resiliency-themed "Rock Bottom" (No. 2, 1994) and the soulful "What It Takes," which featured the tasty boogie-woogie piano rolls of Mark T. Jordan and scorching guitar licks from Jon Conley.

It was the gospel-tinged music that soared during the evening's most stirring moments. The homestretch of her 75-minute concert included a pair of rapturous inspirationals, starting with the organ-spiced "Always Will," a song of immense longing and faith. Then Judd and just her trio of vocalists teamed for a glorious, emotionally charged, a cappella version of "How Great Thou Art," a hymn that transformed the venue into a radiant hall of divine worship.

Amen, sister.

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